Martin Dewhirst reviews ‘Killer in the Kremlin’ by John Sweeney

1 January 2023

by Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews John Sweeney, Killer in the Kremlin: The Explosive Account of Putin’s Reign of Terror, Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, London, 2022, viii + 288 pp., £16.99

This brilliant page-turner by a professional and honest journalist has received less attention than it deserves, perhaps because it doesn’t have an index or bibliography. Its author returned to Kyiv in mid-February last year and left three months later, apparently completing his book in early June. So what can he tell us that we don’t already know? Quite a lot, and partly thanks to some of his excellent sources, such as the Ukrainian psychiatrist Semyon Gluzman (one of the three people to whom this work is dedicated), Professor Donald Rayfield, the writer Arkady Vaksberg, Paul Joyal (‘an American expert on the Russian secret state’), Professor Norman Dombey, Professor James Fallon and, especially, Christopher Donnelly, who, before the Russian reinvasion of Ukraine in 2022, told Sweeney that the West is ‘at war with Russia and the Russians understand that.  So from a Russian point of view, we are [at war] with them. From a British or a Western point of view, we most certainly are not’. When reading this quotation, I was struck by Donnelly’s reluctance, if only here, to distinguish between the ongoing Cold War and the current Hot War, and by Putin’s insistence, until very recently, that this new Hot War is merely a ‘special military operation’. Sweeney himself insists, I suspect correctly: ‘This is Vladimir Putin’s war. Like his wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. Like his war without tanks and bombs against the West. Like his poisonings. It’s down to him.’ (pp. 258-59)  Earlier (p. 29) the author admits, ‘I still don’t understand why Vladimir Putin started his idiot war’ against Ukraine.  Does his book provide an answer?  I think it does, at least as I read it.

Sweeney seems to take it for granted (in my opinion, correctly) that Putin was and is the leading warmonger in what may (repeat: may) be the most guilty ‘Gang of Five’, three from the KGB-FSB (Putin, Patrushev, Bortnikov) and two from the armed forces, in particular the army (Gerasimov, Shoygu, both of them perhaps dragged in later against their better judgement). The author suggests that Putin’s wish not to reveal his intentions too early and risk their being leaked to the Americans ‘was so great that he kept back his true invasion plans for and from the army until the day before the invasion’  (p.13, no source provided). This may be idle, but intelligent, speculation. Some people think that the KGB finally came to power in Russia, replacing the CPSU, in August, 1991, but stayed in the background until the autumn of 1999, as the author, on my reading, implies in chapters 4 and 5. But this successful cover operation convinced many superficial observers of Russia (including Russians, both inside their country and abroad) that the so-called Russian Federation was already post-Soviet (rather than neo-Soviet) and that the Cold War had ended for ever. Putin, one might speculate, knew better, and realised that, with every passing month, Ukraine was already gradually and genuinelybecoming post-Soviet, so he simply couldn’t wait any longer. Given his weird conception of Russian history, he naturally didn’t want to go down as a loser, the ruler guilty of losing the last chance for his country to remain at the centre of an Empire.

Mr. Sweeney doesn’t spell this out quite as clearly as would have been desirable, but his account of many of the key events in Russia since 1991 is invaluable, enabling readers to see the wood as well as many of the trees. The story-line is, of course, selective, and he doesn’t explicitly say that the coup and counter-coup in Moscow in August 1991 were planned mainly by different factions in the KGB. Indeed, this interpretation may in due course be questioned or even refuted as at best an oversimplification.

So, apart from beginning and ending with an account of his experiences in Ukraine from mid-February until mid-June last year, the author introduces us to Vladimir ‘Rat Boy’ Putin and a certain Alexander Lebedev (who reappears much later in the book) and then reminds us of the mysterious bomb explosions which took place in various parts of Russia very shortly before Yel’tsin, in effect, selected Putin as his successor. This led to the reopening of the war against Chechnya, the disastrous Western failure  to understand the significance of the selection of Putin as the new President of Russia, the mysterious deaths of a variety of Russians, including, notably, Alexander Litvinenko, who did understand the Kremlin’s long-term anti-Western strategy, the pathetically weak foreign reaction to the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the ensuing shooting down over Ukraine of the MH17 passenger plane, the demonstrative murder of Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin the following year, the attempted murder of Naval’ny, the attempted murder in Salisbury of a Mr. Skripal and, even more sinister, at least one completely innocent member of his family (these aren’t merely crimes, but ‘acts of war’ – p. 207), the never-ending exploitation of thousands of still unrepentant, greedy, non-Russian useful idiots, ignorant of the true nature of the new Russian authorities, etc., etc., etc.

Sweeney poses a final question: ‘Would Vladimir Putin, knowing that he has not long to live, kill us all?’ (p. 267) This may take us back to the autumn of 1952, when the ailing Stalin seems to have been planning yet another terrible crime against humanity. Fortunately, he died during the following March. (Or was he killed?) 1953 led to the resurrection of hope. Could the same happen again in Russia, 70 years later?

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