Democracy Lab

How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare

Though some deride Russia for backward thinking, Putin's strategy in Ukraine betrays a nuanced understanding of 21st century geopolitics.

The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the "old ways," trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin's actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the "old ways," while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?

The Kremlin's approach might be called "non-linear war," a term used in a short story written by one of Putin's closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of "managed democracy" that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the "fifth world war."

Surkov writes: "It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all."

This is a world where the old geo-political paradigms no longer hold. As the Kremlin faces down the West, it is indeed gambling that old alliances like the EU and NATO mean less in the 21st century than the new commercial ties it has established with nominally "Western" companies, such as BP, Exxon, Mercedes, and BASF. Meanwhile, many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. So far, the Kremlin's gamble seems to be paying off, with financial considerations helping to curb sanctions. Part of the rationale for fast-tracking Russia's inclusion into the global economy was that interconnection would be a check on aggression. But the Kremlin has figured out that this can be flipped: Interconnection also means that Russia can get away with aggression.

"A few provinces would join one side," Surkov continues, "a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle. Their aims were quite different. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part."

We can see a similar thinking informing the Kremlin as it toys with Eastern Ukraine, using indirect intervention through local gangs, with a thorough understanding of the interests of such local power brokers such as Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraine's richest man) or Mikhail Dobkin, the former head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration and now presidential candidate. Though these local magnates make occasional public pronouncements supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity, their previous support of Yanukovych makes them wary of the new government in Kiev. Just the right degree of separatism could help guarantee their security while ensuring that their vast financial global interests are not harmed. "Think global, act local" is a favorite cliché of corporations -- it could almost be the Kremlin's motto in the Donbass.

And the Kremlin's "non-linear" sensibility is evident as it manipulates Western media and policy discourse. If in the 20th century the Kremlin could only lobby through Soviet sympathizers on the left, it now uses a contradictory kaleidoscope of messages to build alliances with quite different groups. European right-nationalists such as Hungary's Jobbik or France's Front National are seduced by the anti-EU message; the far-left are brought in by tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin's stance against homosexuality. The result is an array of voices, all working away at Western audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support. Influencers often appear in Western media and policy circles without reference to their Kremlin connections: whether it's PR company Ketchum placing pro-Kremlin op-eds in the Huffington Post; anti-Maidan articles by British historian John Laughland in the Spectator that make no mention of how the think tank he was director of was set up in association with Kremlin-allied figures; or media appearances by influential German political consultant Alexander Rahr that fail to note his paid position as an advisor for the German energy company Wintershall, a partner of Gazprom, Moscow's massive natural gas company (Rahr denies a conflict of interest).

Combatting non-linear war requires non-linear measures. International networks of anti-corruption NGOs could help squeeze corrupt flows from Russia. At the moment, this sector is underdeveloped, underfunded, and poorly internationally coordinated: In the U.K., for example, NGOs such as Global Witness or Tax Justice rarely engage with Russian counterparts. Anti-corruption NGOs need to have the backing to put painful pressure on corrupt networks on a daily basis, naming and shaming corrupt networks and pressuring western governments to shut them down and enact their own money laundering laws. This would squeeze the Kremlin's model even in the absence of further sanctions, ultimately playing a role as important as human rights organizations did in the 70s and 80s, when groups like Amnesty and the Helsinki Committee helped change the Cold War by supporting dissidents in the Communist block and shaming their governments.

Meanwhile capacity building is needed for both Ukraine and the West to deal with Kremlin disinformation and to formally track the role of Kremlin-connected influencers. So far, this work is happening ad-hoc as intrepid journalists reveal Kremlin lobbyists and triple-check leaks. To be effective, this work needs to be institutionalized, whether in think tanks or via public broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe, so every sound bite from a Kremlin-funded "expert" is properly contextualized, every Kremlin meme deconstructed, and every British peer on Russian state company boards held accountable for their connections. And this needs to happen in both Western countries and Russia's "near abroad," where the Kremlin projects its non-linear influence through a variety of institutions, from the Orthodox Church, to entertainment television and business groups. Georgia, Moldova, and Latvia are particularly vulnerable, and their security services need to be prepared for the sort of indirect intervention we are seeing in eastern Ukraine.

But aside from such concrete measures, it's also important to appreciate that the Kremlin is throwing down the gauntlet to the Western-inspired vision of globalization, to the kitsch "global village" vision on the covers of World Bank annual reports and in Microsoft advertisements. It is better to understand the Kremlin's view of globalization as a kind of "corporate raiding" -- namely, the ultra-violent, post-Soviet version of corporate takeovers. "Raiding" involves buying a minority share in a company, and then using any means at your disposal (false arrests, mafia threats, kidnapping, disinformation, blackmail) to acquire control. Russian elites sometimes refer to the country as a "minority shareholder in globalization," which, given Russia's experience with capitalism, implies it is the world's great "corporate raider." Non-linear war is the means through which a geo-political raider can leverage his relative weakness. And this vision appeals to a very broad constituency across the world, to those full of resentment for the West and infused by the sense that the "global village" model is a priori rigged. For all the talk of Russia's isolation, the BRIC economies have actually been subdued in their criticism of the annexation of Crimea, with the Kremlin thanking both China and India for being understanding.

Perhaps, despite what Obama says, there is a battle of ideas going on. Not between communism and capitalism, or even conservatives and progressives, but between competing visions of globalization, between the "global village" -- which feels at once nice, naff, and unreal -- and "non-linear war." It is naïve to assume the West will win with this new battle with the same formula it used in the Cold War. Back then, the West united free market economics, popular culture, and democratic politics into one package: Parliaments, investment banks, and pop music fused to defeat the politburo, planned economics, and social realism. But the new Russia (and the new China) has torn that formula apart: Russian popular culture is Westernised, and people drive BMWs, play the stock market, and listen to Taylor Swift all while cheering anti-Western rhetoric and celebrating American downfall.

"The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock," said Surkov when he was one of the first Russian officials to be put on the U.S. sanctions list as "punishment" for Russia's actions in Crimea. "I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

We live in a truly non-linear age. And the future might just belong to the raiders.


Democracy Lab

Despite the Election, India Still Isn't Confronting Corruption

As the Indian election continues, voters are concerned about corruption like never before. But will anything really change?

In the bear pit of India's election, voters seem particularly focused on two issues: economic growth and corruption. But while growth manifests itself in many different ways, some of them hard for the average voter to comprehend, corruption is a tangible and daily reality. Corruption has played an important part in Indian electoral politics in the past. As early as 1977 and 1989, voters selected the winning parties in national elections in part because they pledged to fight corruption. But public concern about corruption in the run-up to this year's election has reached a new high.

The current wave of concern found its first outlet in the 2012 campaign for an anti-corruption body with investigative powers (a Lokpal), which was led by Anna Hazare, a civil rights activist in the Gandhian tradition. His hunger strike in support of the Lokpal led to its adoption by parliament in December 2013, albeit in a diluted form. Meanwhile, over the past year, some key players in India's political and business elite -- the sort of people who normally benefit from a widespread culture of impunity -- have been found guilty on corruption-related charges and imprisoned, including A. Raja (former minister of telecommunications), B.S. Yeddyurappa (former chief minister of Karnataka state), and Jaganmothan Reddy (Congress chairman in Andra Pradesh state).

Even the chairman of the all-powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Narayanaswami Srinivasan, has been implicated in match-fixing scandals. Last month, the Supreme Court required Srinivasan to resign his position. At the same time, under the Right to Information Act of 2005, thousands of applicants have been requesting information on corruption-related issues and pointing fingers at many officials, especially on the state level. (In some cases, those information requests have led to the assassination of those making the applications). At the local level, very successful "right to know" and anti-corruption campaigns -- such as the Public Affairs Center and Janaargha (sponsors of the website "I Paid a Bribe," which has had 2 million hits since it was launched four years ago) in Bangalore -- have raised awareness of citizens' rights to a new level.

After the success achieved with the Lokpal Act, Hazare's closest aid, Arvind Kejiwral, decided that it was essential to channel the energy raised in the Lokpal fight into formal politics. He founded the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won enough support in Delhi state's December 2013 elections to be able to form a minority government. As a result of a constitutional clash with the central government, the AAP resigned from power in January. This year, nonetheless, it is fielding candidates in over 500 of India's 543 lower parliament constituencies. Having eschewed big donors, however, it has experienced major fund raising problems.

In this context, both major parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have stated a new willingness to root out corruption. Rahul Gandhi, effectively the leader of the Congress campaign, spoke out last September against his party's willingness to allow members of parliament with a criminal record to continue in office. But Gandhi has struggled to achieve credibility on this issue, since the coalition government that his party has led since 2004 is saddled with a reputation for corrupt deal-making in real estate, mining, and telecommunications. Even the reputation of upright Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken a hit. Narenda Modi, the BJP's candidate, does not have that particular kind of baggage, though he is thought to be far too close to corporate leaders like the Ambani Brothers (chief shareholders in Reliance Industries, an important player in the energy sector). They have been his key backers during his 12-year tenure as chief minister in Gujurat state, and have allegedly reaped unjustifiable benefits from industrial concessions.

Beyond campaign rhetoric, to what extent are the parties addressing the underlying issues that drive corruption? The Congress Party is remarkably quiet on the subject, simply promising more efficiency in the national food security program. Both the BJP and AAP agree that a serious attack on corruption requires the return of "black money" held overseas, increased use of e-technologies in public distribution systems, a radical reform of the justice system, and further decentralization to the village level. AAP also considers the distribution of "untied" funds (funding that isn't earmarked for specific purposes) to villages essential. AAP's additional major commitment is to launching a new and tougher Lokpal bill, which would end all exemptions of government officials from prosecution. In addition, the party hopes to reform the media (ending the practice of "paid news"), restrict quasi-monopolistic media ownership, and take steps to reform defense procurement, reconfirming the Ministry of Defense's ban on middlemen.

How do these commitments stack up against three of the major sources of corruption: campaign spending, "black money," and public distribution systems?

First, it's worth noting that political parties have made no attempt to curb their spending to meet the legal limits. The Electoral Commission sets strict formal limits of around $110,000 per candidate per constituency. Still, during the last general election in 2009, parties exceeded these limits many times over. Most assessments for that election report a total expenditure of $1.5 billion, or $3 million per constituency (though real figures are impossible to come by accurately), largely distributed directly to potential supporters from financial backers. On April 2, the think tank CMS-India estimated that total expenditure in this election would be twice that. These funds are drawn from corrupt as well as legal sources who seek a return on their investment -- in political favors, for example -- if the candidate wins.

Members of parliament are willing accomplices. The Electoral Commission has published lists of assets declared by candidates showing that personal fortunes have improved by two or three times during the current members of parliament's tenure in office. In an extraordinarily high number of cases, parliamentarians have themselves been found guilty of criminal offenses. In the last parliament, 76 out of 543 members had criminal cases in court. About 20 percent of the members with criminal charges have been reselected to stand by major and minor parties at this election.

Second, in spite of their manifesto commitments, neither BJP nor Congress has done much to limit the use of "black money," which includes money in circulation that is outside formal and recorded GDP (estimated to be about 50 percent of GDP) and funds held by individuals and companies overseas (estimated at $345 billion in 2011). The AAP has made this issue a major part of its platform since its inception. These funds play a huge role in political finance, with overseas funds being repatriated into the Indian economy as legitimate finance after an initial deposit in Mauritius or Dubai.

Third, corruption in public distribution systems is notoriously widespread. While in power in certain states, Congress and its coalition partners have failed to combat the high level of corruption in the subsidized food program and the rural employment program. The former is designed to reach 600 million people, the latter about 100 million. Both of these programs are products of the Congress-led government led during the last 10 years, and in their current form each cost about $5 billion per year. Estimated losses through "inefficiency and corruption" are about 50 percent -- a huge drain on the exchequer and an insult to the targeted beneficiaries, who are increasingly vocal on the question. In its manifesto, Congress promises to reduce "inefficiency" in these programs -- but this is a long-standing commitment that has so far come to nothing. BJP can rightly claim to have had some success in this regard in Chattisgarh state, but not in other states where it has been in power (such as Goa and Gujurat).

These issues are deeply entrenched in the Indian political system but are being debated in the election campaign as never before. The BJP is currently the front-runner, but may well be dependent on four or five smaller, state-based parties support in parliament. The corporate nature of its funding base and ambiguities on the corruption issue both inside the party and within any coalition it forms make it an unlikely champion of real reform. The AAP, with handful of seats at best, will remain the principal of watchdog of India's fight against corruption.