Trump may not be the ‘Siberian Candidate’ but his White House is coming to resemble Putin’s Kremlin

As I’ve noted, I’m a sceptic about the suggestions somehow Moscow is bribing or blackmailing Trump to be their stooge. Rather, though, the otherwise-inexplicable fondness The Donald appears to have for The Vladimir (so far, at least) seems more a matter of triangulation, perversity, and the common sodality of the worst kind of authoritarian alpha male. This last, alarmingly, also seems increasingly to be leading Trump’s style of government to begin to resemble Putin’s. The particular characteristics I have in mind are:

1. Power is based on proximity to the boss, and his favour. In the Russian system, the formal hierarchy, from president to prime minister, to ministers, is bypassed by an informal one, whereby Putin exerts power through his Presidential Administration and on the basis of decisions made after consulting with his cronies. Likewise, it is clear that Trump has a similarly personalised and informal approach, best illustrated by the decision last week to take the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs off the permanent membership of the National Security Council and instal his ideologist-in-chief Stephen Bannon in their stead, with his own little inner-circle ‘Strategic Initiatives Group’. 

2. Ministers are flunkies, not policy-makers. The corollary of the above is that, as in Russia, a cabinet position alone is no guarantee of influence. Some do have weight, but this is generally because they have a personal relationship with Putin, such as defence minister Shoigu or deputy PM Kozak. Otherwise, they – and cabinet as a body – are simply there to execute their master’s bidding. Likewise, there seems little evidence at this stage that Trump regards his ministers as peers and colleagues. The odds are unlikely that even those with serious heft of experience and respect, such as defence secretary James Mattis – who has already been used as the legitimating backdrop for one of Trump’s egregious executive orders, on migrants – will be able to hold their own against the likes of Bannon or national security advisor Flynn.

3. Real decisions are made out of sight and off the books. As a result, we don’t get to see or hear the discussions about policy, or even to know for sure who was involved. Everything of real import is assessed and adjudicated behind the scenes, any – just like Trump’s conversation with Putin – not even recorded. Indeed, Bannon is already trying to ensure a lack of paper trail, something which will allow the White House to shape the narrative, and if need to evade responsibility.

4. Truth is by decree, and dissent is disloyalty. All administrations spin, but for outright lies to be coming so regularly and brazenly from the White House press podium, or even the presidential twitter account, is something new, and much more reminiscent of the Kremlin’s cavalier and creative attitude to the truth, secure in the absence of a critical media, on TV at least. Trump may not have that last yet, but the enthusiastic zeal with which his people exclude and excoriate those who don’t accept the new rules of the game suggests that’s the aim, at least. Dissent, after all, is not just a matter of alternative perspectives, it is an attack, it is disloyalty. The spectacle of acting Attorney General Sally Yates  being not just dismissed for having the temerity to do her job and uphold the law, but the language used – “betrayal” – is proof that this does not only apply to the Fourth Estate.

5. The economic interests of the boss and his cronies become state priorities. Whatever the scale of Putin’s personal fortune (my own view is that this should not be over-stated: a man who can use the whole Russian state as his piggy bank need not concentrate on stuffing his mattress with valuta), it is clear that his closest and oldest do very, very well out of his rule. Whether old judo buddies like the Rotenbergs, or musician-billionaire (and likely front man) Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s trust and friendship is eminently monetisable. These people can expect the state to be bent to their needs, awarding them contracts, bailing out their failures, and even compensating them for sanctions losses. As Trump packs his entourage with oil executives and acolytes of the vampire-squid Goldman Sachs, as well as sidestepping demands he divest himself of his own portfolio, Trump is already making it clear that he will not stint his friends. The structures there to control Wall Street – already flimsy – face the wrecking ball, as there are “friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money“…

6. The boss sits outside the formal party structure. Is Trump a Republican? Not really, even if there is clearly a vastly closer overlap between his nativist, kleptocratic instincts and theirs. Rather, America now has a three party system – Democrats, Republics, and Trump – and a coalition government between he last two. Like all coalitions, it is potentially fragile – it will be a depressingly compelling sport trying to guess just how much the Republicans are willing to swallow, in the name of notionally controlling the White House – but it remains to be seen who will lose out when the inevitable split occurs. After all, Trump – like Putin – has positioned himself outside the formal party system and political elites. Even his much-derided tweeting is a way of trying to forge a direct connection with his electorate. This does not mean that (unlike Putin) Trump is wholly immune to Congressional action, but it does mean that he is unlikely even to pretend about the party he notionally represents.

Of course, none of this suggests any direct collusion. Those trying desperately to find some connection between Bannon and Putin (no, Dugin is not influential in the Kremlin), or Flynn and RT’s Simonyan, are probably missing the point. This is not happening because Moscow says so. This, alas, is all on Trump.

Sanctioning the GRU, a decent step, but hamstrung by the need for symmetry

GRU logoThe “Lame Duck” president has proven to have a surprisingly sharp and accurate peck, and as the USA strikes back against the Russian hacking and its role in the US elections with a welcome series of sanctions. Two point are worth bringing up: the way the issue instantly and depressingly becomes a partisan one. It also suggests that the incoming administration is woefully ill-informed about the Russian intelligence community, or willing to leap through rhetorical hoops to protect it; and the needless and limiting philosophy behind the sanctions.

The Sanctions and the GRU (more…)

One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

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Ambassador Karlov’s security and the Zaslon red herring

Moscow is currently grumbling that their ambassador was put at risk because for ten years the Turks have not allowed them to send members of the Zaslon special operations group to Ankara to provide security. This is such a red herring.

Zaslon is part of the SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service – and while it sometimes provides some diplomatic security in very extreme cases (as in Damascus, for example), it is essentially an intelligence/sabotage/assassination force. No wonder Ankara didn’t want them there, and in any case it would have been a colossal waste, akin to using the SAS or CIA Special Ops Group as permanent bodyguards. Most security for diplomats in anything short of a war zone (and an art gallery in Ankara is hardly that) is provided by locally-engaged private security guards.

If the Russians really want to ask what went wrong, they should start with explaining why, if for a decade they have thought Turkey such a dangerous posting it needed Spetsnaz protection, they did not hire any security themselves, like their US and indeed UK counterparts? Or maybe they should be chatting with their good friend Erdogan why on-duty Turkish police were not on hand to deal with their wayward off-duty comrade-turned-killer?

New ECFR report: Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014

heavy_metalMy latest report for the ECFR was published this week, Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014. It addresses Russia’s blunt and threatening use of its military as an adjunct to its more conventional diplomacy in Europe in pursuit of the “4Ds” — to divide, distract, dismay and dominate — within the context of its wider political war. Here is the summary:

Since 2014, Russia has mounted an extensive, aggressive, and multi-platform attempt to use its military and the threat of force as instruments of coercive diplomacy, intended to divide, distract, and deter Europe from challenging Russia’s activities in its immediate neighbourhood.

The main elements are threats of potential military action, wargames which pointedly simulate such operations, the deployment of combat units in ways which also convey a political message, and intrusions close to and into European airspace, waters and even territory.

The actual impact of these policies is varied, sometimes counter-productive, and they depend on coordination with other means of diplomacy and influence. But they have nonetheless contributed to a fragmentation of unity within both NATO and the European Union.

‘Heavy metal diplomacy’ is likely to continue for the immediate future. This requires a sharper sense on the part of the EU and its member states of what is a truly military move and what is political, a refusal to rise to the bait, and yet a display of convincing unity and cross-platform capacity when a response is required.

heavy-metal-diplomacy-map-final

Russian banks warned of risk of cyberattack: a crime or security concern?

russianhackerRussian banks are being warned by the FSB to prepare for possible cyberattacks. That may seem to be a given in these days of virtual criminality, and follows a recent theft of 2 billion rubles ($31.3 million) from correspondent bank accounts at Russia’s Central Bank, but actually Russian financial institutions have until now had it pretty easy. That’s not least because part of the unwritten deal between the state and the hacking community (along with the need to pitch in when ‘patriots’ are expected to attack some foreign target) is that they are fine so long as they don’t commit their crimes against domestic institutions.
 
However, I wonder if there is also a security dimension here. Just as the Central Bank was involved in recent mobilisation exercises, predicated (rightly) on the fact that any major conflict with the West would also be fought with economic instruments, I wonder how far Moscow is coming to terms with the fact that the one-way ‘political war‘ currently being waged against the West might become a two-way one, at least to a limited extent. Those who live by the hack risk dying by it, too.
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