The big news today is the publication of millions of pages of leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which helps wealthy clients set up offshore companies. The international media is paying special attention to those documents which concern Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin and various strange multi-million dollar business deals involving Roldugin and companies associated with him. Since Roldugin is a close friend of Vladimir Putin, the Western press is using the story to imply that Putin himself is both corrupt and extraordinarily wealthy. Thus the front page headline of Monday’s copy of The Guardian reads: ‘The $2bn dollar trail that leads to Vladimir Putin’.
No doubt these revelations will spark a flurry of vigorous debate about whether the documents really do show that Putin is corrupt. What interests me more, though, is what impact this story is likely to have on Russian-Western relations.
Those in the anti-Putin camp, which includes most of the West, will take the Mossack Fonseca leaks as corroboration of their belief that Putin heads a kleptocratic system, the sole purpose of which is to enrich those governing Russia. They will assume that Roldugin could not have acted without Putin’s knowledge and that his companies are merely fronts which Putin uses to hide his corruptly acquired billions. This image of Putin will strengthen the hand of those who maintain that Western states must take a hard line against the ‘Putin regime’ and work with liberal forces within Russia in order to bring about ‘regime change’.
On the other side, those who support Putin, both in Russia and outside it, will wonder why, when the leaks contain information about scores of prominent figures around the world, the Western media is focusing so relentlessly on Putin when reports say that the documents in question don’t mention him even once. They will point out that Roldugin’s activities have not been shown to be illegal and that any connection with Putin is pure speculation. They may even ask why headlines give such prominence to Putin and not to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, given that the leaked material does mention Poroshenko and says that he went ‘so far as to arguably violate the law twice, misrepresent information and deprive his country of badly needed tax dollars during a time of war.’ No doubt Russians will conclude that the answer is that the Western media is determined to blacken Putin’s name no matter what the facts.
In short, I expect that confirmation bias will ensure that both the pro- and anti-Putin camps (which means to a large degree the West on one side and Russia on the other), will interpret the story in such a way as to reinforce their existing suspicions. The exposure of Mr Roldugin’s business deals is unlikely to have any significant effect on the way the Russian government operates or on the Russian public’s view of Vladimir Putin, but it will make it harder for Russia and the West to see eye-to-eye in the future.