It is fortuitous for Russia that the announcement of its successful bid to stage the World Cup in 2018 has come on the same week that a diplomatic document dump from WikiLeaks has painted a grim picture of the powers that be in the presumptive host nation. With the world’s largest sporting event set to arrive in Russia for the first time, the story of the country’s poisoned political culture is no longer in the headlines.
That story is by no means novel. Yet the WikiLeaks documents, however illicit their provenance, nevertheless shed a valuable light on the scope of Russia’s political ills. In the considered judgment of America’s diplomatic corps, the Russian leadership is indeed as colossally corrupt, thuggish, and authoritarian as the evidence of recent years would suggest. In the form and function of its politics, modern Russia has not managed to sever its Soviet roots.
It does not take ill-gotten diplomatic correspondence to make all this clear, of course. That Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the real powerbroker in Russia while the acting president, Dmitry Medvedev, is merely the figurehead, playing the “Robin to Putin’s Batman,” is hardly news. Nor is it much of a revelation that Eastern European countries who had long suffered under the Soviet yoke, such as Poland, remain wary of the regional threat that Russia poses. And in light of Russia’s repeated penchant for shutting down oil and gas shipments to Ukraine, a major energy pipeline to Europe, it’s not surprising to discover in the WikiLeaks documents that Russia routinely wields the power of its state-owned energy companies for political leverage, meting out favors to friends and punishing wayward enemies.
Still, the sheer scale of Russian corruption is staggering. For instance, a diplomatic U.S. Embassy cable from last February makes a mockery of official Russian claims that the recent ouster of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov was a blow against corruption in city government ranks. The cable points out that “Luzhkov oversees a system in which it appears that almost everyone at every level is involved in some form of corruption or criminal behavior.”
As other documents make clear, this is no exaggeration. Moscow has become a gangland city, governed by Mafia rules. The Interior Ministry and the internal security service, the FSB, are reportedly running extortion rackets to protect businesses from criminal gangs. Bribery is standard practice. Tales of cash-laden suitcases being borne into the Kremlin under armed escort are widespread and plausible. The very distinction between government agencies and criminal enterprises is increasingly academic.
Those at the top of this corruption pyramid have prospered. One interesting piece of speculation from the WikiLeaks cables reveals that Putin, contrary to his austere public image, may have an illicit fortune stashed away under the cover of a Swiss-based oil trading firm called Gunvor.
And yet such is the fundamental lawlessness of the Russian system that it has made it difficult to control even for even for its putative enforcers. In this connection, perhaps the most surprising revelation in the WikiLeaks documents is the report that in 2006, at the height of Putin’s power and in boom economic times, 60 percent of his orders were not being followed. Thus even the most politically powerful man in Russia must take a backseat to the country’s most powerful force: dysfunction.
In making this reality clear, the WikiLeaks documents indirectly underscore the conceptual flaw in the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia. By appeasing Russia’s more aggressive demands for regional hegemony – for instance, by scrapping plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe – and by muting public criticism over the country’s backsliding on democracy, the administration had hoped to achieve a “reset” of the tense relations that marked the end of President Bush’s term in office. Not only has that indulgent approach not borne diplomatic fruit, but it has allowed Russia to regress with little international scrutiny. Whatever the merits of the START nuclear arms treaty currently before Congress, it’s folly to think that its ratification will greatly improve bilateral relations. On far too much, Russia and the U.S. have divergent interests.
Hopes for a new and more enlightened Russian leadership, meanwhile, are likely to remain unfulfilled. Despite hopes that Medvedev could be the reasonable alternative to his predecessor, there is no indication that he has either the will or the power to introduce political reforms. As deputy U.S. ambassador Eric Rubin observes in one leaked cable, “A search for evidence of dissonance between [Medvedev and Putin] is either the forlorn hope of western-leaning liberals … or a legacy of ‘Kremlinology’ that presupposes inter-leadership conflict as the sine qua non of Russian politics.” Even if Putin is officially out of power, the politics that he represents are here to stay.
All of which argues that suspicion should be the basis of any American policy toward its old Cold War foe. Upon hearing that Russia had won its long shot bid to host the World Cup this week, Putin enthused that “this decision shows that Russia is trusted.” That may be so in international soccer. But as the WikiLeaks documents confirm, it should not be the case in international politics.