Editor’s Note: Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, and coordinator of its Centre for European Security. He is a specialist on Russian security affairs, intelligence, and organized crime and is also principal director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, which specializes in Russia research. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Critical media voices denounced as “enemies of the people.”
Power not in the hands of elected officials, but the President’s close friends and family.
Statecraft taking second place to the interests of the inner circle.
While there’s no real evidence that Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin’s puppet, his White House is certainly starting to resemble the Kremlin in the way it works.
First, there’s its belief that it can define truth to its own convenience and shout down different perspectives as “fake news” and label those who question the official line as “enemies of the people.”
Of course the Kremlin, with its stranglehold on Russian TV, can be even more inventive. Propagandist-in-chief Dmitry Kiselev, for example, regularly conjures tales of bizarre conspiracies, and damns Putin’s enemies as traitors and fascists.
The White House is making a spirited challenge for Kiselev’s crown: from tales that Trump drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” right through to the recent claims of Trump Tower wiretapping.
That a free press exercising its freedom in ways inconvenient to the administration is seen as a sign of dishonesty and disloyalty is truly chilling.
But the “fourth estate” is just one of the institutions under threat in Trump’s America.
Over his 17 years dominating Russia (including one term as prime ministerial puppet-master), Putin has essentially hollowed out Russia’s institutions.
Unless they have some personal relationship with the boss, ministers are just junior managers, and policy is not decided – or even discussed – in Cabinet, let alone Parliament. Instead, it emerges from shadowy circles of Putin’s closest allies and cronies, often without records, warning or explanation.
The United States is not quite in the same situation – yet – but it is clear that the most important policy decisions are likewise being made out of sight.
After all, both in Moscow and Washington, the key to true power has more to do with your relationship to the president, not your job title.
In Russia, the prime minister – constitutionally the second most powerful figure in the government – has long been eclipsed by the head of Putin’s Presidential Administration.
Trump has a similarly personalized and informal approach. His daughter Ivanka is now to have an office in the White House and access to classified intelligence. His son-in-law Jared Kushner is playing a pivotal role in foreign policy. Although he was forced to roll back partially, Trump’s first instinct was to take the director of national intelligence and chairman of the joint chiefs off the permanent membership of the National Security Council and install Bannon in their stead.
What matters is how many degrees of separation you have from the boss, not what you know or what your job title may be.
Many of Trump’s inner circle are businesspeople, so maybe it is unsurprising that they might see their roles in terms of how they further their economic interests.
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Putin treats the whole Russian state as his piggy bank, but also is comfortable helping his closest allies do very well out of official policy. People like his old judo buddies the Rotenbergs get awarded lucrative government contracts, are bailed out for their failures, and even compensated for sanctions losses.
Meanwhile, apart from Trump’s sidestepping demands that he divest himself of his own portfolio, his friends look set to benefit. Indeed, already he has said that he wants to cut back controls on Wall Street because of “friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money.”
There is, it seems, no longer anything unique about the Kremlin’s personalized, post-truth style of rule.