Getting Russia Wrong

On Friday, January 6, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a ‘declassified’ version of its report on Russian ‘influence efforts’ aimed at the 2016 election. It would be an understatement to say that the report is laughably bad, which reads more like a half-assed college paper than a final product from agencies with a collective annual budget north of $50 billion. I will not dwell on the report’s details or faults, which have been well-covered here and here.

Instead, I want to expound a bit on what the report reveals about the worldview of the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. political elite in general. The report demonstrates that these groups subscribe to the narrative that Putin has absolute control over everything that happens in Russia. Now, I’m not saying that the Russians didn’t hack the DNC/Podesta, nor that Putin was aware/involved in the event that they did. The problem is that the report’s analysis relies on deductive reasoning in this area – i.e., Putin controls everything that happens in Russia –> something happened in Russia –> therefore, Putin is responsible for that happening. This is why the report cites statements by clowns like Zhirinovsky and Kiselyov as indicative of Putin’s innermost thoughts. Ridiculous.

Ironically, many of the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show more nuanced views of Russia. But those are the people on the ground, and I suspect this report was primarily generated in Washington. In other words, I’m not saying that the entire U.S. intelligence community is ignorant about Russia, but those who were qualified to offer evidence and analysis either weren’t consulted or were ignored (perhaps due to the highly political nature of the report).

It may be useful to offer an anecdote that illustrates the complexity of Putin’s Russia. In a pretty well-known case, Russian customs seized nearly 170K Motorola phones at Sheremyetevo Airport in 2006. The public reporting quickly revealed that the issue boiled down to corruption – the customs officials wanted a bribe, or to sell the phones on the black market, etc. At the time, Motorola sold its phones via the Evroset chain. Evroset’s CEO was Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who is, shall we say, a unique individual. Shortly before the Motorola Affair, Chichvarkin was at a reception in the Kremlin, which Pres. Putin attended. Chichvarkin – wild soul that he is – was wearing ‘colorful’ clothing completely inappropriate for the staid event.

Apparently, Putin was talking to a group of officials, noticed Chichvarkin, and remarked, “Who is that fool?” He was only noticing Chichvarkin’s unconventional style choices, but the officials interpreted it as a symbol that it was open season on Chichvarkin. This led to Chichvarkin’s problems, and then Chichvarkin’s problems became Motorola’s problems. To its credit, Motorola worked to address the issue through official channels. The lower-level officials gave random explanations for why the phones could not be released. Finally, a letter was sent to Putin that actually made it to his desk, describing the whole situation. Putin read the whole document, then took out a pen and wrote on top, “Resolve this according to the rules.” That was the end of Putin’s involvement. But what rules? The law? The unwritten rules in Russia permitting officials to derive extra income from private businesses? Nobody knew.

Many of the phones were later discovered for sale on the black market, which I believe is what led to actual punitive measures against some of the officials involved. But the point is, Putin’s power has neither the substance nor form of a traditional ‘dictator’. He presides over a system with many groups (some say ‘clans’) having their own independent sources of power, which often conflict with one another. Putin’s legitimacy comes from (i) managing these ‘clan’ conflicts to prevent open warfare; and (ii) improving ordinary Russians’ perception of their lives in the form of economic development and perhaps Russia’s standing in the world.

The system is inherently opaque because there is no real rule of law. Putin needs to cater to various, conflicting interest groups at all times, which means his actual position can never be clear (what if he throws his weight behind a losing faction?). That is why his most oblique statements are puzzled over by the Russian elite, just as much as they are by the U.S. foreign policy elite. As his ‘resolution’ of the Motorola situation makes clear, sometimes he does this deliberately.

The point is that we should exercise caution when trying to find Putin’s direct involvement behind discrete events, such as the DNC hack. It is entirely possible that Putin knows the FSB and GRU were hacking the DNC, but that he never authorized the leaking of documents. But if he reveals that his intelligence services have gone rogue, it diminishes his power (the year before a crucial election). Hence, the continuous stream of non-denial denials and coy statements from Putin and Peskov. It is entirely possible that Putin himself is trying to figure out what exactly happened.

I would love to think that our intelligence community is playing three-dimensional chess with Russia here – say pinning the blame on Putin while planting intelligence that Sechin ordered the hack – but sadly, the one persistent feature of both our countries’ governments is incompetence.


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