Over-Mighty Subjects

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In 2017 Michael Kofman appeared on the Loopcast, discussing Russia’s approach to national security strategy.  I think that a lot of what he says helps to explain how we got here, even if it’s not very helpful in helping us to figure out what’s going on in the moment:


Russia is much smaller and weaker than the US, but they’ve been able to give us quite a bit of trouble over the past few years.  In the podcast episode, the term “near-peer” is used to describe Russia.  How has Russia been able to punch above their weight?

Kofman says that they’ve been able to do this by setting broad policy objectives centrally, and letting various groups in the country compete for government support.  Take cyberwarfare as an example.  The government might decide that it would like to disrupt the US election.  Various groups, led by people with connections to military intelligence, or possibly by hackers, try to mount attacks on social media networks, on their own initiative.  The government embraces the groups that get results, and the groups that don’t fade away on their own.  The winning groups get funding, better access to high officials, and all of the benefits that come from Putin’s favor.  People who succeed in this competition can become rich and powerful.

When there’s election interference here in the US, we ask ourselves, who’s doing this?  Is it a government?  And the answer is basically, yes, kind of, but it’s complicated.  Because these operations really do start up under the initiative of the entrepreneurs who run the various groups, and not the government, so you can’t always infer Putin’s intent from them.  This can be contrasted with the way that we conduct similar operations — we do things in a top down way, and we try to keep everything under the tight control of official military and intelligence groups.

The advantage Putin has is that he only pays for projects that work.  This is balanced off by the chaotic nature of his system, and an accompanying lack of control.

I think this is helpful context for trying to understand who Prigozhin is and where he came from, and what the Wagner group is.  The current story is pretty odd, because I don’t think anyone really understands what’s going on, or what might happen.  I certainly don’t.  But Pirgozhin seems to represent a broad kind of weakness that comes along with Putin’s decentralized approach.

As a disclaimer, I haven’t listened to the full episode I linked above since 2017.  I remember it because I thought Kofman’s argument made a lot of sense, and explained a lot about Russia.

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