How the Kremlin works

Top Russia experts in the U.S. and Europe understand that Putin’s regime has no center of planning. Everything operates on the basis of “personal bids.”

Russian forces deploy to Africa, not because of some strategic need (although there is, just like everywhere else), but because a certain individual has come to Putin, pitched a concrete vision (“project”), and has started the implementation of the project. That person, in turn, possesses the required cadres, he has the impetus and so he states an urgent need for such a project.

This is exactly how it worked out with Alexei Kudrin, current Chairman of the Accounts Chamber and former Minister of Finance. Without question, the lack of transparency of state corporations is a big problem in Russia. And leading up to elections, Kudrin had nagged Putin for a long time about the need to bring the state corporations affairs in order. So, Putin appointed him to the Accounts Chamber. (“Your idea, you execute. You have the resources already.”)

An infinite number of such projects is floated, but they don’t get the green light (by Putin) for a variety of reasons. Glazyev may have his eyes set on a siege of Kiev, for example, but he has already mangled the Novorossiya Project and the perception is that he is not up to the task. So none of the Ukraine-focused pitches get any traction currently.

Let’s take yet another example— development of the Far East. Many concept papers regarding that have been drafted, but Putin simply does not have a heavy-hitter who can be appointed to this task. That’s why the development of the Far East is not taking place.

Those who have been studying Russia for a while understand all of this. But moving to a slightly wider circle of Russia watchers, it becomes a challenge to explain this mode of operations. They are inclined to believe that “in the citadel,” or “in the dark corridors of the Kremlin,” some sort of a center exists that is dedicated to planning and directing all of these activities— elections interference, bullying of neighbors, executing premeditated provocations.

They believe all of these activities are organized according to some sort of a hierarchy, similarly to the way it is done in the West (i.e., until the Bundestag directs the German chief of intelligence to prepare a report, nothing is done). They don’t understand that in the Russian Federation, the process is the reverse— a “chief of intelligence” comes to Putin with a project pitch (for example, extort something, squash some large corporation, or ruin a bank). In 80% of such cases, a bank will be consumed, while in the other 20% it escapes with one leg bitten off, and then is very happy to be hopping around on just three legs. This makes Putin’s Russia not so much a classical top-down hierarchy, but a very pitch-oriented environment.

I get asked a lot why Sergey Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, is not working on this thing or that, following some imaginary logic relating to the presumed operational dynamics of the political system. The answer is— he is working only on those things that he has pitched, namely, “Camp Sirius.” If Kiriyenko does not make any other specific project pitches (for which he and his circles then bear responsibility), then Putin does not give a damn.

Everyone is asking right now: Where are the signs of the Kremlin’s interference in the Ukrainian elections? Again, such a question is based on the faulty assumption that the Kremlin sets objectives, that it employs analysts, and that it oversees a political apparatus that articulates projects. None of those exist in reality. The Kremlin as it exists today is simply a building with gargoyles on its façade that chomp down on whatever they can reach (but of course, with the approval of Putin, that is, after a successful pitch). If none of these gargoyles pitched a project – e.g., “how to take a big meaty bite out of the Ukrainian elections” — then all they do is quietly, or not so quietly, bark at these specific elections.   Yes, such barking resonates in a depressing daily howl on the Russian federal TV channels. But that howl still does amount to “a project” until it has a responsible author. That is how it works in Russia today.

And this reality is just so difficult to explain to people, who think that if the Roskosmos Chief announces that he will fly to the Moon, then the Kremlin must have a “Moon Colonization Project.” No, they don’t. It’s just idle chitchat at this point.

Of course, the Russian media holds speculative discussions on an unlimited array of future contingency issues. Everything that a deranged imagination can envision: the return of the islands, annexation of Belarus, an alliance with China. But in reality, all that Russia has is an alliance with Venezuela. Why? Because it was a project personally pitched by Igor Sechin and he now has skin in this game.

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