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.

Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, and the difference a week makes

What a difference a week makes.

We’re used to seeing the forces of the state visiting petty hostility and obstruction on those from Moslem regions, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing official spokespeople lying openly and shamelessly, and shutting down critical voices that dare question them, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing personal favourites elevated into crucial national security and policy roles, instead of sober professionals, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing the personal financial interests of presidential favourites protected and furthered by state policy, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

I’m still not at all convinced by the whole ‘Siberian candidate’ line that presents Donald Trump as a puppet of Vladimir Putin’s. Instead, what we see, I fear, is a miserable and soul-rotting convergence of populist authoritarianisms, a backlash against a northern hemisphere trend towards pluralism, multi-culturalism and proceduralism. An atavistic desire for charismatic (in the technical sense: to me, The Donald has all the personal charisma of an Italian TV game show host), patriarchal, personalised leadership, for simple solutions to complex problems, for the easy substitution of confidence for competence.

The good news, though, is that just as a massive majority of Russians express their approval of Putin but are not eager for some civilisational clash with the West, are fully aware of and disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of the state, and just want to live a ‘normal’ life, so too the early signs are that Trump’s narrow and technical victory is not an expression of a true majority opinion of the American people. The bad news is that it is not so easy to mobilise silent majorities, and that in the meantime, the executive can do a lot of harm. It’s going to be a rough, dark few years.

November/December 2016 Publications Round-Up

I am remiss in getting to this (far too much that is more interesting has been going on), but all the same, here is a sampling of some of my publications from the end of 2016. As ever, to know what I’m writing, follow me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) and/or the Mark Galeotti on Russia FaceBook page.

Watch Out Vladimir: There’s a New Putin in Town,’ Foreign Policy, 13 November

The ‘Ulyukaev Affair’ and Russia’s hybrid market‘, IntelliNews Business New Europe, 16 November

The World After Trump: Russia-Friendly, But for How Long?,’ Moscow Times, 17 November

“RepressIntern”: Russia’s security cooperation with fellow authoritarians‘, chapter for FPC book No shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, reprinted here by od:Russia, 22 November

RUSSIA’S HYBRID WAR AS A BYPRODUCT OF A HYBRID STATE,’ War on the Rocks, 6 December

Putin Is Waging Information Warfare. Here’s How to Fight Back,’ New York Times, 14 December

Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of its Military in Europe since 2014‘ – report for the ECFR, 19 December

Hacking Western democracy,’ Raam op Rusland, 19 December

«Pour faire face à Moscou, l’unité européenne est maintenant un enjeu de sécurité», Le Monde, 23 December

I’s also mention that my book Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right, is not only available as hard copy or PDF from Lulu, but is also now as hard copy from Amazon.

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 Read the full post »

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.

Read the full post »

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?

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