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The Kleptocratic Sources of Russia's Conduct
The Egg Thieves, Desmond Morris, 1960

The Kleptocratic Sources of Russia's Conduct

Vladimir Putin and his gang are fixated on wealth and power.

Christopher Walker

In a shrewd dissection of the Russian leadership’s approach toward its own people and the wider world, in 2009 political analyst Daniel Kimmage offered a grim view of things to come: “Expect things to get worse before they get better.” Zeroing in on one powerful factor bound to shape the Kremlin’s conduct in a more troubling direction, he wrote: “The primary goal of the Russian elite is not to advance an abstract ideal of the national interest or restore some imagined Soviet idyll.” Rather, Kimmage concluded, its goal is “to retain its hold on money and power.”

This clear-eyed assessment of Putin’s Russia is acutely relevant today, even more so than when it was originally published. As the Russian authorities intensify their menacing posture, the free world is wrestling with a far more mature and metastasizing menace to Ukraine and its democratic aspirations, as well as to the democratic order, than thirteen years ago.

So, what should free societies have learned since the publication of Kimmage’s essay on Russia’s “Selective Capitalism and Kleptocracy"?

First, that there is an animating pattern to the way the Kremlin’s long arm reaches beyond its borders.

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Tromifov observed that prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, “the Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions were once the engines of the country’s economy and dominated its politics.” Today, by contrast, the “now nominally independent ‘people’s republics’ inside the larger regions of Luhansk and Donetsk—have turned into impoverished, depopulated enclaves that increasingly rely on Russian subsidies to survive.” Given recent developments, conditions in these settings are bound to degrade even further.

Contributing recently to these pages, Clint Williamson and David Kramer spelled out the larger implications for Ukraine, whose society has waged a determined struggle against entrenched corruption. The authors observed that

ever since Putin’s illegal annexation … the dreadful conditions within Russia have been replicated in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. For the past eight years, Ukrainians in these regions have endured a human rights crisis under the thuggish rule of Russian figures and their proxies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russian governmental authorities in Crimea.

The fate of Crimea’s media sector is illustrative. In the aftermath of its annexation, it took little time for media in Crimea to be subdued and integrated into the repressive Russian information space.

A similar pattern emerged in South Ossetia, a disputed territory whose “political system is controlled by elites loyal to Moscow,” in which a scaling up of corruption and criminality accompanied a heightened Russian presence.

Second, free societies should have learned that the Russian leadership’s imperative of regime security is inseparable from the protection of its kleptocratic architecture. While its expansionist impulses are characterized by a murky mix of revanchism, bigger dog eat smaller dog notions of spheres of influence, and industrial scale venality, it is the last factor that fuels the regime’s engine.

Given that Vladimir Putin is now in his third decade as Russia’s paramount leader, the roots and branches of this enterprise are sinewy and vast. The kleptocratic organism that Kimmage described years ago, and which scholars and journalists such as Karen Dawisha and Catherine Belton explained to the world in extensive detail, represses the Russian people but also poses a direct challenge to the integrity of democracies. Belton’s Putin’s People and Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy trace the spread of the roots and branches of a transnational kleptocratic system that stretches well beyond the Russian Federation to pose a multidimensional threat to free societies.

The expansionism that has come into view over the years appears poised to enter a new phase that may result in larger pieces of Ukraine being brought explicitly into Russia’s orbit of corruption. Such westward kleptocratic expansion would be horrible news for Ukraine—but also for other free societies.

For their part, Ukrainians are displaying extraordinary valor and resilience in confronting Russia’s intensifying aggression. They understand the extraordinary stakes involved for Ukraine. A recently released report authored by Oliver Bullough—“An Offshore Cold War: Forging a Democratic Alliance to Combat Transnational Kleptocracy”—puts these stakes into wider context. Bullough argues that “democracies may believe that their institutions are strong enough to resist kleptocratic influence, but the evidence warns otherwise.” He emphasizes that today’s tyrants “are willing and able to do anything to expand their own power,” but that, unlike during the Cold War era, today “democracies are no longer facing autocracies across well-defended national borders.”

Finally (and related to Bullough’s contention), democracies must come to grips with the reality that there is a through line between the regime security imperative for the kleptocratic leadership in Moscow and national security in free societies. Open societies today face more acute risks precisely because of the deepened interconnection between autocracies and democracies in which norms of democratic accountability have not been prioritized. This needs to change.

Ukraine’s determined reform ambitions strike at the heart of Russia’s kleptocratic system, which does a good deal to explain the Kremlin’s wanton and ferocious response the world is now witnessing. The fight in Ukraine is central to a far larger battle over whether systems and norms that are democratically accountable will predominate, rather than those pursued by narrow kleptocratic elites. Francis Fukuyama cuts to the chase, observing that “the deeper problem for [Vladimir Putin] is Ukrainian democracy.”

It has taken a full-scale military attack by Russia on Ukraine to jar the democracies into action. Free societies are taking a number of previously unthinkable measures, including extraordinary sanctions to choke off the resources that feed Russia’s kleptocratic system and its ability to wage multidimensional war on Ukraine and the wider world. These are critically important and needed steps, but now that the democracies have been rousted from their torpor, it is crucial for them to internalize lessons recently learned and prepare for a longer-term, determined response to an authoritarian-kleptocratic threat that has been a long time in the making.

In this regard, the system of “selectively capitalist kleptocracy” in Russia that Daniel Kimmage described years ago has evolved in ways that are even more threatening to democracy and its institutions. This system employs certain components of a market economy but, Kimmage noted, “only to the extent that they benefit … a ruling elite engaged in practices that would entail criminal prosecution in any free-market society with a functioning legal system and an independent judiciary.” This point is one that decision-makers in  free societies must keep in the forefront of their thinking as they develop responses commensurate with the challenge posed by no-holds-barred kleptocrats.

To prevail against the predatory logic of modern kleptocracy, free societies therefore need to shore up their own evident vulnerabilities and be far more purposeful, innovative, and unified than they have been to date.

Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.