Mark Galeotti: In Tsar Vladimir’s court, the distinctions between oligarchs, bureaucrats and shadier figures fall away

Q: In your book “The Vory: Russia’s Supermafia”, you outline several stages of relations between the authority and the underworld, unraveling in Russia for the past 100 years. Is there a “trinity” between the oligarchs, the avtoritety and the current administration that could be perceived as yet another stage of this complex relationship?

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MG: There is, although interestingly enough since the 1990s – when the world of crime, politics and business all but merged – they have become distinctive again. The government calls the shots, the oligarchs deal with the more commercially-minded gangsters bosses, the avtoritety, but there is a clear sense of separation. Furthermore, there is a fourth, increasingly unwelcome component, the old-style gangsters. As the avtoritety increasingly blend into the business class, in many cases they are looking to break their links with their old partners in crime.

Q: How do people like Yegor Sechin and Yevgeny Prigozhin fit in this pattern of oligarchs, avtoritety and administration?

MG: Sechin has a personal relationship with Putin, who trusts him, and this is arguably the most valuable resource in Russia today, and what got him his current job running the Rosneft oil corporation. Prigozhin, by contrast, is a perfect example of what I call the “adhocrats,” a figure who has no fixed role in the system, just doing whatever the Kremlin wants done today. He has catered for Putin’s parties, fed the Russian army, run one of the infamous social media “troll factories,” and now manages the Wagner mercenary organization. In every case, it is because this is what Putin and the state needed him to do. At the very top level, after all, the distinctions between oligarchs, bureaucrats and shadier figures fall away: this is Tsar Vladimir’s court, and he has favourites like Sechin, allies like defence minister Sergei Shoigu, and servants, like Prigozhin.

Q: Russia has extended its economic, military and political influence across Africa. Which is the driving force behind this process? Are private economic interests leading or are they following on the political agenda, carried out by the Kremlin?

MG: The Kremlin is looking to assert Russia’s great power status, and to a considerable extent this means building up international status and also toe-holds in areas that the West – especially the USA – might at some time find important. At the same time, Russia lacks the money to buy allies like the Chinese, let alone deploy substantial forces. Therefore, it has in some ways privatized the process, encouraging private or state commercial interests to get involved, making money for themselves and building influence for Moscow in the process. This is a classic move by Putin’s Russia, harnessing private and corporate interests for a wider government agenda, and doing so on the cheap.

Q: In the past few months, Russia has deployed troops and mercenaries in several countries, most notably Sudan, CAR, Madagascar and Venezuela. Is this an over extension or is it a calculated projection of power?

MG: These are all relatively small commitments, and often wholly or partially financed through being granted local economic concessions. A few hundred mercenaries or soldiers and cybersecurity specialists in Venezuela, for example, is a small enough deployment, but very cost-effective. After all, if the Maduro regime falls anyway, no one could really expect Moscow to have prevented the USA from asserting its power in its neighbourhood, but at least it demonstrates that it does not abandon its allies. And if the regime survives – regardless of how important the Russian forces were – then this can be spun as a victory, that Moscow successfully challenged Washington in its own backyard.

Q: In your recent book “We need to talk about Putin”, you emphasize on the necessity to distinguish fact from fiction when analyzing the actions of Russia’s president and his supposed abilities and intellectual capacity of a Machiavellian mastermind. Which are the main myths regarding Putin, which need to be “busted” in order for the West to perceive Russia in a correct way?

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MG: I run through a number in my book, but the most significant ways in which we fall prey to both the Kremlin’s spin and our own fears, are to see Putin as a strategic mastermind and a daring gambler. He clearly has no coherent strategy, only a broad set of objectives, and his approach is essentially opportunistic. As a good judoka, he strikes whenever he believes his enemy is vulnerable. Sometimes this works, often this fails, but it is driven by opportunity. Russia’s campaign against the West is also to a large extent not run from the Kremlin but generated from below: all kinds of “political entrepreneurs,” from oligarchs and intelligence agencies, to journalists and diplomats, take initiatives when they think they have a chance to further the Kremlin’s agenda. If they fail, they fail; but if they succeed, the Kremlin retrospectively blesses and rewards their actions. Thus, when we have trouble spotting a grand strategy behind Russia’s varied and often contradictory actions, it is because there isn’t one.

Likewise, despite the bare-chested macho image Putin projects, the evidence suggests he is very risk averse in practice, often postponing decisions until he is sure he knows the outcome. Of course, he gets things wrong, especially because these days people tell him what they think he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to hear. But many of his seeming gambles, such as the 2014 intervention into the Donbas or the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018, actually reflected miscalculations and bad intelligence: he thought they were safe bets.

Q: Apart from its foreign political issues, Russia has met with several very important problems at home. Which are the main issues that could have a destabilizing effect on the Russian federation in the near future?

MG: The economy is in decent, if not wonderful shape. People are unhappy, but not violently so. There are no genuine serious threats to Russia’s security. The real challenge is likely to surround Putin’s health or his likely attempts to manage a political transition. For twenty years almost, he has been the sun around which the rest of the political system has orbited, and it is unclear how well it will cope with change, especially when issues such as corruption continue to provide potential rallying points around which genuine political protest could cohere.

Q: Many opponents of Putin and his administration believe that the West could simply outlast the current Russian government by continuing with the economic pressure. Could a country in which a third of the GDP is embezzled by the “gray sector” be intimidated by legal economic sanctions?

The sanctions regime is irksome, but not disastrous, and even the wholly legitimate parts of the economy are generally coping. Barring all-out economic warfare designed to break the country – which would be tremendously dangerous, not least as they would force Putin into some violent escalation – then the sanctions regime is really more about signaling protest at Russia’s actions. The irony is that Moscow actually thinks time is on its side, that the Western consensus on the sanctions regime will break before it feels it has to compromise.

Q: So far, Russia has gone through periods of ups and downs regarding the proportion of power, concentrated in the hands of the state and the mafia. There seems to be a continuing pattern though. So what comes next? What will the next “trinity”look like?

MG: There have been interesting signs of movement: arrests of some major gangsters, a new law allowing criminal bosses to be imprisoned just for that, without having to prove they committed any specific crimes. I suspect in the next decade we will see a campaign against the tattooed “blue-collar criminals” by the new blended business elite of “white-collar criminals” and their allies in the state. This will be less to do with law and order and more about taming an increasingly unreliable and inconvenient underworld in the interests of those now looking to legitimise their money and power. After all, when Putin eventually dies or surrenders power, I think the dominant force will be the pragmatic kleptocrats, who will want to improve relations with the West, but also protect their wealth at home. Ironically, it is the more successful criminals, the ones who can afford to look legitimate, who will lead the charge against their street-level counterparts.

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