Catherine Belton: the Kremlin evaded “hundreds of millions of dollars” for interference operations

In the world of specialists in the former USSR, the name of the British journalist Catherine Beltonformer Moscow correspondent for Financial Times, sounds very powerful. his work, Putin’s Men: How the KGB took over Russia and stood up to the West (Peninsula), has been described as the most complete book written on Putin’s Russia. Belton speaks of a country whose president has created a system that allows the evasion of “hundreds of billions of dollars”, not only to line his pockets, but also to further the destabilization of enemies.

-How did the KGB manage to preserve its power after the collapse of the USSR??

-Everyone seemed convinced of the end of the KGB after the collapse of the USSR. The agency was divided, and many agents resigned and started businesses. Despite this, the old ways of cooperation and communication were maintained, and many remained in the active reserve. One of the agencies that promoted the reforms in the 1980s was precisely foreign intelligence, which verified how far behind Russia was compared to the West. And when these reforms began, its members tried to make sure they had a parachute by moving money abroad to make it available to them.

-One of the most relevant points in the book refers to Putin’s time as a spy in Dresden. You assure that, among his functions, he coordinated Baader Meinhof, a terrorist group that attacked Germany.

-We only have the story of a former member. And we know that (the terrorists) came from West Germany, crossed the border and went to Dresden because it was a place that the West did not look at, so that they could hold secret meetings (with the KGB). Putin didn’t give orders, he just made suggestions, which is a bit like he rules now in the Kremlin. The militants handed him a list of necessities, whether they were weapons or money. And then, back in West Germany, they found what they needed in secret houses. There are few documents about Putin’s stay in Germany because most of them were destroyed. There are not even photos from this period, where he gained a lot of weight.

-Once Putin was in power, you maintain that a large amount of money was diverted abroad to carry out destabilization operations. How much money has been evaded? Mention some of those operations.

-We do not know. They only passed through Danske Bank $200 billion. This implies capital or tax evasion, and the most suspicious thing is that most of these networks were managed by the same bankers. The lack of cooperation on the part of the FSB (former KGB), in charge of monitoring capital movements, in investigations launched abroad suggests that, despite the impoverishment of the economy that these capital movements implied, they had the approval of the service secret. We are only now beginning to guess where this money has gone. One part is in the United Kingdom, through shell companies. And it can generate influence, because it can end up in hedge funds or in capital funds. And we know that both were important supporters of Brexit. Various estimates speak of 800,000 million dollars evaded. Before the arrival of Putin, the oligarchs evaded money, but for personal purposes. This is different.

-Speaking of the oligarchs. Can one be rich in Russia and not follow the dictates of the Kremlin? What about Aleksándr Lébedev, an oligarch in the United Kingdom on good terms with Boris Johnson?

-Lébedev owns one of the most important British newspapers. His son is very close to Johnson and even sits in the House of Lords. Johnson ignored advice from his security services, which asked him to refrain from the appointment. Lebedev will always do what Putin asks. And you have to know why Johnson visits Lebedev’s house often.

-Seeing the trajectory of Putin, a man who has come to manage a terrorist group that operated in Europe, who has agreed with the mafia, don’t you think that this war was something that had to happen?

-Despite what he did in Dresden or Saint Petersburg, we always thought that Putin would continue to act under that usual cold pragmatism, that he did not seek to stir up situations and that he preferred to maintain stability. And this has been lost. He may have started the war because he saw the US going down in Afghanistan and thought it would be easy. He now he has readjusted and bets in favor of the West getting tired of the fight. Energy prices rise, there could be a new famine refugee crisis. We know that he is ruthless, but until now he had acted with some caution. Perhaps, people more ruthless than him, like Nikolai Patrushev, a man linked to his darkest moments, have become decisive.

-Explain the problems, legal and personal, that your book has caused you.

The lawsuits were a big surprise. They arrived a year after publication. Abramovich started and was followed by three other oligarchs and the Rosneft oil company. It was a coordinated attack to discredit the book. It is possible that Navalni, who quoted the book and showed it in a video, inadvertently provoked that reaction. I was afraid that the publisher would withdraw it. Fighting in UK courts with some of Russia’s richest men is very expensive, but the publisher stood firm and Rosneft’s suit was dismissed; With Abramovich we reached an agreement and changed the wording of the book only a little.

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