США готовы перекрыть поток денег для Путина
Путь к власти – как команда путинских приятелей стала миллиардерами
Мы знаем, где спрятаны деньги, утверждают в Штатах
Американские шпионы следят за Путиным 20 лет
Странный мир царедворцев, хоккея и устаревшей технологии
США готовы перекрыть поток денег для Путина – первая из 5-ти статей в сегодняшнем Таймсе
Roger Boyes, David Taylor
Published at 12:01AM, July 18 2015
The United States is ready to starve Russia of access to western credit if President Putin fails to meet demands for peace in Ukraine.
The punitive measures against Mr Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs and their extensive business interests would mark a dramatic escalation in financial sanctions against Moscow.
Proposals drawn up in Washington include an attempt to close off western credit markets for Russia, according to senior US officials. “Let’s see what Putin’s friends make of that,” said one.
The threat comes amid mounting concern in the West that Russia is failing to fulfil its promises to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, told The Times this week that Russia was flagrantly violating the Minsk ceasefire deal signed this year.
In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the US is constructing the most comprehensive package of evidence yet mustered on how Mr Putin and his inner circle made fortunes from contacts and dealings that date back to St Petersburg in the early 1990s.
The takeover of Crimea and conflict in the Donbas region, where a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down a year ago, killing all 298 people on board, has made Mr Putin’s cronies the leading target of a team of financially savvy intelligence officials given the task of finding his vulnerabilities.
“It has completely eclipsed other matters as the national security issue for the Treasury,” one US official said. “It was a massive ramp-up to go from very limited knowledge and expertise and having to transform the focus of our priorities.”
For years, successive American presidents largely overlooked claims of corruption in Russia as they sought to “reset” relations with the Kremlin. US intelligence analysts have over the past year been moved off Iran and on to Russia, according to officials. Several agencies, including the CIA and the National Security Agency, are involved in the financial investigations. “At the moment, with Putin and his cronies, we are locked on an inevitable and destructive path to escalation,” one US source said.
America’s focus on tightening the noose on the Putin clique highlights a gap with Europe.
EU leaders have extended their sanctions against Russia, but only after a serious wobble. The sanctions have largely targeted senior military and government officials and can only be renewed on the basis of unanimity. Mr Putin has been furiously trying to break European resolve with an attempt to peel away Italy, which he visited last month. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has visited Moscow and St Petersburg in recent months and signed a big gas deal with Russia.
Under the present American sanctions, Putin cronies have had any assets they hold in the US frozen. Some Russian companies can borrow for a maximum of 30 days compared with normal loan deals that would last several years. Under the new plans, that could be restricted even further.
“We could be talking seven days’ debt maturity, not 30 days,” said one US official. That would mean sanctioned businesses and individuals having to renew credit deals every week, destroying all hope of Russia securing long-term funding on western markets.
The plans could be introduced if Mr Putin fails to live up to the Minsk agreement, signed in February. Its terms require an end to fighting; the withdrawal of all Russian soldiers and weaponry from Ukraine; a buffer zone along the front line between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels; eventual Ukrainian control of its side of the border with Russia; and support for a lasting ceasefire. Mr Yatsenyuk said this week that Russia had stationed “tens of thousands of soldiers and Russian-led guerrillas” in Donetsk and Luhansk and was still supplying heavy weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles.
The US measures would give a very sharp edge to restrictions that already include asset freezes and visa bans on more than 130 individuals and 28 companies. Those on the sanctions blacklist include Mr Putin’s associates from his days in St Petersburg, many of whom have become billionaires during his presidency. They include Yuri Kovalchuk, head of the executive council of the sanctioned Bank Rossiya and described by the US as Mr Putin’s “cashier”; Igor Sechin, head of the state oil giant Rosneft; Vladimir Yakunin, head of the state-owned Russian Railways; Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire oil trader; and the businessmen brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.
Any money held by the men in US bank accounts has been frozen. Mr Timchenko has been unable to use his Gulfstream Aerospace private jet because the American company had stopped providing technical support for it. The Italian authorities seized luxury properties worth about £24 million belonging to Arkady Rotenberg when his name was added to EU sanctions.
The fortunes of the 21 richest people in Russia declined by $61 billion last year, a quarter of their combined wealth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The US is calculating that threats of further sanctions will pile pressure on the Kremlin to step back in Ukraine.
So far the US has held back from what Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, described as the “nuclear” option: cutting Russia off from the SWIFT inter-bank clearing system, which would seriously impede trade.
“If the West imposes new sanctions on Russia it would not help Ukraine, but it would lead to Russia’s distancing from the West in politics and the economy,” warned Alexei Pushkov, the influential head of the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee.
Путь к власти – как команда путинских приятелей стала миллиардерами – вторая из 5-ти статей в сегодняшнем Таймсе
Roger Boyes and Katerina Kravtsova
Published at 12:01AM, July 18 2015
In the winter after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the 38-year old KGB officer Vladimir Putin returned almost penniless from Dresden to his native city of St Petersburg in the collapsing Soviet Union. He had a 20-year-old washing machine and savings from his monthly salary of $270.
Within a decade he had become a millionaire; within 20 years he had turned himself by some accounts into one of the wealthiest people in the world. This was not a conventional entrepreneurial rags-to-riches progression. Mr Putin used his power to make connections with the business world, help them to prosper and shield them from bureaucracy.
As Mr Putin’s friends grew rich, so, says the US, — despite his denials — did he. US investigators believe that his wealth is hidden. Many intelligence analysts and players in Russian business believe that his fortune has been parked with loyal oligarchs, held in trust, perhaps for life after the Kremlin.
“Money doesn’t go into a Putin account; oligarchs hold his money as his trustees,” claims Bill Browder, the British-US businessman who is leading an anti-corruption campaign against the Kremlin leader and other Russian officials.
An exiled Russian businessman said: “For the time being he [Putin] lives in a money-free world. If [Putin’s friend] Alina Kabayeva tells him she saw a diamond and wants a similar one, she’ll get not a similar one but exactly that one.”
Mr Putin’s alleged cash machine has become the No 1 target for the formidable team of sanctions engineers, the officials from the US Treasury and the financially savvy intelligence agencies whose task it is to find his vulnerabilities.
Piecing together what we have found out about their work, The Times can trace three phases in Putin’s complex game of intertwining business and politics to his advantage.
The Band of Brothers The jobless Mr Putin pulled strings. Within three months his network of KGB colleagues had spotted an opening for him as an adviser at City Hall. When his former university lecturer Anatoly Sobchak became mayor of St Petersburg in 1991, he put his protégé in charge of the city’s external economic relations department. As a KGB officer he was trained to spot foreign spies, vet investors and make sure that the right Russian partners were put in touch with the foreigners.
Within six years Mr Putin, who had power to grant permits and export licences, was surrounded by people who now run Russia’s oil, gas, construction and banking companies. Two of Russia’s largest state companies, Rosneft and Gazprom, are run respectively by Igor Sechin and Alexey Miller, both Mr Putin’s deputies at that time. The man regarded as one of Mr Putin’s closest friends, Gennady Timchenko, founded one of the world’s big oil exporting companies.
Business grew fast in the chaos of the 1990s as the Soviet system fell apart. It was the 1990s when “Russia’s road to corruption started”, claimed one US congressional source with knowledge of monitoring of Putin’s Russia. The St Petersburg era offered the best window into that, they said.
Richard Palmer, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, said in evidence to a US congressional committee in 1999 that senior officials were involved in “the looting of the Russian state”. Mr Palmer named Boris Yeltsin, who was then president. He also named Mr Putin, who was the prime minister.
There is no evidence that any of the individuals targeted by western sanctions, or other oligarchs, are implicated in any corruption or that they secured their fortunes as a result of corruption. However, given their connections to Mr Putin, they are of intense interest to the US.
In 1990s St Petersburg, Mr Putin was becoming a figure of substance. He became one of the founder members of an elite dacha compound, the Ozero co-operative, in a lakeside neighbourhood. Those involved developed a bond that would propel him into the Kremlin. His neighbours included Vladimir Yakunin, now the head of the state-owned Russian Railways, and Yuri Kovalchuk, major shareholder of Bank Rossiya. US officials have called the bank “a crony bank” and Mr Kovalchuk one of Mr Putin’s “cashiers”.
A report by the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta claimed that Mr Putin had given up to 23 billion roubles ($4.5 million) of public money to a construction company 20th Trest in the form of loans, with the company storing the money in foreign accounts. Andrei Zykov, a former police officer who led the investigation into 20th Trest, said by phone from St Petersburg that he believed Mr Putin used his privileged position to help the company. Mr Zykov claimed that in return the company helped Mr Putin to construct his Ozero dacha. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied such suggestions, saying that they were part of an attack by western media.
Mr Putin denies that anything illicit happened in the 1990s. There was an investigation into claims of fraud in the St Petersburg administration launched by local politicians in 1992. It led to Mr Zykov’s investigation into 20th Trest. Both investigations were closed without going to court. “As a matter of fact, there was no investigation,” Putin said in 2000. “There was nothing there that could be criminally prosecuted.”
Not everyone agrees that Mr Putin did anything controversial in the early 1990s. “Up to 1996 Putin led a modest lifestyle,” a former associate from 1990s St Petersburg said.
When his boss Anatoly Sobchak was defeated in the 1996 mayoral election, Mr Putin was out of a job — and in need of cash. His friends helped him to make the move to Moscow, to the centre of power. It is claimed that Gennady “Gena” Timchenko assisted with the start-up capital for a high-level political career.
“Relations with Timchenko helped: Putin was given money to go to Moscow,” a former associate said. A spokesman for Mr Timchenko, asked if he had helped Mr Putin financially at this time, said: “Mr Timchenko has never participated in any of Mr Putin’s private matters.” But when Mr Putin moved, many of the Band of Brothers prepared to up sticks too. They were about to get much richer.
The Kremlin cash flow Vladimir Putin needed cash, or at least the support of the super-rich, at three critical points in his career: on his return from East Germany; when he moved to Moscow (1996); and in the first phase of his presidency (2000-2004) when it was unclear if he would survive more than one term. US investigators believe that his trusted associates began to “sponsor” him. Over time, the Band of Brothers effectively became trustees. And that is one reason why the US has put what it calls Putin’s “cronies” on the sanctions list.
The US Treasury explained its targeting of the Putin inner circle by saying that the individuals were, “acting for or on behalf of or materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of” a “senior Russian government official”. Treasury officials said that this was a reference to Mr Putin and others. Anything that weakens ties between them weakens Mr Putin, goes the thinking.
“By the time he got to Moscow . . . he had a system that was pretty much in place,” said Karen Dawisha, a US-based academic who researched Mr Putin’s circle. Her theory is that supporters set up a joint bank account for his benefit.
Boris Berzovsky, the late oligarch who claimed to have advised Boris Yeltsin to appoint Mr Putin as the next Kremlin chief, calculated that Mr Putin must have been a millionaire by 1999, albeit a modest one. To achieve and consolidate power you needed far more. Bill Browder, once Russia’s major foreign investor and now a Putin enemy, claimed that there were dozens of different Ozero-style communities, invisibly linking politics with money that was flowing in and around massive privatisation deals.
“There were different connections to different things,” he said. But only one held the promise of buying into supreme power. When Mr Putin became first Mr Yeltsin’s prime minister and then his successor as president, his rich backers saw a chance to move into the big league.
At the core of Mr Putin’s system was his insecurity; he trusted the inner circle but saw in other wealthy businessmen only a threat. Many had influence over local governors. With western holdings they were rich beyond his control. They also had political ambitions. “That’s when they started to go after other oligarchs to get their money,” said Mr Browder, architect of an anti-corruption campaign against Moscow. He is banned from Russia and lives in London.
When the Kremlin leader smashed the Yukos oil giant in 2003-2004, hitting it with $27 billion in tax demands and arresting its boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he sent a signal to any oligarch who risked public disloyalty. Khodorkovsky spent ten years in jail. Most observers saw the sentence as politically motivated. Just before his arrest in 2003, Mr Khodorkovsky challenged Mr Putin publicly about alleged government corruption. He highlighted the state purchase of an oil company for what was seen as an inflated figure.
Mr Browder believes it was at this stage that Mr Putin saw the need to consolidate his power and money. “He became president in 2000 and he understands that there are elections in 2004. So he wanted to make sure that he had a lot of money saved.”
Мы знаем, где спрятаны деньги, утверждают в Штатах – третья из 5-ти статей в сегодняшнем Таймсе
Roger Boyes and Katerina Kravtsova
Published at 12:01AM, July 18 2015
It was a warning designed to alarm the Kremlin. “Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin,” declared the US Treasury, placing the oil trading billionaire Gennady Timchenko on its sanctions blacklist. “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
That was a signal from the White House to President Putin after the annexation of Crimea: we know where your fortune is and we’re coming after it. Or at least the web of cronies around you who, the US believes, have for the past two decades offered material assistance and sponsorship.
The Putin fortune has been estimated at $40 billion, regarded as a “ball-park” figure by US investigators. The Russian president is characteristically contemptuous about such speculation: “Just rubbish picked out of someone’s nose and smeared on bits of paper.”
He has not, however, met the speculation with complete transparency. Very few people really know the extent of his wealth and where it is. One of them may well be Gennady “Gena” Timchenko, if only because he has been a friend and ally of Mr Putin for so long, since the early 1990s when St Petersburg was nicknamed the Wild East.
Finnish tax records put his wealth at $300,000 in the 1990s. By last year, Forbes Russia put his fortune at about $15.3 billion. In that same period Mr Putin had risen from the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, in charge of foreign investment, to the longest serving leader of the Russian realm since Brezhnev.
Mr Putin and Mr Timchenko drank together, shared a passion for ice hockey and knew communist East Germany. Mr Timchenko grew up as the son of a Soviet officer there; Mr Putin was a KGB agent in Dresden. They had a similar view on the collapse of the Soviet Union: it was a catastrophe.
In 1991, with Mr Putin ensconced in the office of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg, Mr Timchenko left for Finland, where he became a key figure in the oil distribution of northwest Russia and its export. Mr Putin meanwhile helped new oil distribution companies to register and to find long term leases of city property.
Did Gunvor, the company that Mr Timchenko founded in 1997, benefit from his political friendship?
Mr Putin and Mr Timchenko both say they steered clear of each other’s affairs and deny any financial gain either way as a result of their friendship. “Mr Putin has never participated in any of Mr Timchenko’s activities,” a spokesman for the businessman said.
Both men also say that Mr Timchenko was already successful before Mr Putin entered his life. There was, however, an inter-dependency. “They had to communicate often because of the business issues,” said a former Timchenko associate, now based in London. “Timchenko needed export quotas for oil. And Timchenko needed Putin to solve problems with pro-communist government in St Petersburg. There were regular tax raids.”
Mr Timchenko visited St Petersburg often and Mr Putin made many trips to Finland. “Timchenko was a good host,” his former associate said. When Mr Putin worried about the financial upheaval of moving to Moscow in 1996 to work for Boris Yeltsin, Mr Timchenko helped out, his former associate said.
The Kremlin and Mr Timchenko both denied these claims. The Kremlin issued a blanket denial to queries about whether Mr Putin had visited Mr Timchenko in Finland or whether the two men had spoken about business during the 1990s. A spokesman for Mr Timchenko said that the two had taken part in “some meetings and events in the 1990s” but added: “They have never discussed Timchenko’s business matters.”
A 2008 leaked diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Moscow to the State Department speaks of a link between the two men. It said of Mr Timchenko’s company Gunvor: “The company is rumoured to be one of the sources of Putin’s undisclosed wealth.” This cable, despite the vigorous denials of Mr Timchenko and Mr Putin, helps to explain the American targeting of Mr Timchenko and his company by sanctions.
The ownership structure of Gunvor is opaque, with holding companies that lead to a postbox in the British Virgin Islands. On the day before he was put on the US sanctions list, Mr Timchenko, sold his 44 per cent stake to the Swedish chairman and co-founder. Mr Timchenko has since said that his sale was hastened, if not prompted, by the imminence of sanctions.
The US Treasury has gone after more than a dozen businesses connected to Mr Timchenko, most of which form part of the Volga Group. A group spokesman said that it had nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions were “politically motivated”.
The US seems to be signalling to western investors that Mr Timchenko and others in the Putin inner circle are toxic, and trailing hints to the president that it knows some of the secrets of where his treasure is buried.
Американские шпионы следят за Путиным 20 лет – четвертая из 5-ти статей в сегодняшнем Таймсе
Published at 12:01AM, July 18 2015
Vladimir Putin was of deep interest to American intelligence even when he was deputy mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s.
“Mr Putin . . . was part and parcel of looting the state; and he was involved in it for years,” Richard Palmer, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, claimed in evidence to a US congressional committee in 1999.
Yet surprisingly little is known about the extent of Mr Putin’s personal wealth or whether it is hidden.
One reason is that the United States has been concerned with more pressing priorities during the intervening 20 years. Another is that the White House found claims of corruption in Russia politically awkward at a time when they were trying to get along with the man in the Kremlin.
Successive American presidents through Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama pursued a foreign policy based on trying to reset relations with Russia.
As they did so, a picture emerges of low-level US government officials gathering material on Putin’s wealth and political appointees, which was simply ignored by their masters.
One source in the US Congress told The Times: “Shrinking budgets, less attention on Russia and a political determination that information like this was inconvenient, particularly in the early phases of reset with Russia, all this together meant it was not easy.
“I know of one instance where a CIA report on corruption was sent to the White House, where an official wrote on it in foul language and sent it back.”
After 9/11, a new department was set up within the US Treasury, aimed at curbing the War on Terror by applying the discipline of forensic accounting to the intelligence gathered by America’s spy agencies.
Al-Qaeda, and subsequently Iran, were the key targets as the US began to develop the idea of sanctions when diplomacy was ineffective and military might out of the question. Russia was not considered a priority for the US Treasury’s 150-strong Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, Treasury officials had seats in the White House Situation Room and sanctions were considered. Those proposals were not acted upon, amid concerns for their impact on the global economy.
That changed when Russian forces swept into Crimea last year. “Last time we looked, a large Russian bank was off the table, but now the gloves are off,” the former official said. Ten banks are among those individuals and entities now sanctioned by the US.
The US had been trying to develop with Russia a relationship akin to its links with China, involving a multitude of economic ties which protect either side from reckless escalation on points of dispute. “At the moment, with Putin and his cronies, we are locked on an inevitable and destructive path to escalation,” the source said.
The most commonly cited source for an estimate of Putin’s wealth is a CIA assessment in 2007, never published, but said to conclude that he was worth $40 billion.
For those who have worked within the US administration, it is not really the right question to ask. A former Treasury source said: “With someone like Putin, it is not about how much money he has or where his bank account is. The constructive line to take, first and foremost, is: what is our situation politically; how much pressure do we want to put on; what is the right amount of pressure to dissuade conduct, while limiting economic impact on the wider world?”
What motivates Putin? “The best answer I have seen is that it is almost like a Napoleon complex — he wants to go down in history as the greatest Russian ever,” the Treasury source said.
“There’s not so much of a scheme or meticulous behaviour, it is instinct, impetuousness, impulse. He likes the idea of being strong and calling the shots. Does he desire wealth? Of course he does, to be the greatest Russian he needs access to wealth.”
Странный мир царедворцев, хоккея и устаревшей технологии – пятая из 5-ти статей в сегодняшнем Таймсе
Published at 12:01AM, July 18 2015
The president wakes late and eats shortly after noon. He begins with the simplest of breakfasts. There is always cottage cheese. His cooked portion is always substantial: omelette or occasionally porridge. He likes quail’s eggs. He drinks fruit juice. The food is for ever fresh: baskets of his favourites dispatched regularly from the farmland estates of the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s religious leader.
He is then served coffee. His courtiers have been summoned but these first two hours are taken up with swimming. The president enjoys this solitary time in the water. This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done.
The courtiers joke and idle and cross their legs in waiting rooms. He rarely arrives quickly. They say three, perhaps four hours is the normal wait for a minister. He likes to spend some time in the gym where rolling news is switched on. There he enjoys the weights much more than the exercise bikes.
He sometimes reads after the sweat. This is because he likes to work late into the night. He summons his men at the hours that suit his mental clarity —the cold hours where everything is clearer. The books he finds most interesting are history: tomes about Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great.
The early afternoon is about briefing notes. This mostly takes place at his heavy wooden desk. These are offices without screens. The president uses only the most secure technologies: red folders with documents and fixed-line telephones. The courtiers wait at the door and by video-link he likes to watch them gossip and writhe in boredom. But he ignores them and works his way through the reports.
The president rarely uses the internet. He finds the screens within screens confusing. However, from time to time, his advisers have shown him satirical online videos: he must know how they mock him. His life has become ceremonial: a procession of gilded rooms. His routine is parcelled into thousands of units of 15 minutes and planned for months, if not years ahead. He follows the plan: without a smile or a joy.
He loves ice hockey, his favourite sport. He thinks it is graceful and manly and fun and practises it as much as he can. He loves putting on that thick comfy helmet and picking up his stick. This is what the court most feverishly covets: every few weeks, the president organises a game of ice hockey.
A mark of intimacy, the treasured invitation, the most bragged about occasion in oligarchic society, is watching one of the president’s hockey matches. These are his intimates — most, like him, from St Petersburg, the old associates, the ones he trusts. They are mostly businessmen and on the US sanctions list. Men like the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg or Gennady Timchenko. They play and they lose. The teams are filled out with bodyguards.
The presidential bodyguards wear his shirt and shout his name. The bodyguards of Dmitry Medvedev, his little prime minister, fill up the opposing, entertaining team. The prime minister himself is rarely present.
These men are the inner circle. The ones that rose with him out of the swamps of St Petersburg. He was only then a deputy mayor. They shared electricity wires between their dachas and ate cheap meat together. They feel they deserve this. They used to call him “the Boss”. But over recent years they have come to call him “the Tsar”.
There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The president has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders and after a long separation there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia. There are rumours of models, photographers or gymnasts that come to him at night. But there is a hollow tick to these stories, which no courtier can quite explain.
The president loves animals. He smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. The president finds solace in the company of a black labrador, who is not afraid of him. He enjoys the hunting parties. He enjoys the helicopter rides with camera crews over the grey-white tundra looking for tigers and bears — the beauty of Russia.
The president cannot be served milk products, though that is contradicted by orders of Russian security services. He cannot be offered food by the host — including the head of state or government. The embassy finds itself negotiating a tough position in countries with a rich culinary heritage: the president cannot consume foreign foodstuffs not cleared by the Kremlin.
There is uncertainty here among the negotiators. Perhaps the president is secretly lactose intolerant? More likely, he is merely paranoid about poisoning. Russian materials are shipped in advance for the presidential platter, where local cooks will be supervised by the FSB, SVR, FSO and their team of tasters. The president has refused even to touch food at foreign banquets.
The president is indifferent to the offence of the host nation. The interpreter talks about the plane landing on the hot tarmac. Excitement, fear and uncertainty tingle in the Russian embassy staff: he has arrived.
The president behaves as though he is made of bronze, as if he shines. He seems to know that they will flinch when meeting his eye. There is a silence around him. The voices of grown men change when they speak to him. They make their voices low. Their faces become solemn, almost stiffened. They look down: worried, nervous, alert.
The ministers like to imitate the president. They like to imitate his gestures and affect that world-weary air. They like to pretend they too disdain technology. They like to imitate his tone and parrot his scoffing remarks. But, unlike him, the ministers laugh and drink with the night. Their half-shadowed faces become puffy and garrulous. But he is nowhere to be seen.
“He looks emotionless, as if nothing really touches him,” the interpreter remembers. “He is isolated, trapped. The impression . . . you get from being close to him is that he would have been quite happy to step down. But he knows he has failed to rule Russia in anything else but a feudal way. And the moment his grip falters . . . it will all come crashing down and he will go to jail . . . and Moscow will burn like Kiev.”
A version of this article first appeared in Newsweek