The criminals in the Kremlin Historian Yaroslav Shimov explains why the Putin regime defies rationality and how the West helped make the war in Ukraine possible
Several months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the global discussion about the war has divided into two opposing camps. In Ukraine and across the West, as well as in Russia’s own antiwar movement, the dominant view is that Vladimir Putin’s regime started the conflict in order to expand Moscow’s power and reclaim lost imperial territories. According to this theory, Russia seeks to subjugate or even destroy Ukraine but won’t stop there. The other camp blames the “Collective West” for provoking the war by ignoring Russia’s objective interests. Historian and journalist Yaroslav Shimov says the war is the result of the Putin regime’s peculiarities as a “mafia state” and the failure in Europe and the United States to understand their counterparts in Moscow.
Note: What follows is a summary of Yaroslav Shimov’s article, published by Meduza on June 15, 2022. You can read the original text (in Russian) here.
Leftist and realist Western scholars, like sociologist Wolfgang Streeck and political scientist John Mearsheimer, have a habit of “denying subjectivity” to nations on Russia’s periphery, embracing the idea that the conflict in Ukraine is actually a proxy war “over Ukraine.” Based on this logic (which also fuels the mainstream narrative in Russia), controlling the space of Ukraine is essential to preserving the “strategic depth” that saved Russia from Napoleon and Hitler. In other words, Moscow is acting rationally.
Realists consistently describe the Kremlin’s decision-making as rational, even though scholars like Mearsheimer said after the annexation of Crimea that Vladimir Putin was “too smart” to try to conquer the rest of Ukraine.
When it comes to assessing the Kremlin’s rationality or irrationality, neither realists nor their opponents sufficiently appreciate how the Russian ruling elite has evolved. The Putin regime’s changing structures, fundamental character, and ideology have produced a mafia state distinct from authoritarianism as it’s commonly understood in the West. Russia’s shifting foreign policy reflects the regime’s evolution.
Governed by an organized crime syndicate
Vladimir Putin’s early flirtations with the West during his first presidential term are all but forgotten in Russia now, but the continuum along which the regime developed brings us to today’s open hostilities. Twenty years ago, Putin approached Europe and the United States in search of a deal that would secure Russia’s freedom of action in the former Soviet Union. In exchange for this sphere of influence, Moscow would reward the West with what amounted to “kickbacks”: access to lucrative projects in the Russian market, placing Russian capital in U.S. and European stock markets, and more.
If this project had succeeded, Russia would have become what haunts Moscow’s hardliners to this day: an “appendage of the West” (albeit with a good deal of autonomy within its Eurasian sphere). As veterans of the Soviet security services, corrupt officials, and semi-criminal businessmen, Putin and most of his associates would have welcomed this version of a “restored USSR,” but Moscow was never able to master the domain it claimed for itself.
During these years, as the Kremlin failed to live up to its revanchist ambitions, members of Russia’s security sector gradually ousted “civilian” figures from the political elite, reshaping the Putin regime.
The new ruling class comprised not just security elites but also outright criminals with whom Vladimir Putin and his entourage became intertwined while working in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. The rise of this “Petersburg-Chekist” group was part of a broader merger of Russia’s state apparatus, law enforcement, and the criminal underworld. By the end of the 1990s, when Putin came to power, post-Soviet Russia’s property redistribution and “primitive accumulation” were complete, and the elites were eager to revive a strong state to legitimize and safeguard their new wealth.
Winning control of this revived state, Putin and his group built a unified system of authority that fuses power and property. As a result, Russia lacks real property rights; instead, wealth is enjoyed for temporary use in exchange for unconditional loyalty to the interests of the ruling group and its leader.
The same core features that define organized crime groups are integral to the Putin regime: absolute hierarchical loyalty, a disconnect between official titles and real influence (for example, key figures in Russia operate without formal government status), extreme secrecy in decision-making, and a special “honor code” outside the law that prizes reprisals against “traitors” and violence against competitors.
No ordinary dictatorship
In the West, the metamorphosis of Russia’s political regime went largely overlooked as experts interpreted developments through a prism of post-Communist transition, attributing the many shortcomings of this approach to Russia’s “special case” as a large country with unique historical and cultural qualities. Even as the prevailing wisdom shifted to viewing Russia as an emerging authoritarian power competing for influence throughout the world, Western observers conflated the Putin regime with “standard” autocracies like China, assuming that the criminality exhibited by the state represented excesses of “standard” authoritarianism, not the central properties of a mafia group. This lens also credited the Kremlin with the rationality of authoritarians.
In fact, the Putin regime metastasized to Russia’s fragile, unformed post-Soviet state. Neither a democracy nor a “standard” dictatorship, the current ruling elite exists only to self-perpetuate across generations, breaking whatever rules and laws stand in the way, like any mafia.
Putin’s initial bargain with the West (kickbacks in exchange for a sphere of influence) actually succeeded, in part anyway. The “world police” took the money, and Russian wealth (often of dubious provenance) flooded the European and American financial systems. Western leaders never endorsed Moscow’s claims on one-sixth of the planet, however, due less to principled objections than a lack of strategic vision and their shared reluctance to take responsibility for serious decisions. Officials in Europe and the United States preferred routinized politics (“business as usual”), especially in a region as unfamiliar as the former USSR.
Additionally, between 2008 and 2013, as the mafia state consolidated its control of the Kremlin, the West was in crisis, still reeling from the disastrously stupid invasion of Iraq, confronting the rise of China, managing a global economic recession, and responding to the Arab Spring. In this context, the Obama administration’s policy of “resetting” relations with Moscow almost openly announced to the Kremlin: let’s let bygones be bygones because we don’t have time for you right now.
The Putin regime saw this message as a deception in the context of the Arab Spring, which it believed the West had orchestrated to “subjugate oil-rich countries.” Moscow also viewed Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement and “Revolution of Dignity” as “special operations” conducted by the West. From this perspective, the annexation of Crimea and war for the Donbas became an appropriate response to the enemy’s offensive.
The Kremlin failed to realize that Europe and the U.S. were actually unprepared for the Arab Spring, which ultimately benefitted the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish regimes more than the West. Moscow also exaggerated promises to Ukraine regarding EU association and NATO membership, mistaking diplomatic overtures for ironclad guarantees.
But the Western perspective also proved myopic, as career negotiators chased agreements on political and defense integration without understanding how these deals would resonate in Ukraine and then in Russia.
The mafia state’s irrationality
Before the invasion on February 24, it seemed likely that Vladimir Putin would score another political victory in a confrontation he started. Infighting plagued the EU, Western leaders accepted the need for dialogue with Moscow, and most observers refused to believe American warnings that Russia was about to unleash a full-scale war on Ukraine.
Putin squandered this opportunity because the logic of a mafia state differs from standard political logic. (This is where realist scholars fundamentally misunderstand today’s Russian ruling elite.) Three features of organized crime leadership facilitated Russia’s irrational invasion of Ukraine:
These features make the Putin regime simultaneously parasitic and “popular.” A hodgepodge of religious conservatism, ethnic nationalism, pre-Soviet imperialism, and sympathy for Stalinism, the regime’s eclectic ideological shell genuinely reflects the confused state of public opinion in Russia that has emerged over the past three decades.
Inescapable conflict, but it didn’t have to be like this
At some point in the evolution of Russia’s mafia state, a clash between the Putin regime and its declared enemies became inevitable. With the February 2022 invasion, Moscow’s propensity for ignoring the agency of former Soviet countries led to the Kremlin’s catastrophic underestimation of Ukraine’s viability and willingness to fight back.
But the Putin regime’s mistakes don’t erase the fact that Western elites also made today’s war in Ukraine possible. The last 25 years of warnings to leaders in Europe and the U.S. about who and what had seized power in Moscow would have been enough to convince even the “appeasers” of the 1930s to revise at least some of their diplomacy. Instead, the West embraced Russian energy imports. To this day, Russian gas supplies are still inbound.
Though the West has unified surprisingly well against the invasion of Ukraine, leaders in the EU and the United States still exhibit no long-term political strategy when it comes to Russia now or in the war’s aftermath. This indecision is nothing new for the West, but Russia’s “homelessness” in the world order since the fall of the USSR has borne poisonous fruit. The current devastation in Ukraine shouldn’t be interpreted in Europe and America as a reason to wall off the West from Russia forever. This is an impossible task. Instead, the Western world and Russia must understand how they can coexist.
The obstacles here are enormous, of course. Many of the West’s hastily imposed sanctions are hitting Russian society (including the opposition-leaning segment) far harder than the organized criminal group in the Kremlin that bears the main responsibility for this war. However the Ukrainian tragedy ends, Russia will no longer be able to occupy the place in world politics and economics it did a decade ago, due both to Western sanctions and international political isolation that expands its entanglements with China.
All this assumes that Putin’s gang remains in power. The regime’s collapse, on the other hand, would necessitate the re-establishment of the Russian Federation itself, given that the ruling criminal elite have spent the past 30 years draining the state from the inside.