There is a
fashionable line of thought that has Russia pulling the strings in major
democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. FBI director James Comey recently
confirmed an ongoing investigation into Russian alleged interference in the
2016 U.S. presidential election. Rarely does an election happen in Europe
without journalists and politicians sounding the alarm on fears of Moscow’s
meddling. Bulgaria, France,
and Moldova are
only the most recent cases in point.
As much as the
Kremlin would like everybody to believe that it is able to manipulate political
outcomes all over the world, the claims seem to be exaggerated. In fact,
Russian foreign policy can only produce sure results by means of large-scale
violence. When unaided by bombs, Russian diplomacy often fails.
Arguably, Moscow has achieved
its goals in Ukraine and Syria, but it did use force there. Current discussions
in America and Europe focus on a different kind of power. It is neither hard
(as in Ukraine or Syria) nor soft. In places where it does not resort to force,
Moscow is said to operate through influencing public discussion. Putin, the
story goes, is able to hack his way into the internal dealings of Western
Even if—and it is a
big if—the U.S. President Donald Trump benefited from Russia-sponsored
activities during his campaign, that still does not make him a Kremlin puppet.
To infer that the Russian scare is real, we need to assume that the Kremlin has
the means to enforce some hypothetical agreements it has with Trump.
The classic Our Man in
Havana, Graham Greene’s 1958 novel, is one of the many stories
relating an embarrassing experience of a spy agency trying to control an
operative stationed in a distant country. It is difficult even when the
operative in question is an employee, and Trump, of course, is not.
But let’s look at
ways Putin has chosen to maintain relationships he himself considers important.
One old friend is better than two new ones (старыйдруглучшеновыхдвух), a Russian saying goes. It means that relationships that have survived the test
of time are more trustworthy than recent partnerships. Levels of interpersonal
trust are notoriously low in Russia, and as a result, Russians often rely on
what economic sociologists call “strong ties” to get new jobs or clinch
owners tend to form structures reminiscent of clans rather than networks.
Friends and relatives are often business partners, and partners, in their turn,
quickly become friends.
Putin seems to be an
extremely guarded person even by Russian standards. His preference has always
been for strong, bonding ties. All his trusted lieutenants are either longtime
friends or the people he came to know long before his ascent to the pinnacle of
The opposite is also
true: people who were Putin’s longtime friends often turn out to have become
very rich, at least on paper. His youth judo club comrades are
one famous story; his college buddy is
another. His comrades in
arms, the people who, like Putin, happened to be stationed in
Dresden, Germany, in the late 1970s and 1980s, are an interesting case too, as
is a guy who
lived next door to his summer house in the 1950s. Putin seems
to draw no boundary at all between business partners and friends.
This pattern is well
known to sociologists who study groups, including criminal gangs. When you
cannot enforce your agreements by legal means, you can either use violence or
only choose your partners from your inner circle. Strong bonds provide for ways
of enforcing contracts that have never been committed to paper.