“Trump/Russia” is a convenient shorthand for all the shady shit involving Donald John Trump and his associates, on one side, and various and sundry Russians, on the other. Trump and his associates are easy to spot—I’ve been writing about them since early 2017. The Moscow crew, not so much.
Below are excerpts from pieces I’ve written about Putin and his droogs:
From the days of Ivan IV in the late sixteenth century, Russia’s leaders have been extraordinary ruthless about the application of terror to maintain power. The first secret state police, called the oprichnina, was devised by this first tsar, whom history knows as Ivan the Terrible. Black-clad patrolmen on black mounts descended on towns and villages, like a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien or Washington Irving, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The Okhrana, its spiritual successor, was formed to protect the royal family after unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Alexander II in 1868; it did not prevent the assassination of Alexander III in 1894—or, for that matter, the execution of the last tsar, Nicholas II, in 1918—but it did terrorize generations of Russians, and played a leading role in the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905, when peaceful protesters outside the Winter Palace were shot by police.
The Soviets, meanwhile, were veritable butchers. Lenin advocated coaxing troops into battle by shooting at them from behind. The Cheka, the state police established in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky, was infinitely more wicked than its antecedents. Stalin was responsible for more loss of life than Hitler, including over five million Soviet citizens who perished in Ukraine and Kazakhstan during the Soviet Famine of 1932-3. Subsequent leaders were less brutal than Stalin, but not exactly Nobel Peace Prize nominees, while the mobsters who now hold sway over that country make Stalin seem calm and measured. In Russia, alas, life is cheap.
Vladimir Putin was still toiling for the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg when Chechen leader Dudayev was assassinated, but his rise to power—remarkable, swift, out of nowhere—began just three months later, when Yeltsin named him Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department in June 1996. This gave Putin access to the books, and the power to move around money and other assets. He formally joined the Presidential Staff in 1997, ascended to first deputy in May of 1998, and a month later, was named the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, the organization he’d worked at for most of his career. Putin’s influence over Yeltsin was enormous. Clearly his years with the KGB taught him how to roll drunks.
As the millennium approached, tensions with the Chechens continued, and Yeltsin’s health was deteriorating rapidly. For Putin and the fledgling Russian Federation, the pendulum was swinging the wrong way. But then, on 4, 9, and 13 September 1999, a series of apartment bombings befell the Russian cities of Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, killing 300 and injuring a thousand more. These were reported by Russian media to be the work of Chechen separatist terrorists. But compelling evidence suggests that the terrorist attacks were the work of the FSB, which Putin oversaw until 9 August 1999—just a month before the bombings—when he left to be First Deputy Prime Minister. Galvanized by his capable response to the attacks, and endorsed by the still-popular Yeltsin, Putin became Acting Prime Minister later that month. He’s been in power, under a variety of titles, ever since.
The journalist David Satter wrote a book called Darkness at Dawn, laying out the case that the FSB was behind the apartment bombings. He succinctly explained the motive for the inside job during his testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2007:
The present ruling oligarchy came to power in Russia accidentally. Were it not for the fact that the Yeltsin leadership was totally corrupt and seized by fear of a grand settling of accounts in 1999, it is highly unlikely that someone like Putin, the head of the secret service with no previous political experience, could have become Yeltsin’s successor. With Yeltsin and his family facing possible criminal prosecution, however, a plan was put into motion to put in place a successor who would guarantee that Yeltsin and his family would be safe from prosecution and the criminal division of property in the country would not be subject to reexamination.
For “Operation Successor” to succeed, however, it was necessary to have a massive provocation. In my view, this provocation was the bombing in September, 1999 of the apartment building bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk. In the aftermath of these attacks, which claimed 300 lives, a new war was launched against Chechnya. Putin, the newly appointed prime minister who was put in charge of that war, achieved overnight popularity. Yeltsin resigned early. Putin was elected president and his first act was to guarantee Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. In the meantime, all talk of reexamining the results of privatization was forgotten.
If true—and I have no reason to believe otherwise—Putin and his cronies were totally chill about indiscriminately exterminating 300 of their own people, and wounding a thousand more, to secure power. The subsequent spate of Russian journalists, suspected double agents, doctors, and dissidents falling out of high windows, or drinking polonium tea, does little to counter Satter’s argument.
Putin is a psychopath. And his ultimate objective, as explained at PREVAIL by Moscow Never Sleeps, has not changed in 21 years: to weaken the West and restore Russia to its former imperial glory.
He’s been described as “a real-life Keyser Söze.” Despite being active for decades, there are only a handful of pictures of him. He neither looks nor sounds like the capo di tutti i capi of the most powerful crime syndicate that ever existed—“the most dangerous mobster in the world,” as the FBI once called him—or an elite intelligence operative. But then, neither did Söze. As Verbal Kint says in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
At five-six and 300 pounds, he may look like the proprietor of some greasy New Jersey diner, the guy who rings up your cheeseburger deluxe, but Semion Mogilevich really does exist, and really does wield considerable power in the intersecting worlds of organized crime and intelligence. His tentacles extend everywhere, and his nickname—The Brainy Don—is well deserved (and not, as he claims in the one major interview of him that exists, because he has a ginormous head). An FBI report had this to say about his criminal enterprise, back in 1996:
Principal activities of the Mogilevich Organization include weapons trafficking, nuclear materials trafficking, prostitution [i.e., sex trafficking], drug trafficking, dealing in precious gems, and money laundering. The Mogilevich Organization operates across Central Europe, including Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; and Moscow, Russia. Its activities also extend to the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, Slovakia, and Israel.
Since then, his operation has only grown larger and more audacious. What “Seva” Mogilevich does, better than perhaps anyone who ever lived, is move around things that aren’t meant to be moved around: narcotics from Southeast Asia, arms to Iran, sex slaves from Eastern Europe, diamonds from Africa, nukes to God knows where—and money, vast sums of money, from Point A to Point B. Meyer Lansky may have written the book on money laundering, but it was Semion Mogilevich who turned it into a blockbuster motion picture.
As with Keyser Söze, a mythology has sprung up around him. The curious reluctance of the mainstream media to mention his name only contributes to that mythology. Here is the full quote from the movie, delivered by Kint:
Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Söze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
And that’s where the comparison breaks down. “Seva” Mogilevich is not some Hollywood antihero. Nobody disputes that he was born in Ukraine, that he is of Jewish descent, that he studied economics at Lvov and lived for years in Budapest, that he now resides freely in Moscow, with the blessing of Vladimir Putin, the ex-FSB officer he helped install. Lots of people know him, lots of people have worked directly for or with him. There are plenty of reports covering the activities of his criminal organization. Two important crimefighters—Bob Levinson of the FBI and the CIA, and Alexander Litvinenko, of the FSB’s organized crime unit—sacrificed their lives to expose Mogilevich as 1) the boss of bosses of the most powerful crime syndicate in the world, and 2) the supervillain who helped turn Russia into a mafia state.
If we bother to look, we see that the Brainy Don has left his pudgy fingerprints all over the place. As the world’s pre-eminent trafficker, the alleged head of the Russian mob, and a top-shelf intelligence operative besides, he is perhaps the ultimate Man in the Middle. He said so himself, to the BBC: “We acted as middlemen. We acted as middlemen.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin (“Putin’s Chef”)
The Russian ex-con Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin is known as “Putin’s Chef” or “Putin’s Cook,” because he amassed his billions catering for Putin and his inner circle. He’s also called that because, unlike most people in that inner circle, he does not have an official government job. There’s no other title to use.
As Luke Harding explains in Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West, “Putin’s trusted associates fell into two categories, loosely speaking. The largest group was Chekists—former spies. The other was made up of thugs and Mafia types. Prigozhin was never a Chekist. His time in jail and alleged underworld connections put him firmly in the second, gangster camp.”
Putin’s Chef was not just Putin’s Gangster. He was also Putin’s Fixer. He was given the dirty work, the assignments where the boss needed some remove.
It was Prigozhin, not anyone in the Russian government, who funded the generically-named Internet Research Agency, or IRA—the outfit that ran the St. Petersburg troll farms that fucked with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to the Mueller Report, Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management & Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, funneled cash to the IRA—and lots of it. “The IRA’s budget for its [U.S. election sabotage] operation was $1.25 million, or 73 million rubles, a month,” Harding writes, “concealed as payments for software support and development. It included 1 million rubles in bonuses for troll staff.”
Of the “13 Russians” indicted by the Office of the Special Counsel in February 2018, 12 worked for the IRA. The thirteenth was Prigozhin. According to the indictment, “From in or around 2014 to the present, Defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.” This operation was called Project Lakhta.
The section of the Mueller Report on Prigozhin is heavily redacted, with “harm to ongoing matter” in white type over big black boxes. Here is a sample page:
What was novel about all this was not Lakhta itself. Russians fuck with stuff; they’ve been fucking with stuff in the U.S. for over a century. What was novel was, as Harding explains, “the outsourcing of a strategic intelligence task to a private company.”
The added layer provided for plausible deniability. Putin was able to appear at the Helsinki summit and, with a straight (albeit botoxed) face, point out that “the company is being accused of interference, but this company does not constitute the Russian state.” And Donald Trump was able to take the liar at his word. Never mind that there is zero chance that Putin was not aware of Project Lakhta. As Harding put it, “Putin’s insistence on Prigozhin’s separateness was formally true but actually false.”
Real or imagined, that separateness made Lakhta all the more effective. The IRA was a rogue operator, free to do as it pleased, to adapt to the changing environment without the burden of having its every move signed off on by some functionary in Moscow. “One reason Kremlin messaging is agile is that it uses outside contractors,” Thomas Kent explains in Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation. “The Internet Research Agency is not a government organization but an enterprise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, ‘Putin’s chef’ and a major government contractor.”
Yes, the Chef’s trolls got made by Mueller, but so what? By 2018, the operation had already succeeded in its primary mission of denying Hillary Clinton the White House. By the time the battleship turned around, the speedboats had already made off with the jewels. In the Information Age, lack of quickness leaves us susceptible to further attacks. As Kent explains:
Government also are not adept at the quick, nimble social media and web campaigns needed to fight disinformation today. Political messaging is not longer a matter mainly for press conferences and newspapers. . . . Today’s information wars leap in seconds from news apps to podcasts to social networks to video games. Veronika Špalková of the European Values Center in Prague estimates that a response to disinformation must come within two hours to have a chance of eliminating a false narrative.
The federal government is mighty, but it is slow. In information warfare as in basketball, the way to beat the lumbering giant is with speed.
The United States also outsources work, of course. Halliburton was an independent contractor. Blackwater was an independent contractor. But Trump has put a new twist on it. As President, and now as Former Guy, he has his own Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhins. Remember when Trump became president, he wanted to keep his own security team, and not use the Secret Service? That raised eyebrows at the time, and now seems like an obvious crook move. Michael Cohen was the best of Trump’s rogue operators, but there are plenty of others: Keith Schiller, Matthew Calamari, and so on.
While Trump was obviously involved with January 6—he gave a speech that day, after all, in which he directed his followers to march to the Capitol—the planning and implementation appears to have been outsourced to his allies outside the government. Mike Flynn and Roger Stone (who had been pardoned by Trump in December), and Steve Bannon (who would be pardoned by Trump a few weeks after January 6), were almost certainly among the architects of the insurrection. But if Trump ever appears in court to testify about his role in J-6, he will just channel Putin in Helsinki: “These men are accused of seditious conspiracy, but these men were not part of my campaign.”
In the media—and I consider myself part of that designation—Maria Butina is portrayed as a red sparrow, a honeypot, a Russian spy who bedded ugly Republican dudes as part of an influence campaign (or worse). We think this because, first, she was convicted of a crime, and, second, we’ve all seen the photographs of her with various conservative movers and shakers: Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Jr., Wayne LaPierre, and so on.
But that is deceptive. Photos with politicians prove nothing. The honeypot reputation mostly comes from her trial, when the allegation that she used sex to infiltrate the NRA was suggested by prosecutors—and then retracted, when the judge called it out as over the line. All we know about her love life, really, is that she had a long-term relationship with Republican operative and convicted fraudster Paul Erickson, and that she cheated on him a few times to get with Patrick Byrne, then the CEO of Overstock.com.
Butina and Erickson took great pains to demonstrate the legitimacy of their romance. Here is a clip of the unlikely couple doing a Disney duet, to prove their love is true:
That Butina decided to upgrade from this dork to Byrne, who is both a self-made multimillionaire and kind of hunky, may well be more about Patrick seducing Maria than the other way around. Or maybe all three of them are lying. With this deceitful crew, who knows?
While we are quick to call Butina a spy—I’ve done so myself plenty of times—the fact is, she was not convicted of espionage, but rather conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Russia during her time in the United States. Even so, she was doing stuff that spies do. She was simultaneously taking classes at American University and infiltrating the NRA and the Republican Party in an influence operation managed by longtime Putin ally and alleged Russian mob boss Alexander Torshin, so she was hardly some innocent. As the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, in its section on Butina in Volume 5, “the nature and extent of Butina’s contacts and certain communications are indicative of work for the Russian intelligence services and inconsistent with her claims to the Committee about her activities and intentions in the United States.”
Torshin was not the only high-level Russian whom Butina had close ties to, per Volume 5. There was also Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian oligarch with reported ties to both Putin and Russian security services, part owner of the Russian private rail transport company N-trans, and board member of American Ethane, a Houston-based company chaired by another Russian, Mikhail Yuriev, a former Deputy Chairman of the Russian Parliament. There was Igor Zaytsev, the shadowy owner of a chain of jewelry stores outside of Moscow (which may well be cover). And there was Dmitry Rogozin, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and former Russian ambassador to NATO; Rogozin was sanctioned by the United States after the invasion of Crimea. (There are likely others, too, whom Butina knew well; this section of Volume 5 is heavily redacted). These are not gentlemen a twentysomething Siberian furniture saleswoman typically hobnobs with.
Unlike Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and most of the American traitors complicit in seditious activities, Butina actually served time in prison. Because she is a Russian national, and thus subject to the whims of Vladimir Putin, it is fair to wonder how much freewill she even has. She’s been an absolute troll since her repatriation—as during her RT-sponsored visit to taunt imprisoned political dissident Alexei Navalny. Was that the real Maria Butina? Was it the carefree girl riding Space Mountain at Disney? The beauty to Paul Erickson’s beast? The gun nut? The Senate Intelligence Committee added this detail in a footnote, which is as good a summary as any: “Butina’s testimony was frequently incomplete and misleading.”
Igor Sechin (“Darth Vader”)
Vladimir Putin has spent the last 20 years consolidating power like Ivan the Terrible, terrorizing the Russian people like Stalin, and looting and pillaging like no one in the annals of Muscovy. The sickly son of impoverished parents has made himself the wealthiest individual in the world—if not in all of history. And he acquired his wealth through larceny, on an audacious scale. What does Hans Gruber say in Die Hard? “I am not a common thief; I am an exceptional thief.” Even the tsars didn’t steal as much from their own people as this Chekist twerp.
His most trusted aide-de-camp during this two-decade ruble heist is Igor Sechin. Like Putin—and, indeed, like virtually every mobster—Sechin grew up dirt poor, and was determined to do whatever it took to make it big. He was tapped to be Putin’s chief of staff back when Putin was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. The two have worked hand in glove ever since. When Putin ran Yeltsin’s powerful if unglamorous property management department, Sechin was his deputy. When Putin was made prime minister, Sechin was the head of secretariat. And when Putin became president, Sechin was deputy chief of the administration and then deputy prime minister, a job he held until 2012—when Putin re-assumed the position of president of Russia, and Sechin became president of Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company. Good work if you can get it.
In Russian political circles, Sechin is known as “Darth Vader.” They call him that because he’s particularly ruthless, notably venal, and kind of a dick. While colorful and provocative, this nickname misses the point. The Star Wars villain, father of Luke and Leia, was supremely talented in his own right. Through years of disciplined training, he harnessed the Force. Igor Sechin has no such mystical powers. He’s a crony and a thug. True, he is a linguist by training, fluent in both French and Portuguese, and thus more refined that your average brute. But in practice, this just means he can say “Give me my fucking money” in three different languages. A goon who enjoys jazz is still a goon.
If Putin is Vito Corleone, Igor Sechin is Luca Brasi. If Putin is Victor Frankenstein, Igor Sechin is, well, Igor. And if Putin is Rudy Giuliani, Igor Sechin is Bernie Kerik. That might be his closest American analog (although Sechin is much smarter, more talented, and infinitely more ruthless than the former NYC Chief of Police). Imagine if Giuliani ran the U.S. like a dictatorship for 20 years, lying and stealing and killing, and Kerik was his eternally loyal #2. Lummox, lug, lackey: that’s Igor Sechin.
Photo credit: Russian Federation. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tours the new factory Concord, which supplies pre-prepared meals to schools. Here he looks at his chef, Prigozhin.