"THE INVESTIGATOR," SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, OCTOBER 11th, 2008
By early 2005, Western intelligence services knew that Vladimir Putin was scheming to remain in absolute control of Russia beyond his second four-year term as president, which would expire in May 2008. Some thought he would attempt to amend the Russian Constitution by quashing term limits. But more likely, analysts predicted, Putin would contrive to become prime minister and transfer presidential powers to the prime minister's portfolio. That, of course, is precisely what transpired.
And thus, the New Russia has provided its people--and the world--with a New Stalin: a megalomaniac autocrat determined to hold onto power at any cost, to include the beating and shooting to death of journalists who dare criticize his dictatorial rule--under which local elections have been obliterated and the media placed under strict control.
A self-admitted thug as a youth who desired to join the KGB from age 16, Putin was last month depicted in Vanity Fair as "the only small-time crook to become the president of Russia."
A position he has abused to become a big-time crook.
Analysts at several Western intelligence services believe Putin has squirreled away a minimum of $15 billion--though some authoritative sources believe the real figure could be as high as $40 billion. Considerable cash is understood to be divided among German bank accounts (Putin served in East Germany as a KGB officer and speaks German), but much of this grafter's booty has been laundered into real estate around Western Europe through a network of shady oil and gas distribution companies, including a Monaco-based S.A.M. called Sotrama, and several companies registered in Liechtenstein, including Oil Terminal, Horizon International Trading, and Petroruss, Inc.
Putin has also forged friendships with leaders of the European microstates--particularly Monaco and Luxembourg--for the purpose of creating new ciphered accounts through trusted cutouts to disguise ill-gotten gains in tax havens where bank secrecy is sacrosanct.
Last year Putin vacationed with Monaco's Prince Albert II, and in a peculiar display of machismo bared his naked chest for Kremlin cameramen. (Even more bizarre, to celebrate his 56th birthday four days ago, the Russian PM released Let's Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin, a DVD that became an immediate big hit with Russia's gay community.)
A senior officer with Russia's FSB, successor to the KGB, told The Investigator that London-based oligarch Roman Abramovich was forced by President Putin to sell Sibneft--the fifth largest oil producing and refining company--to the Russian state, and then to disburse $13 billion in proceeds to a select group: Mr. Abramovich received only $4 billion, with the balance divided between Putin (at least $1 billion, probably as much as $5 billion), several of his Kremlin cronies, and former President Boris Yeltsin--part of a deal struck in 1999 when Yeltsin appointed Putin acting president.
The FSB officer expressed disillusionment with Putin because of how he has enabled his St. Petersburg pack to get fabulously rich--and now the Russian premier is trapped by the leverage these corrupt cronies have on him. Putin frets about finding himself out of power without immunity from prosecution for theft and corruption, hence his incentive, and determination, to remain in control. That's another reason he ingratiates himself with European microstates--he may one day need safe haven.
It caused Putin a bad patch in late 2005, when he brooded over an affair with a pretty female Russian gymnast less than half his age named Alina Kabayeva. He met the agile Kabayeva in August 2004 when she took part in the Athens Olympics. Putin began to drink too much vodka, alone. In early 2006, feeling bullish as head of the G8 Summit, he got a grip and suspended his extramarital relationship. But earlier this year Putin left Ludmila, his wife of twenty-five years, to resume a liaison with the gymnast.
He tools around Moscow in a customized Audi with "007" car tags. Yet when Putin worked in the KGB he was no James Bond. His spook skills were so lackluster he was stationed not in Berlin, to which he aspired, but Dresden. Yuri Shvets, a defector who attended KGB school with Putin, remembers him as a lowly, despised snitch.
Intelligence analysts told The Investigator Putin is extremely secretive and possesses a bullying nature. He has few friends and trusts no one; he respects those who stand up to him, and is contemptuous of those who easily concede to his wishes. He can be charming and supremely self-confident. In negotiations he is focused and tenacious; success brings out his arrogance. He strives to have something on everyone--and has directed his intelligence services to perform accordingly.
Putin's corruption dates back to the early 1990s when he ditched a KGB career and got appointed deputy mayor of his native St. Petersburg--allowing that city's powerful Tambov organized crime group to flourish. The Putin-Tambov relationship led to the creation, in 1995, of Petersburg Oil Terminal, which soon became the nucleus of satellite distribution companies benefiting Putin and Guennadi Timchenko, a leading figure in Putin's illicit financial structures. The Geneva-based Mr. Timchenko is thought to be Putin's childhood pal in addition to former KGB colleague.
Perhaps Putin's most revealing characteristic is how he spends his spare time: watching brutal videos of military reprisals against Chechen nationalists. The more barbaric the imagery played out on his TV screen, including Chechen teenage boys being shot in the head, the greater is said to be Putin's enjoyment.
His public relations adviser, Marina Litvinovich, said this about Putin after quitting in disgust: "It seemed he had no human feelings, no compassion."
Ms. Litvinovich was later attacked on a Moscow street and severely beaten.
So how will Putin react to Russia's new Independent Democratic Party, created ten days ago by "Mr. Perestroika" himself, Mikhail Gorbachev? Will Gorby, now 77, suddenly contract food poisoning?
Given that Putin's popularity rating has fallen from 80 to 33 percent in recent months, perhaps he will move to a beachfront duplex in Monte Carlo, where he can play Tarzan with Prince Albert year-round.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Putin making out.