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.
Reports this week that US President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, apparently believing she possessed compromising information on Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, has added to the woes facing President Trump’s White House.
The irony, missed in much the reporting, is that whether she was part of some Russian “active measures,” dirty-tricks campaign, or merely a sharp opportunist who knew the best way to get an audience with the Trump team, the Kremlin gains, either way.
After all, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, being considered a Machiavellian grandmaster of geopolitical skullduggery arguably gives him more power than he deserves.
The facts of this case are still murky. Veselnitskaya denies she was peddling kompromat, as the Russians call it, and says she was simply lobbying against the Magnitsky Act: a US law blacklisting officials (including her clients) involved in human rights abuses. Meanwhile, the Trump team presents itself as naïve victims of misunderstanding who were never handed any of the promised dirt anyway.
Until more facts come to light, the way one interprets the case probably depends on whether one has already decided that President Trump is a Kremlin stooge or useful idiot, or the victim of “the greatest witch hunt in political history.”
What is interesting is how quickly and easily a corporate lawyer can be assumed to be a Kremlin agent. After all, she has relatively tenuous links to the government.
After all, Putin is not a micro-managing grandmaster so much as an opportunist. He sets broad strategic goals, designed to divide, distract and demoralize the West enough that Russia gets a free hand.
Some operations – such as the hack and leak of documents from the Clinton campaign – are clearly carried out by government agencies at the Kremlin’s behest. But most are what we could call freelance subversion. All kinds of political entrepreneurs are encouraged to dream up their own schemes that may advance Putin’s goals. If they fail, the Kremlin can deny any involvement. If they succeed, the Kremlin will reward the schemers.
Many of these freelance activities are clumsy, stupid, unlucky, or all three. They often fail embarrassingly. But even when they fail, they perform a service. They contribute to a climate of opinion that sees the Russian state as aggressive, ambitious and ubiquitous, and feed a feverish concern about it that can verge on paranoia.
Putin seems to have come to terms with the fact that, in the West, at least, he is unlikely to make any friends. Russian “soft power” – its capacity to exert influence through positive relationships and example – is minimal.
Instead, he seems to be accumulating the opposite, what I have called “dark power.” There is a certain strength in being feared, in being regarded as unpredictable and unrestrained by the normal etiquette of international relations.
Now, every time a Kremlin critic dies, assassination is suspected. Every time an anti-US or Eurosceptic party prospers, Russian support is assumed. And every lawyer and lobbyist is presumed to be Putin’s shill. For some, this makes them feel Putin must be appeased, or makes them see his Russia as far stronger than it really is. In the short term, this feeds a useful perception of Putin’s Russia from the West: an untamable bully who can interfere with what he wants, when he wants.
In the long term, this is likely to be a danger for Russia, as it becomes a virtual pariah.