Russia’s Prisoner Dilemma


William Echols

Much has been said of the “legal nihilism” which consumes Russian society. Few, however, have realized that rather than some esoteric expression of the Russian soul, the orgy of corruption in the Third Rome is a logical reaction to the world its citizens have been forced to navigate.

In 2008, Russian presidential place holder Dmitry Medvedev argued that “if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.”

Nearly eight years later, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika believes the battle against corruption, following a rocky road and more recent economic dips, is going swimmingly well.

“Over the past two years, the Prosecutor-General’s Office has been keeping impartial crime statistics on whose basis I can confidently say that the fight against corruption in the country has been intensified substantially recently,” Russian News Agency TASS cites Chaika as saying.

Over the past nine months, officials had been implicated in corruption cases amounting to 30 billion rubles ($423 million). One-fifth of that sum has been reimbursed. While Chaika himself admits those figures could be higher, he also believes they should “command respect.”

In a country where corruption accounts for anywhere between 25 and 48 percent of an ever-contracting GDP, how much respect the authorities deserve on that account is debatable. But then, how does one stamp out corruption in a nation where graft is not a byproduct of the system, but rather the raison d’etre?

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

Doomsday and urban decay: In Russia, the end of the world is now 

William Echols

Norilsk: National Geographic

Norilsk: National Geographic

Sometimes it all comes into focus. Beneath the unending static of distraction, the esoteric musings, the multifarious political analysts attempting to dissect motivations, worldview and strategies, a far more simple image takes form upon standing back from the fray. Some are very rich, some are very poor, some want things to stay that way, and thus seemingly indefatigable human ingenuity and creativity is put towards creating multilayered worlds of symbolic meaning to obfuscate far more bare bones truths.

In excavating the strange world of Russian politics and every manifestation of social trauma, in digging through the origami propaganda messages where mouths seemingly crease into smirks and sneers at the same time — double-exposures in prime time — a very simple narrative can take hold.

For Putin to live like this:


People in Syktyvkar have to live like this:

And then, with or without irony, officials build a monument to the Ruble in the heart of the city; a neo-byzantine stele to their own profligacy.


But it doesn’t stop there. In order for Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to allegedly live like this:

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 10.45.41 AM

People in Kazan live like this:



For Putin’s press secretary to spend 350,000-euro per week on a yacht like this:


Your grandmother might have to live like this:

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 12.34.44 PM

And for officials to spend $200 million per kilometer on a road in Sochi that ends up looking like this:

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 12.08.45 PM

The road between Russia and Belarus will produce a contrast like this:

In writing Russia’s Strange Prophets of Doom, the at times oppressive realities of urban decay were informative both personally and anecdotally. The unrelenting blight and pollution, the seemingly endless stretches of steppe dotted with human settlements replete with post-soviet ruin porn, these are the realities that drive even nominal patriots to dreams of Mediterranean shores.

It is easy to see that the end of the world isn’t a fantasy, it’s right outside your front door. There is also a quiet desperation which bubbles beneath the stoicism; your mental armor to block out the filth, the bleakness, the desperation. People wrap themselves in blankets of distraction, navigating every iteration of eyesore with eyes locked on feet, pushing past sooty-snow and filth to find warmth and cleanliness locked away in the rows up rows of glowing tower block lights. Then there is the crime, at times bordering on anarchy, the instability from the lack of rule of law; the television glow singing yet another hymn from the church of murder.

No, fifth columnists, Atlanticists, and every variation of conspiratorial cabal fighting to keep Russia on its knees can only provide so much subterfuge. Americans didn’t steal the money for your roads, your schools, your nursing homes. Brussels isn’t the reason crowdfunding campaigns are needed to buy grandmothers firewood in the most resource rich nation on earth.

Obama isn’t the reason why some have a license to kill, to steal, to do everything that ill-gotten wealth can buy. It was you Russia, it was always you.

And until you can learn to heal yourself, to face your challenges head on, beyond the self-satisfying fake empire and false pride, beyond the resentment, beyond the need to be right, beyond the need to wonder if “in other places it was more terrible”, beyond the infinite feedback loop of the “whataboutist” question-word clause, there will be forces who would rather burn it all than somehow, someway get on with life. And, in turn, there will be lives in which it truly seems better to just burn it all.


A few thoughts on my Kazakhstan/Russia article for Open Democracy

William Echols

The last time I did this, I wrote an appendix to the article which was as long as the actual article itself. I’ll try not to do that this time. More than anything, I’d like to give people a chance to check out my latest article for Open Democracy, ‘Kazakhstan’s quiet balancing act’, especially for who don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Turns out search engines are my primary referrer, and I promise you, some of those search terms I get have made me want to give up on blogging all together. No, if you want to see the id of the internet on full display (plus how difficult it is for people to type “Kheda Goilabiyeva” and some iteration of porn one-handed, likely in a second language), write an article with teenage bride in the title. Teenage brides in Russia to be more exact. You’ve been warned.

daily mail

You’ll also see traffic spikes from countries where people otherwise never clicked on blogs about Russia. At least, they never clicked on my blog. To even begin characterizing those countries (though it would be easy to do) would open up a whole other can of worms. I, after all, came here to talk about Kazakhstan!

Kazakhstan, after all, is where I got my start in the post-Soviet world, and I myself have had to be careful not to speak about the two countries interchangeably when generalizing about certain political and sociological trends.

Inspirational I know.

Inspirational I know.

Even prior to writing this article, I had previously speculated that what Putin secretly wanted deep down was to be granted the geopolitical luxury of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His country is rich enough to steal billions from, but marginal enough for its human rights abuses to be overlooked for the sake of doing business. I think Putin, with his vanity (see botox) and love of opulence (like his press secretary, a $500,000 timepiece fulfills his mafioso need for bling), had once dreamed of setting off for his so-called ‘Guest House’ outside of Paris or a similarly safe european home, weekending with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ‘bunga bunga’ style —reclining like two mafia dons who had played ‘The Game’ and won.

'Just the two of us...

‘Just the two of us…”

Perhaps Putin’s true hatred of the middle-class Snow Revolution was that his retirement plan was scuttled, his salad days to be burned along with tons of French cheese.

And then there is this...

And then there is this…

I don’t think he always wanted to leave the Kremlin foot-first, but it seems almost like an inevitability at this point. Heavy is the crown of the gatherer of “Russian lands.”

In light of the many parallels between Kazakhstan and Russia, the two countries offer comparative analysts a rare opportunity to control for certain factors in measuring outcomes. Will Russia’s irredentism pay dividends vs. Kazakhstan’s attempts to accept its position of relative weakness and court partners from all points on the compass? Will Kazakhstan’s relative attempts at economic diversification bear any fruit, or will it simply be impossible to build a modern, knowledge-based economy with thriving small and medium-sized businesses if the elite’s share of the pie remains static. Will Kazakhstan’s propensity towards privatization vs. Russia’s strict statist model make any difference within the framework of a purely extractive political model?

I think with Kazakhstan and Russia suffering from many of the same systemic problems, in the next few years, many of these questions may be answered, at least in part. But what really interests me is how the implementation of actual democratic reforms would actually play out, if Astana or Moscow ever chose to go down that road.

As it is, I’m not holding my breath on on that one. At best, both states are attempting to mitigate chaos in light of factors they can scantly control by this point. But however things play out in Kazakstan, I will give Nazarbayev credit for this: He might have taken a lot to remain president for life, but he didn’t steal his nation’s sanity along the way. That’s more than I can say for Putin at this point.

‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’: A few thoughts

William Echols

My latest piece for Intersection Project, ‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’, like anything we write, did not come about in a vacuum. Even stories that appear academic in nature can be propelled by a sense of pathos which comes from the heart of lived experience. That was certainly the case with this piece.

Something I was recently discussing with Jim Kovpak, who is raising hell across Eastern Ukraine at this very moment, is how much of everything we write about Russia is infused with countless memories from years gone by.

Memory juice

Memory juice

It might come as a surprise that an article referencing Thomas Khun and historical dialectics would be evocative of anything, at least anything personal.

But in truth, most of the ideas expressed on Russian Avos can be traced back to raucous nights that descended into drunken philosophizing, uninvited diatribes from cabbies and thugs, grey-skied tea time with neighbors and acquaintances, and everyone else that’s come my way since I first found myself dropped off in a rat-infested hole in northeastern Moscow all those years back.

They taught me everything I know about love.

They taught me everything I know about love.

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe once said it took an entire village to make a single character in one of his books. And while I might not be writing 20th century’s greatest bildungsroman, even a blog about Russia has its inspirations, big and small.

Seemingly sterile sentences can be minefields of memory; pathos-free paragraphs an attempt to distill down a million floating fragments of lived experience into a single drop of coherence. Its funny how the mind words. An article you vaguely remember reading five years ago blends with a conversation you had six months back to create something new. You spend all that time collecting tesserae in your pocket, until one day you go about creating a mosaic. Results, of course, will vary.

The same can be said for my latest, where ideas formed while reading Khun many aeons ago on Fitzwilliam Street in Belfast collied with an op-ed I recently encountered in the Moscow Times by Jim Kovpak’s favorite whipping boy, Pyotr Romanov.

The piece which caught my eye (and my ire) is titled  ‘Russia Won’t Be Rushed by the West’. Such writing is really indicative of a tendency I (unfortunately) encountered quite often in Russia — the ability to condescendingly talk about your supposed backwardness; to arrogantly dismiss assumed arrogance; to use relativism as a whip to sanctimoniously lash out against judgment.

It’s why I keep returning to the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in Russian society. It takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics to argue that a simmering latent inferiority complex is a manifestation of superiority, just as it takes a lot of prevaricating to say that the hallmark of Russia’s civilizational and spiritual superiority is a populace which, for some reason, is incapable of governing itself.

As for Romanov, if one had an interest in understanding how the Russian propaganda machine’s 4D tactic of rebuttal works, he would be a good place to start. Dismissal, distraction, distortion and dismay —most anything he writes is a semantic attempt to draw and quarter a straw man (if not a scarecrow.)

That'll show Obama!!!

That’ll show Obama!!!

And when it comes to Russia’s “special path”, it seems like the Russian people are destined to take a backseat and let the hand of fate steer them. Or, as Romanov puts it: “Russia will ripen when it ripens,” Russia has just one healer and helper — time.”

This special pleading is fatalistic to the core. It is the essence of Russian Avos (the concept, not my blog!), and it is also a deeply, deeply flawed proposition.

Why? Because there is no guarantee that Russia will ripen at all. Maybe it will rot and disintegrate; maybe it will be the mulch from which a new civilization arises. The world, after all, is littered with the graves of once-great (and not-so-great) civilizations.

The problems is, when viewed in an ad hoc way, history can seem inevitable and progressive. Of the seemingly infinite variables at hand, there is a tendency to weave a web of meaning around those events which did transpire, as if there could have never been another way. And while there does appear to be an overall arc of development spanning the roughly 200,000 years of human existence, nothing should be taken as inevitable.

Although some steps in our historical timeline do necessitate the emergence of others (the industrial age certainly precipitated the information age), other steps were wholly unnecessary social and political constructs which led to needless centuries of stagnation. The bronze age most certainly begot the iron age, for example, but Europe’s 600 year feudal holding pattern was neither necessary or beneficial. That it was did not mean it ever had to be.

Ultimately, Romanov on the surface is right in arguing that a country’s unique history should always be taken into account when analyzing its current political order. That Moscow would take prominence over (and eventually subsume) the proto-democratic Novgorod Republic due to the former’s collaboration with the Mongols (among other factors) should not be overlooked in understanding Russia’s centuries-long dance with despotism.

But it also demonstrates that the absolutist, statist, expansionist and militarist aspects in contemporary Russia were not inevitable facets of Russian reality. If Novgorod proves anything, there was nothing intrinsically despotic about the “Russian soul” at all. That Russia was a victim of circumstances in the past does not mean it should forever be bound to them, though some, for various reasons, would disagree.

I think you should always be wary of system apologists who promise for tomorrow what they (or their patrons) are doing nothing to build today. Often, they are tearing down the very scaffolding which they claim they will climb in due time. It’s just an intellectual shell game to deflect criticsm from a regime which is selling out its own people while claiming their interest is one and the same.

That Venice, which, in the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, went from “economic powerhouse to museum”, proves that the elite, in a bid to maintain their privilege, can strangle the polity, sometimes irreparably.


As Romanov himself said, this isn’t rocket science.

Despite my somewhat discursive analysis, you don’t have to dealve into dialectics or history to answer a few simple questions.

Over the past 15 years, has Putin’s administration worked to make a more or less inclusive political system? Have the instances when Moscow cracked down on democratic rights been warranted or necessray in light of any genuine existential threat? Has Putin used his 15 years in power to diversify the economy to the point where it is no longer exposed by the externalities impicit in any resource-cursed economy?

Speaking of rockets, that the same country which helped put the first man in space over half a century ago struggles to put a sensor on a rocket rightside up is telling. One Rocket crash may be a mistake. Fifteen in five years is systemic.

One only need to look at the swift pardoning of Evgeniya Vasilyeva, a former defense official who stole millions from the military, to see the signal being relayed from the government.

 (Adding insult to injury, Vasilyeva managed to weaponize the money she stole.)

Is it a coincidence that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was found to have committed $1.8 billion in financial violations in 2014 alone? Is it a coincidence that rockets are falling from the sky when such a vital agency can bleed nearly $2 billion in one year?

None of this is occurring in isolation. It starts at Putin’s one billion dollar Black Sea palace and ends with the postal worker stealing your mail. This is the house that Putin has build. And now some apologists are telling you to wait for it to come crashing down on your head rather thank pick up a hammer and fix the damned thing. Madness, utter madness.

As that old proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Rather than plant treets, Putin is busy burning saplings for a patriotic orgy. He is robbing Russia of its future to give people a false sense of greatness today.

And frankly speaking, there is nothing unique about that path at all. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

In Putin’s Russia, burning bread is now the circus

William Echols

Fearful of its own populace and systemically incapable of shoring up Russia’s deepening economic woes, the Kremlin has resorted to burning the bread of appeasement just to keep the circus going.

In a country where absurdity is deeply woven into the fabric of political discourse, this has been a week which gave pause to even the most jaded of Russia watchers. Two images, one of a presidential spokesman wearing a $620K watch at a wedding befitting of a mafia don, the other depicting tons of food being burned amidst deepening poverty, provide the perfect symbol for modern-day Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin's Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin’s Russia.

There once was a time when Russia’s elite had their cake and the rest were content to live off of the crumbs. Now the masses are forced to watch them burn those crumbs for the sake of political theater. As Ilya Gaffner, a regional lawmaker from the ruling party United Russia said earlier this year, if you don’t have enough money for food, “eat less.”  

Now one might add, “if you don’t have enough food, burn more.” But sacrifice is clearly a one way street in Putin’s Russia. Cut off your nose to spite your face, yes, but only if you are one of the 99 percent. The government’s priorities are clear. Protect the wealth of the elite, keep key industries (many of which provide the source of elicit gains) afloat at all costs, and ramp up military spending amidst an ongoing clandestine war in Ukraine.

The proposed so-called Rotenberg Law, which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses, was the first indicator of where Moscow’s priorities lay. And speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek, Dmitry Polevoy, chief Russia economist at ING Bank Eurasia in Moscow, recently speculated that Russia will divert funds from a $75 billion dollar wealth fund —intended to shore up Russia’s pension system —to provide corporate aid in the (increasingly likely) event that a separate $73 billion sovereign wealth fund is depleted.

It wouldn’t be the first time Putin sold out society’s most vulnerable for the sake of his revanchist policies. Last year, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov admitted that Russia was funding the annexation of Crimea with $7.2 billion siphoned off from the state pension fund. No worries, Russians are a robust people, right? Granny will sell dog hair socks or sing you a tune outside the rail station to make ends meet. Or not. st.petersburg_accordian_-29 For while the government was gleefully televising images of a seven ton mound of suspected EU-cheese being burned, earlier in the week, deplorable conditions in a prison masquerading as an old folks home left one pensioner dead and 18 hospitalized. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 4.24.33 PM And it will only get worse. In a country that calculates the poverty line at 10,400 rubles a month (just over $160 after the Russian currency took a huge hit this week), 22.9 million people are now living below that ridiculously low benchmark. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 5.18.13 PM Across the board cuts will continue to hit almost every sector of the economy. Reductions in healthcare spending are already believed to have caused thousands of extra deaths throughout Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported. A hike in household utility costs pushed inflation up to 15.6 percent in July. Annual food price inflation is over 20 percent. Capital flight is expected to exceed $100 billion for 2015.

Russia’s GDP is set to contract 3.25% this year. And while revenues from oil and gas comprise half the federal budget, oil prices are near a six-year low. Things are bad, and about to get worse. And yet they are burning food. Not only burning it, but investing in 6 million ruble mobile crematoriums to keep the circus of pain on the road.

Much like scholastic arguments about the nature of God and evil, Putin is either unable or unwilling to diversify the country’s economy, stamp out corruption and give civil society a chance to develop. But while much of the world might have a less than positive view of Putin’s leadership, his sky-high popularity rate reflects the parallel reality that most Russians, suffering from a form of national Stockholm Syndrome, appear to inhabit. Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 7.49.23 PM As I As I wrote previously, this can by and large be explained both by Russia’s inherit cynicism, and the nationwide phenomenon of “ressentiment”, which can be can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills.  How long the Kremlin can keep up this shell game of misdirected blame is anyone’s guess.

In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Augustus instituted a system whereby grain handouts and caps on food prices, coupled with free entertainment, were employed to keep the plebeians in place. The satirical writer Juvenal turned his ire on commoners for selling out their freedom and civil responsibilities for bread and circuses.

Russia, with its long tradition of absurdism and maximalism, have even turned that old maxim on its head. For while the elites’ bellies will continue to be full and their children will continue to dine across Europe on Russia’s stolen wealth, the common man is now expected to be content with the spectacle of his own plate burning.

Who ever imagined that the bread would become the circus? Only in Russia…

'Burn it all.'

‘Burn it all.’

Russia’s Pyrrhic victory in Chechnya 

William Echols

The increasingly brazen behavior of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov shows that modern Russia’s two-decade long struggle to pacify the restive southern republic may eventually leave Moscow with ashes in its mouth.

Two brutal wars. Tens of thousands dead. An entire generation ravaged by violence. Cities decimated and then rebuilt with billions of federal dollars. Billions more pour in to pacify a brutal warlord ruling with impunity. A perilous rise in religious fundamentalism. A hotbed of terror forever on its southern flank. A ticking time bomb. This is modern day Chechnya under the thumb of Ramzan Kadyrov.


Russian President Vladimir Putin has often been described as a great tactician but a less adept strategist. He knows how to act ruthlessly, decisively to obtain short-term goals. He is expert at winning battles. He is at a loss for winning wars. Perhaps, one day, Chechnya will come to embody this reality.

Russians have never much liked Chechens, whom even members of the middle class will openly describe with derision.The great 19th poet Mikhail Lermontov would popularize the myth of the “zloi Chechen” —the evil, unrelenting savage who will fight tooth and nail, even in the face of total annihilation. It’s an image in a land-based empire with amnesia regarding its own roots that holds true today. Myths of the “zloi Chechen” were said to have a powerful psychological effect on Russian troops during the first Chechen War.

The Chechen Tomb

Lermontov would also popularize the small tributary Valerik as the River of Death — a place of slaughter — based on his own battles in the region. It was a name that predated the Russians, it is a name that may outlive their hold over the republic. Afghanistan need not be the only graveyard of empires.

No, in one of those strange ironies of fate, the desire to hold onto 6,700 square miles of hostile real estate could one day prove the death nail for the remaining 17 million-plus. And yet, Russia will likely never let it go willingly, though many would rather say good riddance.

In fact, a July 2013 poll showed that 24 percent of Russians would be glad if Chechnya left the Russian Federation. Another 27 percent said they wouldn’t care. The 23 percent who said it should remain within the Russian Federation were unlikely doing so out of some form of shared history, values, mutual respect, or affinity. Rather, it was likely a perennial expression of Russian chauvinism and 19th century geopolitical thinking that treats the world like a chess board; bigger is always better, we must shore up our southern flank, no matter the cost.

And since the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, the true cost of keeping Chechnya in the fold appears be quite high. The term “stop feeding the Caucasus”, in response to the disproportionate amount of government subsidies to the region, has long been popular with Russian nationalists, and not just. That Russia would destroy Chechnya only to pump billions of rubles into it each year while many Russian regions fall by the wayside is a sin for many. That they would do so while a man who once boasted of killing his first Russian at the age of 16 (and who was also allegedly filmed in the beheading of others) would one day become a “hero of Russia”, that smacked of travesty. Moscow always projected strength in a country pathologically obsessed with strength. One man , however, could make it look weak, its authority uncertain.

And last week, that man, Ramzan Kdyroz, enraged that police from the neighboring Stavropol region fatally shot a man in the Chechen capital, ordered his security forces to “shoot to kill” Russian cops or feds who appear on Chechen territory without their “knowledge.”


That sounds like the leader of his own country, not the head of a regional republic. Yes, in a country where a cashier at a grocery store can be charged with inciting ethnic hatred for posting documentaries about Ukraine on social media (or sentence a 22-year-old man to 2 years in prison for that matter), the head of a republic can call for the assassination of police and investigators without consequence. This is a textbook definition of what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson called in their seminal work, ‘Why Nations Fail’, “rule of law vs. rule by law.”

There have been efforts within the Russian establishment to “bring Chechnya” back into the fold, and by extension, pull Russia back from the precipice of legal nihilism. Speculation abounds that Federal Investigative Head (SKR) Aleksander Batryskin’s decision to take the investigation into the April 19th shooting under his control is a sign that the Kremlin (or at least powerful forces on its flank) are not so secretly trying to hem Kadyrov in.

Genuflecting to his suzerain, Kadyrov said he would step down from his post if ordered, perhaps with a smirk. Many experts, after all, say there is no alternative.

All the while, Putin has been left navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of chaos in Chechnya vs. a rogue feudal lord ruling with a massive private army numbering in the tens of thousands (and a cut above the average Russian conscript). As is so often the case in Russia,  a false sense of security wins the day. But the 38-year-old Kadyrov might very well be eyeing more than just the day, but history.


There have long been rumblings of a Muslim-majority rising within the Russian federation over the coming decades, both Western and domestic.

Mark Adomanis, writing for Forbes, takes a far more measured approach to such claims, saying that while the relative growth of Russia’s muslim population will have “political, economic and social consequences,” it is overall analogous to similar growth trends throughout Europe.

Not that Russia’s growing Islamic population, however you cut it and at whatever clip, is in and of itself a problem. The issue is that many Muslim majority regions, including Chechnya, are not fundamentally integrated into broader Russian society. Add into that soaring rates of poverty, corruption, crime, religious fundamentalism and at times borderline anarchy, and a societal recipe for disaster is in the works.

In this context, Kadyrov has jockeyed to make himself the preeminent leader of Russia’s Muslim world, and perhaps one day, the gatherer of Russia’s Muslim lands.

For Putin, Kadyrov is always effusive in his praise, though he appears to being watching shrewdly as the Russian President exaggerates external threats and turns his attention outwards. Kadyrov from the get go offered to send his troops there (and despite his future denials, he allegedly has done just that.)


The eventual blowback from the Kremlin’s silent war in Ukraine and other geopolitical meddling, after all, will all play into Kadyrov’s hands. It is one thing to have de facto control over Chechnya. It is another for Moscow to be so overextended it could not bring Chechnya back, even if it wanted to.

It is in this context that Kadyrov made such a large show of Stavropol police operating on his turf. All the while, he has regularly dispatched his security forces into neighboring Ingushetia, at times sparking clashes.

Sensing that Russian officials were potentially using local Ingush forces as a buffer to contain Kadyrov’s ambitions, in February he suggested deploying Chechen security forces to crush “terrorism and extremism,” be it in “Moscow or other regions of the country.”

It all plays into his growing image as a Muslim analogue to Putin —a strong man and defender of “tradition.” Publicly, he expresses support for honor killings and “virtue campaigns” for women. He would also offer thinly veiled threats of violence if the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were ever to be published in Russia, and even used those cartoons as a flimsy pretext behind Nemtsov’s assassination.

Mosque building, schools for hafizes (Muslims who know the entire Qur’an by heart), a clinic for Islamic medicine — all projects spearheaded by Kadyrov as part of his PR campaign to assume the Islamist throne.

But despite these outward displays of piety, he  apparently lives the life of the cookie cutter developing world despot. Gold-plated guns, a race horse stable costing over $367,000 to maintain annually, his own private zoo, a million dollar watch, a fleet of luxury cars (including one of 21 Lamborghini Reventons to ever be produced), and a string of celebrities ready to join his garish birthday celebrations (in exchange for up to half a million dollars) — there is no excess the Russian taxpayer doesn’t pay for on his behalf.  On that score, he may have much in common with his mentor.


A disillusioned Chechen commander, Molvadi Baisrov, once described Kadyrov as a medieval tyrant who “can take any woman and do whatever he pleases with her” in the style of former Soviet Security chief Lavrentiy Beria. Kadyrov is, in Baisrov’s words, a man who acts with a sense of impunity, as if he was a “law unto himself.” Baisrov, incidentally, was killed by members of Kadyrov’s security forces a couple hundred meters from the Kremlin in 2006.  Apparently Putin believed Kadyrov’s actions were an “internal affair,” even if they happened in the heart of the Russian capital.

People who have a falling out with Kadyrov tend to end up dead, extrajudicially, and even outside of Russia. Take Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the former a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the later the commander of the Vostok battalion (which rivaled his own ‘Kadyrovtsy’.) Ruslan was killed on the streets of Moscow in September 2008, while Yamid was later assassinated in Dubai in March 2009.

And just like in the deaths of Baisrov and Russian Yamadayev, Kadyrov’s men appear to have carte blanche to operate on the streets of Moscow.

On February 3, for example, 30 armed Chechens stormed an office complex in Eastern Moscow. Eleven of the men were arrested, but mysteriously released the following day.

In a country where twerking by a World War 2 monument can get you two weeks in prison, or where an environmental activist can receive a 3-year sentence for spray painting a fence, paramilitary forces can act with impunity in the nations capital if they have Ramzan’s blessing.

But if you attempt to make a film about Kadyrov’s influence on modern day Russia, you just mind find armed men raiding your offices as well.

Once again, rule of law vs. rule by law; an old Russian tale.

But with the murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, members of Russia’s security services, allegedly unhappy with Kadyrov’s influence (many would have served in Chechnya during the wars), seemed to target him. Almost immediately, Zaur Dadayev, the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov, was arrested in Nemtsov’s killing.


On the day Dadayev was officially charged with murder, Kadyrov would describe him as a “true patriot of Russia.”  The Chechen leader would also laud another suspect who blew himself up with a grenade when police attempted to arrest him at his home in Grozny. While 5 suspects would be arrested in total, (a reality Kadyrov was not at all happy about), another key witness, Ruslan Geremeyev has been hiding safely in Chechnya all of this time. It’s as if Russia doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Chechnya; it’s as if Moscow would need one.

In telling sign of where the prevailing winds were blowing, on March 9—less than 24 hours after Kadyrov praised Dadayev — Putin awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, one of Russia’s highest decorations. It’s the 12th such state honor Kadyrov has managed to rack up.  Kadyrov reaffirmed his oath of loyalty to Putin the following day, expressing his willingness to die for the Russian leader. By that point, Putin had disappeared from pubic view, sparking a litany of conspiracy theories along the way. When he reemerged on March 16, one such theory seemed to hold water; whatever rumblings among the Russian security services, Putin had thrown in his lot with Kadyrov, perhaps until the bitter end.

“Putin appeared, alive and with legitimacy, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn’t a contract hit,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on his Facebook page at the time.

“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB, or surrender the FSB to Kadyrov. It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice, so he laid low like Stalin in June 1941, in order to think and let the smoke clear,” he continued.

“Lay low, and choose. [And he] chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”


For now, as Caucasian Knot editor-in-chief Gregory Shvedov recently told Newsweek, Putin “single-handedly” controls Kadyrov, which is, in a sense, kind of like saying the right hand controls the left, or that the ego controls the id.

But, with economic instability, a cauldron of ethnic tensions bubbling under the surface of Russian society, and attempts to channel violent Russian nationalism into Eastern Ukraine without it spilling over into broader society, it remains unclear, in Shevdov’s words, “for how long Putin would be capable of controlling the institutions behind the most influential leader in North Caucasus,” or the well-oiled fighting force under his control.

In a way, Putin’s fate is intricately tied up with Kadyrov. His presidency was built on war in the republic, and Kadyrov has become his lynchpin of legitimacy in the region.

Recently writing for The Interpreter, Paul Goble asked whether Putin was about to start a third war in Chechnya to escape the Ukrainian “impasse.”

Even to entertain such a scenario and its relatively best possible outcomes is reminiscent of the 3rd century Greek King Pyrrhus during the eponymously named Pyrrhic War: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

But to look at the rise of Kadyrov following the Second Chechen War and what modern day Chechnya says about the Russian Federation today, a third conflict in the region might not even be necessary to bring about “ruin.” Through the arch of history, as Russia creeps towards what some alarmists have characterized as impending “implosion,” historians may one day look back on the Second Chechen War, the rise of Putin, and a conflict in Ukraine intended to “gather Russian lands” as the moment not when Russia finally rose from its “knees,” but when 500 years of empire truly began to unravel. For now, under a clear, blue sky, Kadyrov stands on the banks of the Valerik, biding his time.

For him, the question was never “why” we fight. For him, the question has, and always will be, when.

What Putin wants: A response 

William Echols

Mark Galeotti’s recent assessment of what Putin wants and the pitfalls of inferring motivation from past behavior goes a long way to lying out the binary thinking that can come to grip all Russia watchers. Is Putin a classic kelptocrat more concerned about the moneybag in his left hand, or a moral crusader with a stronger grip on the cross-tipped scepter in his right?

In ‘Kleptocrat or crusader? It’s time to figure out what Putin wants’, Galeotti focuses on claims made by Karen Dawisha, who argues that corruption is not a byproduct of Putin’s power vertical, rather, corruption and all of its spoils were, all along, Putin’s primary objective.

Vladimir Putin, doors

Galeotti in turn, argues that to pigeonhole Putin as a kleptocrat seeking material gain, rather than a rational leader who is the standard bearer for a cause, is to fundamentally misunderstand what motivates the Russian leader to act.

Between those two poles, kleptocrat or crusader, it is not difficult to imagine how Putin would frame his own actions, both publicly and personally.

But just as psychologists differentiate between the ‘I’ (how we see ourselves) and the ‘me’ (how others see us), I think what Putin himself believes about his own motives may belie what prompts him to act.

For years, countless accusations have surrounded Putin, accusations which paint him as a deeply vain man who allegedly gets botox despite his carefully crafted tough guy image, boosts a watch collection worth six times his annual salary, and reportedly built a multi-billion dollar drug lord-esque  palace on the Black Sea.

He even allegedly stole a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and reportedly had his guards snatch a tacky glass replica of a Kalashnikov automatic weapon from the Guggenheim.

Masha Gessen has gone as far as to say he suffers from pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”

In this light, his carefully crafted identity as “an honest and incorruptible civil servant” is intended to mask and perhaps compensate for his compulsion.

During his time as a KGB agent in Dresden, German intelligence even characterized Putin as a “philanderer and a wife beater.”

Such accusations and armchair psychological evaluations are par for the course in a regime as secretive as Putin’s. But even he, growing up on the rough, post-war streets of Saint Petersburg, stressed in his official biography that he was more of “bully” than a “Pioneer.” 


The question is, did this rebel find a cause, or is the cause, as Gessen’s interpretation would posit, merely a cover for the deeper compulsion?

A loyalist paramilitary in Northern Ireland, after all, can claim (and even believe) he joined the UDA for the sake of protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. But what he loves, and what actually drives him (perhaps subconsciously) is the power, the violence, and the illicit gains brought in through crime. Without the paramilitary identity, the mysticism of the history and the purpose, he is, in fact, a thug. There is a powerful psychological benefit in being able to reconceptualize crime through the prism of a cause. That is true for a street kid in Sandy Row turned paramilitary; that is true for a street kid from Saint Petersburg who became president. But make no mistake, even without the veneer of legitimacy given by a political cause, a certain type of person would embark on that path no matter what. In popular fiction, the transformation of Walter White in the series Breaking Bad was a character study in that very form of criminal archetype.

So is Putin cut from the same cloth of Walter White — was he simply built for crime?

Of course, no one knows what Putin privately believes regarding his goals, and what motivates him to act, nor can motive simply be derived by actions and outcomes.

One only need to look at the two events that most shaped Russia’s global perception in 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to understand that Putin the crusader and Putin the crook narratives both gel irregardless of the datum.

Regarding the former, the widely reported (but never verified) price tag of $50 billion for the Games inspired countless ‘what if’ scenarios regarding how that money could have been put to better use (education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.)

Critics will contend that the exorbitant price tag on a prestige project in a country where living conditions outside of Moscow can be quite dire is a perfect sign that the national treasury is a piggybank of Putin’s inner circle (notwithstanding the fact that billions did come from private investors, even if billions more were allegedly stolen from the government coffers).

Others will claim that Russia, which has never confronted and processed its loss of imperial status, is the kind of place where some people would rather drive on pockmarked roads and watch their orphanages crumble if it means the world will turn its attention to them, if only for a moment.


It might sound like madness, though it’s a madness we can all understand. It is, on a national level, the phenomenon of a slum kid in South Asia buying a Western-style B-Boy jersey at the expense of going hungry for week, or Kazakh families bankrupting themselves buying animals to be slaughtered for ostentatious funeral ceremonies.

People make choices like that all of the time. What we call rational is based on a messy nexus of need, culture, obsession, and myriad other qualities one would be hard pressed to unravel. Putin, for the vertiginous heights he has scaled as a historical figure, comes from the same inauspicious circumstances as his countrymen. That is one reality that is often lost on the West; Russians, with few exceptions, lived out parallel experiences during Soviet times. It is one of the few places on earth where society’s upper-crust and dregs have many intersecting and shared experiences (as much as many of them would hide it today.)

The pain of Soviet life was in part compensated for the greatness of being a world power. That pride is gone, and unlikely to return.

One could argue that for Putin, Sochi was perhaps about the infrastructure of the heart, if not the country. For a brief window of time, the resentment of millions could be overcome via the proxy of sports. The anger that that proxy was quickly soiled by events in Ukraine should not be underestimated.


The point being, when it comes to the Games, the kleptocrat and crusader interpretations both fall into what  W. Joseph Campbell called “the cusp of plausibility.” The motive cannot be easily inferred from outcome, and the primary actor (Putin) might not know himself, even if he thinks he does.

The second such example is Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. For Galeotti, the cost of Russia’s secret invasion of its neighbor demonstrates how this conflict is being motivated more by ideological concerns than financial ones.

“In Ukraine, the neat seizure of Crimea brought domestic legitimacy at the cost of the first sanctions; the subsequent intrusion into southeastern Ukraine has mired Russia in a politically- and fiscally-expensive conflict,” he wrote.


This is arguably true within a short-term context, but intervention in Ukraine can also be seen as absolutely necessary in maintaining the longterm viability of Russia existing as a kleptocracy (and a quasi-empire.)

In Russia, Moscow has often been described as the ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east en masse, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union was arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. If billions of dollars flow into Moscow illicitly (last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of  leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck), well, that is just icing on the cake.


But while Russia does offer a market for goods from former satellites (and subsidized gas), allegiance almost guarantees institutional breakdown, corruption and decay. And, as global capitalists, those expanded markets come without any social responsibility from Moscow’s side. For those saying Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union, in a sense, the inverse of that is true, at least as far as capital is concerned. In the Soviet Union, the goal was to reward the ideologically faithful, to make tangible the benefits of socialism.

Now, there is nothing to believe. Moscow’s goal, arguably, is not to subsidize, but to siphon.

The majority of Ukrainians believed in this interpretation and wanted to break from Moscow’s orbit. It has often been said that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be an empire. But in truth, Russia cannot be a kleptocracy with an institutionally sound, euro-centric Ukraine  on its southern flank. What’s a few billion dollars for a shadow war when you are trying to keep an entire region under your thumb? That it would contribute to stellar popularity ratings at home for a population which has been made pathologically resentful certainly does not hurt.

So once again, when it comes to “the cusp of plausibility”, confirmation bias can lead you in either direction. It’s all a matter of how one looks at the same phenomena.

All of this is useful as an intellectual exercise, but formulating a policy in regards to Russia ultimately entails divining Putin’s motives. But what about Galeotti’s assertion that “the palaces and the yachts are side-effects, rather than end goals” in Putin’s Russia? Is the West really misguided to follow the money, rather than the rhetoric?

It is arguable that Putin would be playing a drastically different game in Ukraine if if ideology trumped finance. After the relentless Russian state media onslaught regarding a “fascist” takeover and anti-Russian pogroms, that Moscow has not openly intervened in Eastern Ukraine to save their “brothers” seems counterintuitive. Putin, after all, claimed he had considered the nuclear option just to protect his compatriots in Crimea, adding that they were ready to “take [former President] Yanukovich out of Ukraine by sea, land, and air.”

And when Crimea officially “joined” Russia on March 18, 2014, Putin gave a speech in which he declared his right to defend all citizens of the “Russian world.”

But if Putin really believed in a cause, and was willing to suffer greater Western sanctions for the greater benefit of that “Russian world,” there is a strong case he would have openly intervened in Ukraine and have long since built a land bridge between Donetsk and Crimea. The move would have been widely popular domestically, and for a leader who is rhetorically committed to “gathering Russian lands”, in line with his crusade.

In fact, reports even surfaced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Putin to take the Donbass off of his hands, to which Putin reportedly replied: “’Are you out of your mind? I don’t need the Donbass. If you don’t need it, declare it independent.’”


Notwithstanding the likelihood that Poroshenko ever said such a thing, the “leak” implies that Moscow wants the world to believe he said it, and that Putin considered the idea to be madness.

In truth, there are two primary reasons why Putin wouldn’t “take” Donbass off of Poroshenko’s hands. One, incorporating the regions into the Russian Federation would be costly. Secondly, Western sanctions would be deeply ratcheted up. That such financial concerns would supersede the needs of what Putin called “a unique sociocultural civilizational community” seem at odds with a leader on a moral mission.

In truth, Putin’s Soviet roots and composition of his actual inner circle point more towards a man who is comfortable using the language of nationalism, but ultimately does not believe in it. His cause might be that of lost Soviet power (not socialist ideology), but like all Soviet’s who suffered the privations of the times, that power should be balanced with access to luxury goods and the freedom to park your money and your children abroad (Putin’s own daughter only recently fled her luxurious home in the Netherlands.)

If one wants to understand a man cut from Putin’s own cloth, there is no need to look back at historical figures like Pyotr Stolypin or Ivan the Great, when a far more viable analogue is available: Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

A  ‘sovok’ or Soviet man to the core and  a ‘leader for life’ who speaks about the scourge of corruption while allegedly stealing billions and bringing state enterprises under family control, Nazarbayev was an avowed atheist who flirts with religiosity to placate the nationalist sentiments of the Kazakh Muslim majority he is a member of. But Nazarbayez has something that Putin will never have: a country rich enough to plunder but just weak enough for the West to ignore on all fronts but business.

One only needs to look at the true message of RT and the disparate political parties Russia funds abroad to understand, above all, the one thing that Putin has always wanted. Everything is bad, everyone is corrupt, there is nothing left to believe in anymore, so lets stop with these political games and just do business. If the West, one day, learned to really do business Russian-style, lofty rhetoric about the decedent West and the “Russian world” would quickly be a thing of the past.

But to his great consternation, the West, as far, as Russia is concerned, refuses to turn that blind eye. Nazarbayev, who sits at the head of the Switzerland of Central Asia, with Russia, America and China all vying for influence, has been given the green light for graft and human rights violations. Just don’t rock your boat too far to one side or the other.

As a national leader, Putin’s cause is likely the same as Nazarbayev’s cause, but barring the luxury geopolitics affords his Kazakh counterpart, Putin has been forced to assume another mantle all together. But it is unlikely the one he really wants.