“People person” is not necessarily the first description that comes to mind when one thinks of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Though barely a year into his unlikely presidency of the Russian Federation, that’s more or less how he described himself to Christian Caryl, then Moscow bureau chief at Newsweek. Asked what it was about his KGB training that he believed informed his administration of a country with 11 time zones and around 8,000 nuclear warheads, Putin answered unexpectedly that it was garrulousness that he found most useful from his days in special services:
“To be able to work with people effectively, you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact; you have to activate everything that is best in your partner. If you want to achieve results, you have to respect your partner. You need to make that person an ally; you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”
Putin was never a spy as properly understood or mythologized. In his rather shabby posting to Dresden in East Germany, during which he spent the majority of the perestroika era observing the collapse of the Soviet Union from a distance, his role was that of a case officer, a recruiter and manager of spies.
There is every indication that he not only ran West German assets who ventured into Dresden but even recruited the odd double agent in the infamous East German security service, the Stasi, between 1985 and 1989. Putin’s deployment coincided with the KGB’s “Operation Luch,” a campaign to steal technological secrets but also, allegedly, to ensure that hardliners in the East German intelligence apparatus remained loyal to the ongoing reforms taking place in Moscow and not to their putative boss, Eric Honecker. (Still the best encapsulation of the Stalinist rigidity of Honecker’s GDR is this celebrated scene from The Lives of Others.)
I’m not quite sure if it’s an irony or a tragedy that the analyst best able to understand Putin’s talent for seducing foreign agents is now beholden to a commander-in-chief believed by many to have been turned by that little man in Moscow’s high castle.
Fiona Hill, the dual British-American citizen and former national intelligence officer with the U.S. National Intelligence Council, was recently named the White House's senior director for Europe and Russia. She is therefore the most influential Putinologist on a National Security Council that badly needs them.
Her book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, co-written with Clifford Gaddy, distills the actuating impulses of one the most scrutinized and yet misunderstood men on the planet into six mutually inclusive categories: the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the Case Officer. Although they claim no one category supersedes any other, their subtitle suggests that Putin’s training in Yuri Andropov’s KGB is the foundation upon which the other five were constructed.
They note that rabota s lyud’mi—“working with people”—has a specific meaning in the parlance of Andropov’s KGB, which Putin joined in the early 1970s as part of a “levy” to bring younger, fresher talent from the Communist Party cadres into a sclerotic secret police. Not long after assuming the chairmanship of the KGB, Andropov established the Fifth Directorate, formally known as the Directorate for the Struggle Against Subversive Ideological Activity. Putin may well have served in it, which would certainly explain his rather mushy, management-speaking inheritance from Lubyanka—more David Brent than Felix Dzerzhinsky—at least as he tendentiously relayed it to Caryl.
What was the tradecraft of the Fifth Directorate? Rather than resort to pure brutality to keep the masses in line (“Beat, beat, and beat again,” in Stalin’s formulation), one had to adopt a more psychologically adroit approach, a certain flexibility, if one wanted to be a master manipulator of men and masses.
Andropov, it pays to remember, had been the Soviet ambassador to Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and witnessed first-hand the culmination of less subtle forms of population control. Political liberalization meant that it was no longer sufficient to arrest or hound writers, artists, and the members of the Soviet intelligentsia into submission. One had to co-opt them.
In his memoir, The KGB and the Regime, former Fifth Directorate head Filipp Bobkov explains how he managed to get dissident Roy Medvedev to stop publishing his journal with Western anti-communist outlets—without threatening the heterodox Marxist historian with a bullet to the head or a trip to a psychiatric hospital. Instead, Bobkov went to Medvedev’s apartment and took tea with him.
“I saw both the weaknesses and strengths of my interlocutor’s logic,” he later recounted. “I understood where he was right and where he was mistaken. For me it was very useful to know that.”
By the end of the meeting, Medvedev had agreed to deal “only with the Communist Party press and began to lean noticeably towards ‘pluralism within the framework of socialism.’” He also began collaborating with Western Communists, providing the KGB with, as Bobkov put it, “channels through which we could influence his undesirable attacks.”
For the studied authoritarian, a subject who self-censors is always preferable to a subject you have to censor, just as a propagandist who works without being told what to say is preferable to a propagandist who has to be coerced or paid into telling lies. Andropov’s legacy is the blurring of these boundaries between ruler and ruled. Putin is its apotheosis.
“The ideal recruitment outcome for the KGB recruiter or case officer was essentially the conclusion of a mutually advantageous deal,” Hill and Gaddy write. “The deal was enforced by the threat—a threat that, if carried out, would completely destroy the recruit. The case officer had to have a monopoly on this threat. The deal could not work if the target could turn to someone else for protection.”
Indeed, his rise to power—establishing his fealty to the Yeltsin “Family”—rests largely on his willingness to blackmail a meddlesome prosecutor-general with a sex tape and on compiling enough kompromat on the billionaire oligarchs who underwrote Yeltsin’s second term through the loans-for-shares scheme. More of a racket, really, it allowed the Russian government to essentially lend the wealthiest men in Russia the money they then used to purchase state assets at fire-sale prices in exchange for their financing of Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign. (Suffering from successive heart attacks and frequent public displays of inebriation, he might have otherwise lost to Communist Gennady Zyuganov.)
Now rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe and certainly the executive of one of the world’s most notorious kleptocracies in the world, Putin was once placed in charge of the Russian Presidential Administration’s Main Control Directorate, or GKU, which was the agency tasked with uncovering government corruption and embezzlement.
That position that gave him access to the most privileged information on the relationship between the state and the oligarchs, including how the latter’s money was made and spent. And stolen. By April 1999, Putin had, as Hill and Gaddy write, “established a monopoly on financial information” in the Russian Federation. He knew where the bodies were buried and where the offshore accounts were hidden. Rabota s lyud’mi was henceforth a pretty straightforward affair. The carrots were dangled; the sticks were left to the imagination (or, in the cases of Berezovksy, Gusinsky and Khodorkovsy, to international headlines).
There was a peculiar psychology at play here. Every oligarch in post-Soviet Russia was by definition nouveau riche and so flaunted his fortune in a manner befitting the gaudier ornaments of the Bourbon dynasty. Mega-yachts and mega-dachas, chalets in Interlaken, stately piles in Surrey, soccer clubs in London, sushi lunches flown in from Nobu to Baku, and only the finest European boarding schools for the privileged offspring.
The crooked nomenklatura of the Brezhnev era would have gagged at the perks conferred on the first generation of Russian capitalists—and many did, including the case officer. The political compact Putin made his elite enter into with the Kremlin was an extension of the old Andropov rule, only easier to effectuate because ideology no longer mattered, only money and its many perquisites did. “Risk of loss is more important than any reward,” as Hill and Gaddy put it. And by “loss” they didn’t mean net worth but the standing or reputation that comes with it. The fear of having one’s name tarnished, or simply taken off buildings and assets, was a crucial Western import.
Upon assuming the presidency, Putin named Viktor Zubkov, a former colleague from his days in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office (the two used to blackmail and extort local businessmen into behaving as needed) to head the Russian Financial Monitoring Agency, the GKU on amphetamines. In this way did Putin rein in his wayward boyars in the banking and energy sectors by appealing to them primarily as their krysha, or “roof,” or mafia protector. Play according to the rules, don’t challenge or taunt the regime, and you could earn and pilfer as much as you liked. Cross the boss and face the consequences.
Russia’s industrialists, who control the vast majority of the country’s GDP, are thus run like assets of the KGB, which explains why so few of them have broken ranks in the three years since the U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia, and why the Russian economy, whose implosion has long been prematurely forecast, chugs along. Espionage has become inextricable from corruption.
One wonders how Fiona Hill is advising Donald Trump.