Putin’s chaos-master and the war on Ukraine

Composite image by the author

Two recent articles by the Kremlin’s ‘grey cardinal‘, Vladislav Surkov, give disturbing insights into the thinking behind Russia’s aggression. If Putin has a soul, then Surkov is the engineer of that infernal machine.

Joseph Stalin was in the habit of referring to writers as “the engineers of human souls”. A vital role, in the view of the blood-drenched but surprisingly well-read dictator – he even went so far as to say that “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks”.

This did not, of course, prevent Stalin from sending many of the Soviet Union’s most talented writers to the Gulag, and to torture and murder at the hands of his secret police. Indeed, this was perhaps a further acknowledgement of the power of words – anyone who Stalin perceived as wielding any kind of power was also viewed as a potential threat to his own rule.

In 21st century Russia, one writer and ideologue has for two decades performed what could be seen as a ‘soul engineering’ role for Vladimir Putin, to the extent that he enjoys a nickname that is almost a variation on Stalin’s phrase: the ‘political technologist of all of Rus’. He is also sometimes called ‘Putin’s Rasputin’ and ‘the grey cardinal’, and the Ukrainian-born British writer Peter Pomerantsev has made a convincing case for him to be seen as ‘the hidden author of Putinism’. That man is Vladislav Surkov.

I first heard about Surkov through the work of Pomeranstsev, and in particular his remarkable 2015 study of life in Moscow’s media world in the early 2000s, Nothing is True, Everything is Possible, which was based on Pomerantsev’s experience as a producer making shows for Russian TV.

The book’s title summed up the Surkovian approach to politics, which draws on postmodernist claims about the equal validity of all narratives and the impossibility of establishing any single version of the truth. It’s a position that seems ideally suited to the internet age, but one that uses postmodernism in the most cynical of ways: to distract, dissemble and confuse as a strategy of asserting the power and control of an utterly corrupt elite.

Surkov is a fascinatingly enigmatic figure. Almost everything about him is swathed in layers of myth and disinformation – including his status as a novelist (he is widely believed to have written Close to Zero, a nihilistic novel set in the murky and corrupt world of Moscow politics and media, but has always publicly denied this).

Surkov’s official biography falsifies several key facts about his life. As far as can be pieced together from other, marginally more reliable sources, he was born Aslambek Dudayev to a Russian mother and a Chechen father, and lived for his first five years in Chechnya. He appears to have spent some of his early adulthood working for the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (the GRU) in Hungary in the early 1980s, before studying theatre direction and then economics in Moscow.

Surkov then pursued a career in PR and advertising, working for several Russian oligarchs of the 1990s before moving into the oil business as a director of the oil transportation company Transnefteproduct. The fossil fuel industry and Russia’s kleptocratic political system are joined at the hip, so it was perhaps not so surprising that this proved a springboard into a role as a Kremlin staffer. Surkov quickly rose to become Boris Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff, and was intimately involved in the plan to install Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

The success of this plan, which involved a series of conveniently timed – and almost certainly staged – terrorist bombings in Moscow that enabled Putin to appear as Russia’s saviour from terrorism, put Surkov into a powerful position in the court of the new president. He has remained at the heart of power in the Kremlin ever since, under both Putin and Dimitry Medvedev, occupying a succession of senior government positions and functioning as Putin’s chief strategist, spin doctor, and – it’s not going too far to say – court philosopher.

He is known for his cynical sense of humour, but he is also a figure who inspires fear. Former Kremlin insider Ella Panfilova commented in 2017:

“Everybody in the Kremlin is afraid to open their mouths and say anything negative about Surkov. Nobody should dare say that he is the real Tsar of Russia.”

It was Surkov who first introduced a concept that has become a cornerstone of Putin’s brand of autocracy: ‘sovereign democracy’. In a speech of 2006, Surkov described this in terms that sounded bland enough: “A society’s political life where the political powers, their authorities and decisions are decided and controlled by a diverse Russian nation for the purpose of reaching material welfare, freedom and fairness by all citizens, social groups and nationalities, by the people that formed it.”

But what this meant in practice soon became apparent: power and sovereignty in this system were to be concentrated in the president and the ruling party, with the ability of others to take part in democratic processes severely curtailed.

As former Prime Minister of Russia Mikhail Kasyanov commented:

“The aims of this doctrine are quite clear: the concentration and holding of political power and property at any cost. The consequences of this are already evident, including the glorification of populism, the steady destruction of private and public institutions and the departure from the principles of the law, democracy, and the free market.”

Key to the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ is the idea that Russia is threatened by Western enemies. As Surkov told an interviewer in 2008: “They take credit for the nearly bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union and want to further that achievement.” In terms that prefigure Putin’s vicious rhetoric of the last few weeks, he alleged that a “fifth column” of “pseudo-liberals and Nazis”, backed by foreign powers, were working to destroy Russia.

To inculcate the young people of Russia in this paranoid world view, Surkov set up a youth organisation called Nashi (‘Ours’), lavishly funded by the Kremlin.  In 2005 its leader, Vasilii Yakemenko, toured Russia telling young audiences that they must join together to fight evil foreign influences. Significantly, Ukraine – which had recently turfed out a corrupt Putin-linked president and elected a pro-EU government – was held up as an example of the fate that awaited Russia if they failed:

“Previously [Ukraine] was a Russian colony and now it is an American colony,” Yakamenko asserted.

A free, democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border has always been anathema to a world-view that sees democracy itself as a threat to Russian ‘sovereignty’. And as the principal architect of this world-view, Surkov has continued to play a central role in planning for the destruction of Ukraine as an independent state.

The extent of this was revealed in 2018 by the so-called Surkov leaks – three tranches of leaked emails obtained by hackers from the email accounts of Kremlin officials, including Surkov himself. This material gave a startlingly detailed insight into the Kremlin’s hybrid war on Ukraine over the past decade or more.

As well as revealing how the Kremlin played a crucial role in setting up and controlling the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ in 2014, the leaked emails show how Surkov and his associates used a network of political influencers to disseminate a wide variety of disinformation within and around Ukraine. One purpose of this was to portray the country as being in the grip of Nazis – a standard trope of Putin propaganda – and to suggest that it was being used by the West as a staging post for a wider attack on Russia by the West.

A range of conspiracy theories were promulgated towards these ends, and deployed to undermine the truth about any incident that might reveal the extent of Russian aggression. One of these was the shooting down of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 by a Russian missile in 2014, with the loss of nearly 300 lives. This was spun as a ‘Franz Ferdinand’ moment – in other words, as the West deliberately trying to spark a Third World War with Russia. 

Talking about the Surkov leaks on Ukrainian television,  Alya Shandra, Editor-in-Chief of the Euromaidan Press, said: “By carpet-bombing these messages from all sides the Kremlin was able to form this alternative reality.”

Shandra has worked with Bob Seely, the Conservative MP, former soldier and journalist, who is completing a PhD on Russia’s hybrid war, to produce a full analysis of the Surkov leaks for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). It describes how ‘hybrid war’ is based on two concepts previously used by the KGB and GRU to undermine an enemy’s society and capacity to resist: ‘active measures’ and ‘reflexive control’. The aim is “to manipulate an opponent into making decisions leading to their own defeat”.

As the report says:

“The leaked emails demonstrate how the Kremlin exerts its political power over societies by studying target audiences and carefully selecting the messages with which it plans to manipulate them into doing Russia’s bidding. Relying on the analysis of experts and insiders, the Kremlin carefully and flexibly sought out those psychological dividing lines whose exploitation could create chaos in Ukraine. The methods included infiltrating the Ukrainian media, creating new media outlets, and maintaining a network of influencers and political analysts disseminating Kremlin messaging in the Ukrainian and Russian media, as well as building alliances with selected Western actors and ‘weaponising’ culture.”

The report also notes that

“the Russian toolkit of subversion is being used not only in Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet states seeking to leave Russia’s sphere of interest, and in Western states too.”

One wonders whether Bob Seely had to restrain himself from mentioning the fact that exactly this strategy was used very effectively during the Brexit campaign of 2016.

It seems likely that Putin was led to believe that these tactics had been far more successful in Ukraine than has in fact been the case, and that this may have encouraged him to think that his invasion would not meet strong resistance. However, they have probably been more successful in Russia itself, where an almost completely complicit media has allowed conspiracy theories and false narratives to gain a much stronger hold.

Asked by an interviewer whether the Ukrainians involved in Russian-sponsored groups and influence campaigns were aware of acting in Russia’s interests, Shandra replied: “I would divide the Ukrainian collaborators with the Kremlin into two categories. One simply wanted to make money. They were being paid and then they created all this virtual activity. I think they understood that they were working for Kremlin interests but maybe they did not care. And the other ones were ideological collaborators. They’re the ones that willingly promoted the idea of the Russian world and willingly helped Russia to intervene in Ukrainian affairs, and I think these are the most dangerous […] they wanted to achieve Russia’s goals.”

Here too, the resonance with recent events in the UK is very strong.

So, what, from Surkov’s point of view, is the wider strategic point of these efforts to undermine and destroy a neighbouring state? Two recent articles he has penned may suggest some answers.

In Loneliness of a half-breed, a 2018 article for the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs, Surkov seemed to prefigure Russia’s sharp tilt towards vituperative isolation from the world. In it, he reflects on what he sees as Russia’s dual nature – half Asiatic, half European. He seems to see this as a condition that consigns Russia irredeemably to the position of outcast:

“Our cultural and geopolitical identity resembles the wandering identity of a person born in a mixed marriage. He is a relative everywhere and nowhere native. One’s own among strangers, a stranger among one’s own. Understanding everyone, not understood by anyone. Half-breed, mestizo, something strange.

“Russia is a West-East half-breed country. With her two-headed statehood, hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory, bipolar history, she is, as she should be, a half-breed: charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely.”

It is hard not to see in this a possible expression of Surkov’s own psychology, and of the fact that he himself is half-Chechen. This heritage may well have exposed him as a child to bullying and ostracism, and his reaction to this has perhaps coloured his aggressive response to what he perceives as the condescension that Russia experiences in its relationship with the West.

At any rate, the article leaves one in no doubt that Surkov sees aggressive militarism as the most appropriate response to Russia’s ‘half breed’ loneliness.

He describes a famous saying of Tsar Alexander III, “Russia has only two allies, the army and the navy”, as “perhaps, the most intelligible metaphor for geopolitical loneliness, which is long overdue to be accepted as fact”. And he asks:

“What will be our future loneliness? A wild plant in the wilderness? Or the happy loneliness of the leader, the alpha nation that has gone into the gap, in front of which other peoples and states step aside and give way? It depends on us.”

Another recent article by Surkov in the Russian journal Actual Comment gives an even more disturbing insight into the thinking that underlies Putin’s aggression. Titled Where has the chaos gone? Unpacking stability, the piece is a bizarre geopolitical disquisition on entropy, chaos, the second law of thermodynamics, and the need to ‘export’ chaos to other countries in order to preserve the stability of one’s own:

“The fact that in theory entropy tends to grow precisely in closed systems seems to suggest a simple solution to the problem – open the system, ‘let off steam’, and chaos will recede. But this simplicity is deceptive. It is extremely risky to set up liberal experiments on the domestic political bloc […] Social entropy is very toxic. It is not recommended to work with it at home. It needs to be taken somewhere else. Exported for recycling in a foreign territory.

“Exporting chaos is nothing new. Divide and conquer is an ancient recipe. Separation is synonymous with chaos. Rally your own + divide others = you will rule both […] The Romans did it. All empires do this. For centuries, the Russian state, with its harsh and inactive political interior, was preserved solely thanks to the relentless striving beyond its own borders. It has long forgotten how, and most likely, never knew how to survive in other ways. For Russia, constant expansion is not just one of the ideas, but the true existential fact of our historical existence. […]”

“Russia will expand not because it is good, and not because it is bad, but because it is physics.”

In February 2020, Surkov left his role as presidential advisor. It is impossible to know whether this was a resignation or a sacking – as always with Surkov, there are contradictory accounts.

But it would be unwise to think that ‘the political technologist of all Rus’ is no longer influential in Putin’s inner circle, where he has played such a key role for so long.

If Putin has a soul, then Surkov is the engineer of that infernal machine.