Will Mueller’s investigation tangle Putin’s ‘adhocrats’?

Column Who are the people that cater on the Kremlin, in this very specific clientelistic Russian way? Who is 'Putin's cook' Prigozhin who is on top of the indictment of Robert Mueller? Cooking, catering, mercenaries, Syrian oil: all these 'adhocrats' come in handy for the authorities, says security expert Mark Galeotti. But they can be a nuisance. Maybe their time is over.

prigozjin serveert poetinPrigozhin serves Putin, who doesn't seem pleased with what he sees

by Mark Galeotti

The indictment that US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team unveiled on 16 February accused 13 Russians associated with a 'troll farm' known as the Internet Research Agency of interfering in the 2016 American presidential elections. The best-known of them is Evgeny Prigozhin, the businessman known as 'Putin’s cook' because one of his companies caters for the Kremlin. His real importance, though, is as one of the Kremlin’s 'adhocrats', favoured courtiers who do well out of doing whatever Putin needs done. People like Prigozhin are not state officials, have networks of business, can do all kinds of things – but they also lack the true protection of the state. Is the age of the 'adhocrats' as a central feature in Russian operations abroad thus coming to an end?

Cook, Troll, Builder, Merc

Prigozhin’s career hardly started grandly; he set up a hot-dog stand in St Petersburg in the 1990s, which became a chain, and then a series of restaurants – serving rather more elegant fare – including a floating one, New Island, that became a favourite of the city’s elite. This included its deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin, and from this came a relationship not of equals in that there is little evidence Prigozhin is in Putin’s closest circles, but of generous patron and loyal client.

His business empire prospered and diversified, and it is clear that he has become one of the most trusted and ubiquitous of the 'adhocrats'. From catering for the Kremlin and other state enterprises, from schools to hospitals, he has moved into many other spheres, all sharing two characteristics: they make money, and they serve the needs of the state.

In 2013, he set up the Internet Research Agency, a social media analysis and marketing arm that also caters to some private clients but primarily pushes the government’s line, both at home and abroad. From 2014, the international activities of its trolls would kick into high gear, but that was only part of the role he played in the new geopolitical confrontation. In 2016 he, and then two of his acknowledged companies, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering, were put under US sanctions because of his work with the defence ministry around its operations in the Donbas, including building a military base near Ukraine.

Furthermore, he has been associated from the first with Wagner, a pseudo-mercenary organisation that first operated in the Donbas, and then from 2015 in Syria. Even though private military companies are illegal under Russian law, Wagner is apparently registered in Argentina, but in practice run from St Petersburg, with a training base inside the 10th Spetsnaz special forces Brigade’s compound at Molkino. Run by Lt. Colonel Utkin, himself a former Spetsnaz officer, the unit has been associated with both the Federal Security Service (FSB) and military intelligence (GRU).

Originally, Wagner was well-funded and seems to have simply operated as part of the forces commanded by the Russian command team in Damascus. It provided them with tough, seasoned ground troops but also deniability; as a notionally mercenary force, the government did not have to report its casualties and thus could continue to maintain the fiction to its own people that this was a war with few risks to the Russians deployed. From 2017, though, something changed. Maybe because the ground war seemed all but won, or at least within the capabilities of the revived Syrian army, the money stopped flowing.

Enter Prigozhin. That year, as it seems Moscow no longer wanted to pay for these soldiers, one of his companies, Evro-Polis, stepped in to pick up the slack. In 2016, its core business was listed on the official register as dealing in food products. In 2017, suddenly, it had added mining and trading in oil and gas, it opened an office in Damascus, and it signed a five-year contract with the Syrian government’s General Petroleum Corporation. This gave it the right to claim 25% of the proceeds from any rebel-held oil and gas fields that Wagner captured.

It is impossible to be sure, of course, but the timing is suggestive. Wagner is a useful asset and Moscow did not want to lose it, but nor could it justify paying what has been estimated at almost $125 million a year for it. So it let Prigozhin turn it into a speculative commercial venture. It is worth noting, after all, that its most recent, ill-fated venture – which saw it suffer a devastating US counter-attack – was aimed at seizing the Conoco oil fields, a target of limited strategic value but considerable economic potential.

Russia’s privateers

Prigozhin’s freedom of manoeuvre is now very limited. Not least, so long as the indictment is in force, he is unlikely to be keen to travel anywhere that US extradition extends. However, he is by no means the only, or even most significant of these private-sector privateers who combine business and statecraft.

The pious Orthodox finance and media magnate Konstantin Malofeev, for example, is also under sanctions for his role in the annexation of Crimea and the intervention into the Donbas. The Russian commander Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov, was one of his men, as was Alexander Borodai, briefly the ‘prime minister’ of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic. His Saint Basil the Great Charitable Fund has been connected with funding for a variety of nationalist and panslavic organisations in the Balkans and south-east Europe, and his Tsargrad TV network is a platform for all kinds of socially conservative and Kremlin-friendly nationalist lines.

Or consider Vladimir Yakunin, no longer the head of Russian Railways, but still a rich and powerful figure. His Dialogue of Civilisations is regarded by many as another Russian soft power agency and its annual Rhodes Forum a chance to charm, flatter, wine and dine potentially useful Western public figures and to lambast Western policies. More generally, in the Baltic states, he has been accused of funding divisive movements and campaigns and he is also under US sanction.

These are big names, though, and much Russian influence-buying and division-sowing has been done by figures who are not billionaires and high-profile figures. That is precisely their great virtue for Moscow, as they are just members of the Russian new rich, a cosmopolitan, transnational class whose money is always welcome. They are nor full-time agents of Russian political war, nor outspoken critics of the West. Some of them may not even be Russian, just working for or with them, or – as in the case of Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, also cited in Mueller’s indictment – married to them. They give money to charitable causes, host glittering parties and make many, many friends. And sometimes, whether because someone in Moscow whispers in their ears, or out of genuine patriotic commitment, or in the hope that this will please someone higher up the packing order, they perhaps lobby on this issue, or pass some money to that cause.

These well-heeled auxiliaries to Putin’s army of spies and spinmasters have so far been hard to identify and a low priority to address. Although we should be cautious about assuming that the Mueller indictment marks the start of any greater, wider campaign against them, it could, it just could. As oligarch Oleg Deripaska steps down as president of Rusal aluminium giant and EN+ energy company, apparently because of the sanctions question, Putin’s 'adhocrats' great and small may be wondering if their time is coming.

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