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Philip Short: ‘Putin signs off on murder if he thinks he has good reason’

The former BBC Moscow correspondent on why he tried to get inside the Russian leader’s head and how the war in Ukraine is likely to end up as a ‘frozen conflict’

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Philip Short on writing his biography on Putin: ‘I also want to understand why Putin does the things he does — why he cheats and lies’

Philip Short on writing his biography on Putin: ‘I also want to understand why Putin does the things he does — why he cheats and lies’

Philip Short, author of Putin: His Life and Times. Photo by Bob Swaim

Philip Short, author of Putin: His Life and Times. Photo by Bob Swaim

Alexei Navalny, who Philip Short believes Putin attempted to kill

Alexei Navalny, who Philip Short believes Putin attempted to kill

Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short

Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short

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Philip Short on writing his biography on Putin: ‘I also want to understand why Putin does the things he does — why he cheats and lies’

Anyone in Russia who tries to loosen Vladimir Putin’s grip on power typically ends up in prison or dead. Take Alexei Navalny. The 46-year-old lawyer, activist and Kremlin critic has called Russia a “dystopian state run by thieves and criminals”. He attempted to run in the 2018 presidential election on an anti-corruption, liberal agenda but was barred from entering the contest. He was later poisoned, and Philip Short, author of a new biography of Putin, has no doubt who was responsible.

I’m absolutely convinced that Putin approved the attempt to kill Navalny,” the former BBC Moscow correspondent says from his home in Provence. The British author gives a blow-by-blow account of that assassination attempt in Putin: His Life and Times — a detailed work he has spent eight years researching and writing.

On August 20, 2020, Navalny collapsed on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was flown to Berlin, where evidence showed he had been poisoned with a nerve agent of the Novichok group.

Today, he is serving an 11-and-a-half-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony. Amnesty International describes him as a prisoner of conscience. Navalny claims the charges of fraud and contempt of court that have landed him in prison are a Kremlin conspiracy.

The attempt on his life was the first time since Stalin that a Russian ruler had organised the assassination of a political rival, Short says.

“This was too strong a taboo to have been broken without Putin’s authorisation,” he says. “Putin definitely signs off on a murder when he believes he has a good reason to do so.”

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Alexei Navalny, who Philip Short believes Putin attempted to kill

Alexei Navalny, who Philip Short believes Putin attempted to kill

Alexei Navalny, who Philip Short believes Putin attempted to kill

But what about Putin’s other enemies who have wound up dead? Short turns to the most infamous cases. Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who made her name reporting on the Second Chechen War and was shot dead in Moscow in 2007. Alexander Litvinenko, the former intelligence agent who died by poisoning in London in 2006 while unearthing evidence linking Putin to Russian mafia gangs in the early 1990s. Boris Nemtsov, another political enemy, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in February 2015.

“Putin definitely approved Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, but there is very strong evidence that the Russian and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was responsible for the deaths of Boris Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya,” Short says. “Putin was responsible indirectly, however, because he allowed a climate of impunity to be created in Russia, where those in power can do what they want.

“I don’t think Putin is a terribly nice person,” he adds. “But the point of this biography is to try to get inside his head and explore his personality, without prejudgment. I also want to understand why he does the things he does — why he cheats and lies, for instance.”

Short points out the big lies that Putin has told in recent times. He invaded Ukraine in February after claiming that the authorities in Kyiv were facilitating genocide against the Russian-speaking populations in the Donbass region. “That, of course, was complete nonsense,” Short says.

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Philip Short, author of Putin: His Life and Times. Photo by Bob Swaim

Philip Short, author of Putin: His Life and Times. Photo by Bob Swaim

Philip Short, author of Putin: His Life and Times. Photo by Bob Swaim

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As was his claim that Kyiv follows a neo-Nazi policy. Russian propagandists allege that Ukrainian nationalists are all ardent followers of Stepan Bandera, a virulently anti-Semitic Ukrainian leader who co-operated with the Nazis during World War II. Short points to a more nuanced reality. After Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Bandera was rehabilitated as a heroic figure in some quarters. It is also true that a small number of proto-fascist groups have gained some following on fringes of Ukrainian political and paramilitary life. But it’s far lower than the European average.

“To pretend that the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis is just absurd,” Short says. “Zelensky, after all, is a Russian-speaking Jew — hardly the man to lead what Putin termed dismissively as a junta of neo-Nazis and drug addicts.”

Short’s book also makes a convincing case that Washington must bear some responsibility for the new cold war between Russia and the West. He says the US and European leaders severely underestimated Moscow’s security concerns and political sensitivities as Nato kept taking former Warsaw Pact countries into its fold.

Short says the war in Ukraine is likely to end up “as a frozen conflict”. “At some point there will then have to be a very unpleasant peace negotiation,” he says, “because a complete military victory, on either side, will not be possible.” If Putin can achieve that, he will have shown Russia is able to challenge the US in Europe, he adds. Short claims this will significantly alter the geopolitical order.

“The misery and suffering Putin has inflicted on Ukraine since the war began is unforgivable, he says. “But history doesn’t look at conflicts in those terms, it looks at what [changes] in the long term.”

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Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short

Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short

Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short

‘Putin’, published by The Bodley Head, is out now


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