many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)
As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.
.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.
.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.
What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.
When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”
When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction:
- he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine;
- he has failed to support nato; and
- he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total.
At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.
At first glance, the Georgian war ten years ago this month and the global financial crisis that erupted the following month seem unrelated. But this is to neglect the deeper currents driving the confrontation in the Caucasus.
The absorption of post-communist Europe into the West was not simply a matter of velvet revolutions. What Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, called “new Europe” – the post-communist NATO allies and European Union members – depended on hundreds of billions of dollars in investment. The loans came from the same European banks that helped fuel the US real-estate boom and inflate the even bigger housing bubbles in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain. The most extreme real-estate inflation in the world between 2005 and 2007 was on NATO’s Eastern frontier in the Baltics.
.. But it was not only the Soviet Union’s former satellites that benefited from the debt-fueled global boom. The authority and power of Putin’s regime, too, was (largely) a function of globalization – specifically, the huge surge in oil prices. In 2008, it seemed that Russia’s state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, benefiting from unprecedented growth in emerging-markets demand, led by China, might soon become the world’s largest corporation.
.. The EU insists on the innocence of its model of integration. The goal is peace, stability, and the rule of law, not geopolitical advantage, its senior representatives guilelessly maintain. Whether or not they truly believe it, the EU’s new post-communist members saw it differently. For them, NATO and EU membership were part of an anti-Russian package, just as they had been for West European countries in the 1950s.
.. Although Ukraine, too, applied for NATO membership in 2008, it did not provoke Russian intervention. But the war in Georgia split the Ukrainian political class three ways, between those who favored alignment with the West, those who favored Russia, and those who preferred a policy of balance. These tensions were further exacerbated by the impact of the financial crisis.
No part of the world economy was hit harder by that crisis than the former Soviet sphere. When global lending imploded, the most fragile borrowers were cut off first. Followed closely by a collapse in commodity prices, it dealt a devastating shock to the “transition economies.”
.. As one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters, Russia was one of the worst affected. But after the humiliation of the financial crises of the late 1990s, Putin had seen to it that Russia was armed with substantial dollar reserves – the third largest after China and Japan. Reserves of $600 billion enabled Russia to ride out the storm of 2008 without external help.
The same was not true of its former satellites. Their currencies plunged. Interest rates soared. Inflows of foreign capital stopped. Some found themselves turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help.
In fact, the impact of the 2008 crisis split Central and Eastern Europe. The political leadership of the Baltic states toughed it out, accepting savage austerity to continue on their path toward euro membership. In Hungary, the governing parties were discredited, opening the door to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime.
.. But no country in the region was strategically more important, more fragile politically, or worse hit economically than Ukraine. In a matter of weeks, Ukraine was dealt a devastating one-two punch by the war in Georgia and the financial crisis. This opened the door to the successful presidential candidacy of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in 2010
and set in train desperate financial negotiations with the IMF, the EU, and Russia, culminating in the crisis of 2013. Given current talk of trade wars, it bears recalling that it was an argument over Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU that led to Yanukovych’s overthrow and an undeclared war with Russia.
.. The events of August and September 2008 taught two painful and deeply disconcerting lessons. First, capitalism is prone to disasters. Second, global growth did not necessarily strengthen the unipolar order. Truly comprehensive global growth breeds multipolarity, which, in the absence of an overarching diplomatic and geopolitical settlement, is a recipe for conflict.
Today all eyes are on Asia, the rise of China, and its growing influence across Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America. But Putin’s Russia continues to be a spoiler. So we should not forget the Georgian crisis of August 2008, when it first became obvious how dangerous the new global economic dispensation might become.
When one of the defense lawyers tried to suggest to Mr. Manafort’s tax accountant Monday that Mr. Gates had kept Mr. Manafort in the dark about his own finances, the accountant, Cynthia Laporta, pushed back.
“In most instances, it was clear that Mr. Manafort was aware what was going on,” she testified.
Mr. Gates’s statements reinforced that picture. He said that Mr. Manafort knew it was illegal not to report his foreign bank accounts to the Treasury Department but asked Mr. Gates to help him deceive his accountants so he could conceal income and pay less in taxes.
“I assisted Mr. Manafort in filing false tax returns,” Mr. Gates testified. “We didn’t report the income or the fact that the accounts existed.”
.. He said that some of Mr. Manafort’s income was disguised as loans from 15 shell companies that Mr. Manafort controlled, most of them in Cyprus... Once that income dried up, the government alleges, Mr. Manafort, with Mr. Gates’s help, falsified financial records so he could obtain bank loans to maintain his opulent lifestyle... Gates testified that Mr. Manafort also was paid $4 million a year to help Mr. Yanukovych govern after he was elected president in 2010... while Mr. Yanukovych ran on a platform of integrating with the European Union, while also maintaining good relations with Russia, he eventually pivoted toward Moscow.. Mr. Gates also said that two American lobbying firms — the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs — assisted with their policy consulting efforts. Mr. Mueller’s team has referred cases related to the firms’ work to federal investigators in the Southern District of New York... Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to help arrange inauguration tickets and administration posts — including secretary of the Army — for a banker from whom Mr. Manafort is accused of fraudulently seeking loans, Mr. Gates testified.
.. Emails presented during Mr. Manafort’s trial showed that he sought the favors for Stephen M. Calk, the founder and chief executive of The Federal Savings Bank of Chicago. The bank began issuing loans that eventually totaled $16 million to Mr. Manafort in the days after Mr. Trump’s election based on false information provided by Mr. Manafort.
.. Mr. Gates said he was involved in discussions about nominating Mr. Calk to an economic advisory council.
.. Mr. Gates, 46, admitted Monday that he was guilty of a long list of crimes, including stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Manafort’s accounts by inflating his business expenses. He said that while he was helping Mr. Manafort hide income to evade taxes, and later to inflate his income to obtain bank loans, he was doing essentially the same on his own behalf.
.. In exchange for his cooperation, the government in February agreed to dismiss 22 criminal charges stemming from his involvement in the scheme for which Mr. Manafort is now on trial.
.. sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of up to six years, he testified that prosecutors have agreed not to object if his defense attorney argues that he should receive probation.
This week, the Trump administration further eased its pressure on Rusal, Russia’s largest aluminum company, less than four months after sanctions on it and its notorious leader were imposed. Even as the White House seems willing to inflict pain on American farmers and consumers with its trade wars, Russian aluminum workers are apparently worthy of special protection.
.. Rusal is controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. As the Treasury Department acknowledges, he has been investigated for
- money laundering and accused of
- threatening the lives of business rivals,
- illegally wiretapping a government official and
- taking part in extortion and racketeering.
.. There are also allegations, made public by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, that Mr. Deripaska
- bribed a government official,
- ordered the murder of a businessman and
- had links to a Russian organized crime group. During the 2016 presidential campaign,
- Paul Manafort, then Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, tried to offer Mr. Deripaska private briefings about the campaign.
.. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he is considering lifting the sanctions altogether because they are punishing the “hardworking people of Rusal.” But Mr. Mnuchin has it backward. If he was truly concerned about Rusal’s 61,000 employees, he would not relent until the company fully washed its hands of Mr. Deripaska and the corrupt regime the aluminum giant serves.
.. Behind Mr. Deripaska’s estimated fortune of as much as $5.3 billion, there stands a great crime. During the “aluminum wars” of the 1990s, when that economic sector was consolidating in the chaotic privatization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the young metals trader was suspected of ties to gangsters as he seized control of huge Siberian smelters. According to testimony by a gang member in Stuttgart, Germany, part of Mr. Deripaska’s value to the group were his links to Russia’s security services. While his rivals were killed off or fled Russia, Mr. Deripaska somehow emerged as the director general of Rusal, a company that reported revenues last year of nearly $10 billion. But suspicions that the oligarch has had links to organized crime have denied him a visa to enter the United States.
.. they must do its bidding, which in Mr. Deripaska’s case meant spending more than $1 billion, through his holding company, on new infrastructure for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia
Mr. Deripaska has embraced his role, stating that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.
.. Manafort tried to pitch him a plan for an influence campaign to “greatly benefit the Putin government.”
.. “Rusal’s own website says that it supplied military material to the Russian military that was potentially used in Syria.”
.. Mr. Deripaska’s holding company, hired a $108,500-a-month lobbyist to continue to negotiate with the Treasury Department. The firm he chose, Mercury Public Affairs, is the firm Mr. Manafort paid $1.1 million to lobby members of Congress on behalf of Ukraine and its then-president, Viktor Yanukovych
.. Led by David Vitter, a former Republican senator from Louisiana, Mercury has sought to enlist support from ambassadors of France, Germany and Australia, among others.
.. emanding more time to reduce the oligarch’s ownership stake in En+ from 70 percent to below 50 percent. In a July 24 filing with the Justice Department, Mercury outlined a host of calamities that might be unleashed if sanctions aren’t eased
- The global aluminum market might suffer significant disruptions with “severe collateral damage to United States interests, allies”;
- En+ might have to entertain a potential acquisition by “Chinese and/or other potentially hostile interests”; or
- Mr. Deripaska might just hang on to his majority stake.
.. The specter of a fellow traveler with gangsters dictating terms to the United States government is yet another sign of the Trump administration’s inexplicable capitulation to Russia.
.. July 16 summit in Helsinki, at which President Trump and President Putin met privately for more than two hours.
We don’t know what they discussed, but given the stakes on both sides, there’s a good chance that the discussion touched on the subject of the sanctions the United States has imposed on Russia’s biggest aluminum company.