Krakow Film Festival 2024

The secret battle between Russia and the West

RUSSIA / Russian President Vladimir Putin blames the West for the war in Ukraine, but as Putin's Playground shows, the Kremlin has been subverting the west to suit its own agenda for years.

The war in Ukraine is only the most visible and recent manifestation of a conflict between Russia and the West that has been bubbling beneath the surface of European politics for years, Konrad Szolajski’s documentary Putin’s Playground demonstrates.

Putin's Playground Konrad Szolajski
Putin’s Playground, a film by Konrad Szolajski

«The Gerasimov Doctrine»

Beginning with a deep dive into an apparently Russian-backed wiretapping scandal in Poland in 2014, where leaked conversations with senior government and financial figures weakened the pro-EU party Civic Platform and laid the ground for the election of right-wing nationalists, the Law and Justice Party, Szolajski examines the hybrid warfare of recent years, where Moscow’s hand has been seen in influencing support for populist measures, including Brexit, across Europe.

Known as ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’ – the policy of subversion means that Europe is «no longer in a state of war or peace,» as one NATO-affiliated Think Tank puts it. «We are no longer in a state of war or a state of peace. The reality is that these days – partially because of technological advancement – we are in a permanent state of confrontation. We can no longer say we are at war or peace; you don’t have to roll tanks across a border to subdue or subvert a country.»

Szolajski – who keeps himself in frame through much of the film – assiduously tracks down key figures involved in investigating the scandal, where more than 700 hours of recordings were made over the course or more than 80 meetings with senior politicians and officials at two Warsaw restaurants. We see how simple it is to place unobtrusive recording devices that can pick up conversations from a distance of several metres and hear snippets of conversations recorded at the upmarket Sowa I Przyjaciele (Sowa and Friends) restaurant at the time.

In Poland, the episode was dubbed «Waitergate» – because of the involvement of two restaurant employees in the wiretapping.

Eventually, Marek Falenta, a Polish businessman with interests in the coal industry (and reported multi-million-dollar debts to a Russian coal company), was convicted of organising the operation. But by then, the damage had been done: remarks in 2014 by Radoslaw Sikorski, the then foreign minister, who described Polish defence ties with the US as «worthless» had had their effect.

Europe is «no longer in a state of war or peace»

Hybrid warfare

Skolajski and Malgorzata Prociak, his partner and producer, set off on a journey around Central and Eastern Europe to trace Russian links in episodes of hybrid warfare.

They stop off near Zlin, in the Czech Republic, where in October 2014, an explosion at a warehouse owned by a Czech arms dealer left two dead. (There was another explosion at the same site a couple of months later.) Investigators later linked two Russian military intelligence agents to the explosion, believed to have been designed to prevent munitions from being exported to Ukraine. The GRU agents were none other than Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, who were identified as the key suspects in the 2018 Novichok poisoning of former KGB officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. A local woman, Dawn Sturgess, later died after her boyfriend found what he thought was a bottle of perfume, but which, in fact, contained the lethal nerve agent.

In Zlin, hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and weapons were destroyed in the blasts and thousands of tonnes were rendered useless. Much of the weaponry had been destined via a Bulgarian intermediary for Ukraine, which was battling Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas at the time. The incidents later led to Prague expelling Russian diplomats it claimed were connected to them.

The trail then leads the filmmakers to Bulgaria – where another explosion and subsequent poisoning of the intermediary also lead back to Russia. Bulgaria had never quite shaken off its close secret service ties with Russia, former Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev tells them. And although Bulgaria officially supports Ukrainian sovereignty – and even secretly supplied Kyiv with fuel and ammunition in the early days of the war, its relationship with Russia remains complex. Bulgaria’s defence minister, Todor Tagarev, notes that ancient ties with Russia – which liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the late 19th century and from the Nazis in 1944 – remain a factor in current politics. And the Kremlin knows how to take advantage of this.

As an Orthodox Christian country, Bulgaria’s links to Russia’s pro-Kremlin Orthodox Church are well established, and conservative church figures share Kremlin criticism of LGBT rights, for example.

And in Latvia, where a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians – and many don’t speak Latvian – vulnerability to Putin’s subversion is a key concern for government figures.

Putin's Playground Konrad Szolajski
Putin’s Playground, a film by Konrad Szolajski

Walking backwards

The film closes with Szokajski’s attempt to turn the tables on Putin: using AI software, he concocts convincingly real footage of Putin apologising for his invasion of Ukraine, admitting that his troops killed women, children, and civilians and that he had lied about NATO getting closer to Russia’s border. Szolajski and Prociak look at each other slack-jawed at how real it all appears as Putin ends his apology by declaring he is giving all his billions to rebuilding Ukraine.

As the film’s credits roll, we see reverse footage of Putin in the Kremlin walking backwards – a visual representation of his charge back to the ‘glories’ of the Soviet Union and beyond as he jerkily retreats into the distance.

Szolajski’s film may be a little ponderous at times, and its style very traditional, but its message is a disturbing and strident call for Europe and the world to truly wake up to the threat to peace Putin’s Russia presents.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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