Mark Narusov, foreign policy writer focused on Russia and its role in the Middle East
Mark Galeotti is an engaging speaker and a no less engaging writer. With brevity, clarity, and wit, his recent book, We Need to Talk about Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, explains the intricacies of power in Russia and its implications for foreign policy. Far from being a Russia apologist or a hysterical alarmist, he delivers a succinct yet comprehensive analysis of exactly why Russia acts the way it does. While the book is not without flaws — some important, some minor — the main argument is solid, rooted in his conversations with well-placed establishment insiders in Russia and rigorous scholarship that began two decades before 2014, when the seizure of Crimea made Russia relevant in the public and policy space in a way it had not been since the end of the Cold War.
As Russia continues to advance its interests globally, often (wilfully) at the expense of the West, it is hardly necessary to reiterate the importance of understanding Russian president Vladimir Putin and his entourage for foreign policymaking. Galeotti’s book provides a good foundation for a truthful understanding of Putin and his foreign policy in any theater, be it East Europe, West Europe, Central America, or indeed the Middle East.
To my mind, the principal argument in the work is that rather than being a clearly hierarchical, micromanaged process, much of foreign policy is a product of adhocracy, individual actions of “policy entrepreneurs” who seek to maintain “the Boss’s” favor. His elucidation of the workings of the Russian regime help explain what this adhocracy tries to achieve, what guides its agents, and why Putin sets the overall objectives that he does.
To better understand the assumptions and logic behind this thesis, it is useful to start with Galeotti’s description of Russia’s domestic political structure.
Russia has a liberal constitution and has by and large maintained its democratic institutional framework since 1993. However, not only have the representative institutions been stripped of their weight and staffed almost exclusively with Putin loyalists or the controlled opposition, but, as Galeotti explains, another whole hierarchy of power has developed and practically replaced the quasi-democratic one. This latter power structure is organized according to the trust Putin confides in individual apparatchiks, as well as proximity to “the Body”. Quite literally, as it turns out: half a dozen officers of the FSO, the security agency tasked with immediate protection of the most important political figures, have been granted posts of regional governors. Two of them have since resigned.
This informal hierarchy consists of Putin’s childhood friends, former colleagues from the mayoralty of Anatoliy Sobchak in St. Petersburg, past judo club pals, as well as more recent loyalists. Always present since Putin’s ascent to the presidency in 2000, in recent years this network has further established itself as the primary pyramid of power, coordinated by the Presidential Administration, “the most powerful institution in Russia”.
Galeotti gives a salient example: In 2016, Igor Sechin, head of the state-controlled oil company Rosneft and one of Putin’s past St. Petersburg colleagues, successfully framed the minister for economic development, Alexey Ulyukayev, for corruption, getting him sentenced to eight years in prison in 2017., As Galeotti puts it, the head of the siloviki (security establishment) faction in the elite orchestrated the imprisonment of a top-level public servant of more than two decades over a “personal feud”. To put it another way: Russia is a country where one of Putin’s cronies can single-handedly take down a government minister and face no repercussions.
The sidelining of official chains of command is even more evident in foreign policy. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, formerly “a legend in diplomatic circles,” has been reduced to the sisyphean task of merely giving Russian policy half-defensible and somewhat coherent justifications. Galeotti contrasts his influence with that of Vladimir Surkov, officially a mere personal adviser to the president. In reality he is the de facto governor of the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk statelets in Eastern Ukraine, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ostensibly Georgia’s northern provinces. Galeotti summarized this disparity in one of his characteristic witty formulations that beautifully capture the essence of things: “Lavrov is no longer riding the elephant in the parade, let alone helping to direct it, but is rather following behind it, shovel in hand, cleaning up the mess it leaves.”
Despite admitting that power in Russia revolves around one man, Galeotti spends a considerable amount of time dismantling a much too common misconception about Russian foreign policy: that Putin is a micromanager, a “three-dimensional chess” prodigy as Hillary Clinton once called him, who masterfully commands his pawns, bishops, and rooks to carefully force the opponent into a corner.
In fact, Russian foreign policy making is highly decentralized, pursued by various “policy entrepreneurs” who themselves come up with ways to implement the anti-Western direction of Russian foreign policy set by Putin. To describe this system Galeotti uses the precise and useful concept of “adhocracy”, in this case denoting a system characterized by the importance of personal relationships over “formal chains of command”, and where “status and power are defined more by service to the needs of the Kremlin than by any formal institutional or social identity”. Running on subordinates’ necessity to “second-guess and please the boss”, this arrangement gives birth to a multifaceted, decentralized yet unrelenting campaign of subversion of Western democracies and advancement of Russian foreign policy goals abroad, actions driven by relatively autonomous actors coordinated by the Presidential Administration.
One of the most emblematic examples of this is the autumn 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro. The strategic goal was to prevent the country’s accession to NATO. Galeotti references Bulgarian intelligence in describing the operation as being a project of the “minigarch” Konstantin Malofeyev, an “Orthodox zealot and an ultranationalist”. It was an undertaking of massive geopolitical importance, so naturally he had to get the Kremlin’s sanction, which he did. It is arguably the archetypal Russian foreign policy operation. It was conceived by a private persona, supported by the official security establishment, and flatly denied by the state. Some of the adhocracy agents are incentivized by the Russian political structure or lucrative economic contracts, while others, like Malofeyev, are genuine disciples of different varieties, united by their anti-Western animus.
The advantages of this model of policymaking are numerous: domestically it provides sufficient deniability so that the failures are concealed while the successes are boasted of. Another is that it provides room for maneuver to the foreign targets of Russian active measures, helping them not get cornered into a face-saving retaliation. This makes the “policy entrepreneurs” a useful stick with which Russia can probe the solidity of the West’s resolve. However, the disadvantages are also significant.
To focus on one telling example: Ramzan Kadyrov, the Islamist dictator governing over the de facto autonomous and heavily subsidized region of Chechnya on Russia’s southwestern border. For the sake of Russia’s territorial integrity, Putin has allowed Kadyrov to only partially submit to the country’s political and legal order, and has tolerated his imposition of a quasi-totalitarian order. Led by Islamist rebels in the 1990s the province tried to separate from Russia twice, provoking a war in 1994 and then again in 1999. It is the necessity to keep the region inside of Russia’s borders that led Putin to reach an implicit agreement with Kadyrov: stability in exchange for money and autonomy.
Here is a case of an adhocracy agent grossly overstepping his prerogative. After the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the foremost opposition figure in Russia, the solidity of Kadyrov’s power was no longer a given. While incessantly speculated to be the real culprit in the assassination, the truth is that Putin was utterly “enraged” after it happened. PutinHe attributes great importance to the distinction between enemies and traitors, and Nemtsov was no traitor. The Russian president is a dictator, but there’s no evidence that he is a near-sadist like Kadyrov, and he definitely doesn’t consider repression as a goal for its own sake. It is all but certain that it was the Chechen leader that ordered the murder, and out of Islamist motives or personal spite on top of that: to punish Nemtsov’s staunch defense of the value of free speech after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and/or to get even for Nemtsov’s decade-old unfavorable comments about Chechnya. In a quintessentially Russian manner of denial, Kadyrov managed to claim that the murder was a false flag operation by Western intelligence services to destabilize Russia, and that one of Nemtsov’s killers was a “true patriot”.
As Galeotti explains, Putin’s array of options in the Nemtsov case was grim — admit the loss of the monopoly on violence in his own capital city or risk a third conflict with Chechnya. While he was considering which path to take, Kadyrov bombarded Putin with praise on his Instagram page (the account being a fascinating research object on its own). The conflict was apparently resolved by Kadyrov’s commitment to send some of his security forces to Syria to serve as military police”, atonement for massively overreaching the authorities granted to him by the centre.
The adhocracy model has other shortcomings as well. The use of Russian oligarchs makes the foreign policy apparatus vulnerable to retaliation in the form of sanctions, due to their lavish lifestyles being dependent upon access to the West. Galeotti puts it well: “[The cronies] are happy to see Crimea back in the fold, but they would prefer to holiday in the Cap d’Antibes”. This may never be enough to trigger a coup but it may well be enough to curb their temptation to express themselves in coming up with new, creative ways of subverting Western democracies. Aside from that, placation of the oligarchs by the political elite is also a gift to the opposition — the plundering of the country by Putin’s cronies remains perhaps the most potent issue in mobilizing protests. Unlike other accusations, this one cannot be deflected as easily. The Russian state clumsily tries to deny or ignore it, or oftentimes fight the accusers. Literally.
Since Galeotti’s book deals primarily with Putin the man, he spends much effort on correcting misconceptions about the president’s ideological background. And since Russia is a highly personalized autocracy, these misunderstandings can have a detrimental effect on Western foreign policy.
To start with one of the more common analytical flops, consider Putin’s 2005 statement that he considers the disintegration of the Soviet Union to be the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”. Without proper context, this statement is easy to misread, leaving the impression that 1) Putin was and is a die-hard communist, and that 2) he has not occupied the now-independent countries of the former Soviet Empire solely because of the lack of resources and Western opposition. Yet as Galeotti points out, the same year Putin made this infamous remark, he also said that “those who regret [the breakup of the USSR] have no brain”.
In fact, one of those impressions is half-true. It is a statement of fact that the Kremlin claims the right to a sphere of influence beyond its Western and Southern borders. But, as Galeotti explains, actually occupying and incorporating these “five unstable, corrupt Central Asian countries” into Russian territory is nonsensical. Putin is happy to leave them be — even democracies, like Armenia — as long as they do not significantly facilitate the expansion of American influence in the region.
On the other hand, the insinuation that Putin was or is a sincere communist is dead wrong. It is true that he enlisted in the KGB through his own will, and as Galeotti recounts even chose his university program to maximize the chances of getting in. But the fervor with which he advanced towards the goal of serving Soviet intelligence is suggestive of his motivation to defend his country, rather than ideological conviction. Ever since he was a minor, he has been a consistent and committed statist, a believer in a strong Russia ruled by a sober elite aware of the detriment that domestic and external weakness brings to the country’s stability and standing in the world, respectively. The ideological foundation of the Motherland just wasn’t a major factor.
While Putin was stationed in Dresden, Germany, the USSR and its satellites were rapidly and fundamentally changing. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become leader of the USSR and a year later initiated the program of Glasnost’, liberal reforms, measures aimed at the reformation and solidification of the Soviet regime. Putin’s compatriots spent those years learning about the regime’s bloody history at home and abroad, understanding that order and security had a massive human cost. Galeotti shows that Putin saw the other side of this period — the painful downfall of a large empire and the perceived betrayal of its most committed defenders.
In December 1989, the Dresden Stasi office (practically a KGB branch) where Putin was stationed was surrounded by an angry anti-Soviet mob. It looked as though they may break in and endanger the lives of the personnel. When Putin asked a nearby Soivet military base for assistance, he received a telling message: “Moscow is silent”, and they could not help without sanction from the capital. “Nobody lifted a finger to protect us,” he lamented a decade later. It is probably this moment that solidified Putin’s conception of politics as revolving around the dichotomy of the weak and the strong state. And it is the instability and insecurity around Russia’s periphery caused by the fragmentation of the Soviet Union that he designated as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, not the disintegration of the most powerful communist state.
Putin went on to serve under the liberal and democratic mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, and later ascended to the national stage under the less liberal and far less democratic president Boris Yeltsin. Putin recognized that the Soviet Union collapsed essentially because of its grossly inefficient economic system, and that it had to be replaced. But, much like ordinary Russians, he soon came to the realization that weak-state liberalism did not work either: he witnessed economic shocks, the power that the new oligarchs bought in the parliament, the pervasiveness of organized crime, and two brutal wars with Chechen separatists. Putin’s proposed solution was a project of state consolidation, and it provided for the Russians’ general complacency over the imposition of authoritarianism during the 2010’s.
It is understandably tempting to look for a single book authored by Putin or one of his advisors that would comprehensively and honestly theorize his views, like Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Government, or Colonel Gaddafi’s Green Book. The truth is that it does not and cannot exist, as will be discussed below. This has not stopped members of numerous, different, and contradictory political camps trying to appropriate Putin by approximating him to their own conception of the world, much like a “Rorschach inkblot”. As Galeotti so precisely puts it, “what we read into it says more about what is going on in our heads than what is on the paper”.
For the European and American far-Right, Putin is a traditionalist, anti-globalist Christian, the vision being the result of a concerted messaging campaign to project exactly this image abroad. It mysteriously gained traction despite Putin allowing a region to be ruled, and Moscovites to be intimidated by, a fervent Islamist, and stating that Orthodox Christianity is closer to Islam than to Catholicism.
For others, he is a consistent follower of Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian crackpot who theorized “Eurasianism”, his philosophical finesse on full display in a call for a “genocide” against Ukrainians. Dugin was duly sidelined after a stalemate settled in Eastern Ukraine, the downfall being recapped by Galeotti in Chapter 5.
For yet a few others, he is a fighter against the nineties’ oligarchs, whereas in reality he simply intimidated the oligarchs into managing the country’s resources for him, making an example out of the liberal tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2005.
Neither is he a communist who would like to reunify the USSR, and of course he is not a Monarchist. Rather, he appreciates the hollow but appealing democratic framework that he has distorted into authoritarianism.
Even Galeotti’s label of “primordial nationalist” is too reductionist; it cannot explain Putin’s staunch defense of the official use of rossiyskiy (Russian citizen) over “russkiy” (ethnic Russian), for example. Nor, indeed, Putin’s suppression of any call to highlight the importance of Russian ethnicity and culture in the framework of the state. And it is flatly at odds with Putin’s insistence that the establishment of a Russian monoethnic state would be nothing less than a “shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood”.
Editor-in-Chief of the independent radio station Echo Moskvy Alexei Venediktov helpfully corrected this common misconception: Putin is an imperialist rather than a nationalist. That is, he thinks in an imperial rather than a nationalist framework, his ambitions far exceeding the mere security of the country, however broadly defined.
The only concept that “Putinism” might helpfully denote in relation to Russian political and ideological makeup is statism. Practically the only constant in official thought in Putin’s Russia is the worship of the strong state. It is demonstrated in the state-approved version of the country’s history — its extreme amalgamation into a narrative of how the weak state brought misery and how the strong state brought glory and prosperity. As Galeotti recalls his impression of a historical exposition, “it is all about strong men (and a few women) taking tough decisions and shaping the world, regardless of whether they wore a red star or a tsar’s colours”. Being both a communist and a monarchist may understandably seem incredible in the West, but in Russia it’s fairly plain. Here’s a picture depicting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, awarding an order of “glory and honor” to none other than Gennadiy Zyuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party.
Thinkers around Putin are not influencers, rather they are religious interpreters, trying to guess the official line, give it theoretical veneer and then explain it to domestic and foreign audiences.
Departing from Galeotti’s argument, “Putinism” may well be appropriate in conceptualizing Putin’s views of world order. They form a relatively coherent and consistent theory that describes the international system as a unipolar hegemony with submissive “vassals”. In this framework, the solution to mitigate American-created instability in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is to formalize a multipolar, oligopolic world order, a Yalta 2.0. Like the original Yalta order that delineated Europe into Soviet- and American-allied states after WWII, it would formalize clear spheres of influence and non-interference. Like the original Yalta, it would be created after a united effort to defeat a common enemy. Putin said as much in his 2015 address to the United Nations General Assembly. He started the speech by praising the legacy of the Yalta conference and went on to encourage an anti-ISIS alliance on the model of the anti-Hitler coalition that would “unite a broad range of forces” against a common enemy.
Rather than being a novel justification for Russia’s own expansion, this project can be traced to Putin’s blunt and impassioned 2007 Munich speech, a veritable manifesto against the American-led world order. It formalized Russia’s secession from this unipolar world order, which was still unaffected by the long-term reverberations of the Iraq War and its domestic blowback. Putin argued that the contemporary model of the international system is “flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilisation.” In fact, this conception of world order could even arguably be traced all the way back to 1995, when President Yeltsin issued a strategic decree that essentially objected to the American model of “geopolitical pluralism” (Brzezinski) in the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS) region, often called the post-Soviet space, in favor of a more exclusive arrangement.
WHAT GALEOTTI GETS WRONG
One of the more debatable of Galeotti’s points is his argument that Vladimir Putin hardly has “any real endgame”. Granted, Galeotti is right that raw emotion plays a role in guiding Putin’s behavior, since its effect cannot be blunted by advisors that “all compete to tell Putin what they think he wants to hear, to flatter his prejudices and to reassure him that everything is going well”. Still, the 2015 UNGA speech indicates that Russia is not merely a reactive actor, but instead proactively seeks to insert itself where American influence is lacking. Reduced to a single formulation, Putin wants Russia to become a great power and be recognized as such, that is, for it to have a voice on all global issues. And again, contrary to Galeotti, this is not a “pipe dream”.
It is true that much of Russia analysis after the 2016 interference in American elections has been nothing short of hysterical, scapegoating the Kremlin for Brexit, the rise of populism, and other endogenous events. The Kremlin would very much like it to be true, but the reality is that the Russia’s grand ambitions do not always translate into grand achievements. At the same time it is also true that quite a few states would now like to have Russian military might and unrelenting diplomatic support on their side, both proven beyond doubt by the Kremlin’s propping up of Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
A representative example is Israel. She has consistently sought to placate the Kremlin on Syria, even hoping for it to moderate Iranian influence there, a “pipe dream” if there ever was one. More surprising still is her readiness to become entangled in understandings with Putin that he reliably violates.
A similar example is Turkey, whose erratic President Erdogan now considers it more useful to align with Russia at the expense of NATO, an inconceivable development even in the beginning of the decade.
There is another significant argument made by Galeotti that could be disputed. It is his insistence that Putin is fundamentally “cautious and risk-averse”. Yes, he has indeed “concluded, not without grounds, that Western countries, and especially most European ones, are deeply uncomfortable with confrontation”, and managed to exploit it by uprooting Western influence in some places and curbing it in others. Galeotti is right that advisors do not necessarily endorse caution or offer evidence that would encourage it. And there is nothing to object to in his analysis that Putin believed the Crimea annexation to be a safe operation, not foreseeing the resulting imposition of sanctions.
Even with these points granted, other actions of the Kremlin do not exactly indicate Putin’s supposed risk aversion. It is hard to imagine that the siloviki managed to convince the president that interference in American presidential elections would go unpunished, or even that it would be successful. The 2008 war against a prospective NATO member? The 2016 attempted coup in another? These are brazen actions, and the lack of consequences for any of them could not have been considered a foregone conclusion. It just so happens that Putin knows how to bluff, and no-one has so far tried to call it. Putin’s Russia is an actor that has consistently and confidently punched above its weight, and hence is by necessity highly risk-tolerant and ready for confrontation. After all, it has not yet backed off in any considerable way on any issue, even while faced with increased pressure.
There are other, much less significant missteps. For example, Yuriy Andropov was hardly a statesman that “demonstrated an unwillingness to swallow propaganda unquestioningly and be satisfied with the comforting lies subordinates would feed their bosses”, considering it was him who framed intelligence to initiate the Afghanistan intervention as head of the KGB. Far from aiming to “modernise [the Stalinist] thuggish murder machine”, he in fact perpetuated and solidified the distorting prism through which Russian leaders view the outside world.
Another oversight is equally inessential. In discussing one of the philosophers Putin frequently quotes, Galeotti wrote that “the characterisation of Ilyin as a ‘fascist’ is pretty questionable”, a difficult case to make considering Ilyin’s fawning essays about Mussolini and his appeal to “my White brothers, the fascists” to install a corresponding regime in Russia headed by a “national dictator”.
But these flaws and some other even more minor ones do not interfere with the key arguments of Galeotti’s work.
As banal as the formulation is, “here to stay” is exactly what Putin’s Russia is. Members of the president’s “kitchen cabinet” know that their wealth and security depend on the reign of one man, and have managed to turn him from a relatively reluctant president into a daring natural autocrat who believes it is his leadership that has steered Russia away from disintegration and subjugation to Western interests. Those weren’t fake tears that watered his eyes when he looked upon the crowd gathered to celebrate his reelection. He was genuinely, deeply touched by the support of the brain-washed and thoroughly indoctrinated population. The solidity of the walls of his echo chamber only ensure that he will relentlessly cling to his throne, taken in as he is by his own propaganda that hails the president as the very embodiment of the nation.
Put simply, Galeotti’s book will, for better or for worse, stay relevant for some time. Its direct, non-academic, straight-to-the-point style makes it the perfect gateway text for the study of both Russia’s internal and external politics.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.