Late Putinism is not working with a long-sighted grand design, as people who believe the Trump-dossier seem to think. Relentless hollowing out of the state institutions has left Russia in the hands of 'adhocrats', a rag tag elite who try to find ways to please Putin, says security expert Mark Galeotti. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
The dubious 'Trump Dossier' has become a cypher that people invest with whatever meaning they most want to find, whether of the president-elect’s questionable character, or the determination of his enemies to undermine him. However, one key question in the endless back-and-forth interpretations is the sense that Russian policy is ruthlessly disciplined, long-sighted and coordinated. This is a dangerous misapprehension, as it blinds us to the realities of late Putinism. In particular, we need to be more aware that the relentless hollowing out of the institutions of the state have left Russia in the hands of what we could call ‘adhocrats’ – agents of the Kremlin who may come from the civil service or business, and operate fluidly across traditional roles as needs, orders and self-interest require.
The essence of the 'Trump Dossier' is, after all, the contention that for years, Moscow has actively been cultivating him, to the point that even before anyone else believed he had a chance in last year’s elections, cunning plans were being laid to win him the presidency, and a cast drawn from the top of the system was involved in negotiation, counselling and cheer-leading him.
Of course, any rich and powerful foreigner – especially an American – is of interest to the Russians. The Kremlin’s omnivorous intelligence services maintain files on everyone who comes to their attention, and whatever else one may say about Trump, he is hardly discreet or unnoticeable. This is what they do as a matter of routine, and it does not necessarily mean any particular interest in him.
As he became a political figure, then the Republican candidate, such interest sharpened. Despite Vladimir Putin’s public claims to the opposite, no one in Moscow seems to have believed he could prevail against Hillary Clinton, not least as, in a classic bit of mirror-imaging, it was assumed 'the elites' would 'manage' the election to make sure. They were clearly not above some mischief-making, leaking embarrassing emails in the hope of weakening and distracting Clinton, whom they feared would be a dangerous antagonist in the White House (and perhaps as payback for the Panama Papers leak, which was seen as a direct attack on Putin).
Putting aside the implausibility of so much in the 'Trump Dossier' that reads like an anthology of the most outré water cooler and wine bar gossip one hears in Moscow, the irony is that it actually paints a picture not of coolly calculated conspiracy, but dysfunction and a kind of pluralism.
The rise of the ‘adhocracy’
It is hard to accept the claim that presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov managed the whole 'suborn/elect Trump' campaign, and also that such a broad cross-section of the upper elite would be involved (and be so universally loose-lipped about this above-top-secret programme). Nonetheless, one aspect of the dossier that does ring true is the degree to which this is an age in which the agents of the Kremlin, and the counsellors to the throne, can as easily be businesspeople or PR flacks as diplomats and scholars.
This, after all, is the essence of Putin’s ‘adhocracy’ – an elite defined by service to the needs of the Kremlin rather than institutional or social identity. The ministries are 'below stairs', essentially engines of the state, there to do whatever they are told. Even ministers are largely important insofar as they have a relationship to, and value for, the Kremlin, and that importance may well have little to do with their formal responsibilities. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been largely kept out of major international decisions since Crimea in 2014, for example, (which may explain his rumoured departure from office this year). Conversely, when Moscow did decide to take Crimea, and realised it lacked the assets it needed on the ground, it turned to whoever was willing and able to raise the local muscle, in this case the financier Konstantin Malofeev.
What matters is not what your job title may be, or whether or not you are formally a state employee. After all, ever since the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dispossession of his assets in 2003-5, it has been clear that even oligarchs are at best temporary stewards of assets at the Kremlin’s favour. Rather, the ‘adhocrats’ are defined by their loyalty, their capabilities, and what they can do today and tomorrow.
The nature of late Putinism
This is not just a reflection of an essentially personal model of rule. It is also a product of the largely incoherent and unplanned nature of late Putinism. It is not that Vladimir Putin has no sense of the Russia he wants to construct; quite the opposite, it is clear that he envisions his historical legacy as a Russia that is economically dynamic, stable and above all sovereign – which to him means not subject to the whims and influences of outsiders, including international laws and norms – and acknowledged as a great power.
Just as Marx and Engels could dream of a socialist state without bequeathing the Bolsheviks a blueprint which told them how public transport would be run and who would keep the sewers clean, so too Putin is much less clear on the detail as to how his vision is to be achieved. And while this can lead to policy incoherence, it is also a powerfully dynamic factor.
The ‘adhocrats’ become policy entrepreneurs, seeking and seizing opportunities to develop and even implement ideas they think will further the Kremlin’s goal, and hoping as a result to win its favour. Succeed, and you will be rewarded. Fail, and the Kremlin can disown you.
So in many ways, insofar as we can give it any credence, the 'Trump Dossier' is being misread by those who want to find evidence of some long-term machinations. Rather, it is a tale of policy entrepreneurship at work. Spooks and other political operators monitoring and maybe even, on a passive and low-key way, cultivating a foreign magnate who might be of some use, some day. Other spooks – and two competing operations, at that – grazing through badly-secured internet traffic just in case it reveals something of interest. One agency (probably the Federal Security Service) pitching the idea of leaking some of that, to embarrass and undermine the presumptive next president and getting the green light from the Kremlin. And then, as much to its surprise as anyone else’s, Trump actually winning.
Russia is neither a chess grandmaster planning the next 20 moves ahead, nor a vodka-sodden drunk randomly weaving amidst the traffic. Rather, it can be considered a pluralistic authoritarianism, in which a variety of ‘adhocrats’ seek fame and fortune by finding their own ways of playing to Putin’s broad vision for the future. Sometimes that can lead to disaster, sometimes unexpected success. Indeed, Trump’s election may prove to be both at once. But either way, Western policy-makers need to understand this if they want to construct meaningful ways of engaging Russia in the future.
This comment was first published by bne IntelliNews.