Denis Sokolov
Denis Sokolov
Denis is an expert at Free Russia Foundation, a visiting fellow at CSIS. He focuses on North Caucasus informal economy, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflicts
Sokolov: engage Russia’s regional elites

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Denis Sokolov, an expert on security and the North Caucasus, to talk about Russia’s current power structure, its link to criminal networks, the danger it poses, and the need for the West to work with Russia’s regional leaders in order to tackle these challenges.


The “market of violence” is spreading internationally

“In principle, we can say that the Russian government today is a political elite consisting of the post-Soviet bureaucracy, intelligence officers and criminals. Together they form a political class that governs the Russian state, in which criminal networks are built in, and their activities go far beyond Russia,” says Sokolov.

Over the years, the security services, which have risen to a position of power, have incorporated these criminal actors into the system. This differs from pure organized crime in that, in addition to direct violence, there is also the violence that is facilitated by authorities – the judicial system, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and administrative bodies.

In the 2000s, adding to income generated from illicit activities, the ruling powers introduced economic institutions into the system, providing revenues from energy sources, natural resources and infrastructure enterprises. “They receive most of it legally, through dividends from public companies such as Rusal, Rosneft, Gazprom,” says Sokolov.

As the system has become entrenched, its threat to the international community has grown due to the emergence of political interests within this mafia. There may be economic motivations, but when it comes to control in the Middle East or Ukraine, political interests clearly prevail, says Sokolov. And the “mixed ontology” of the system – fragments of the state, organized crime and the security services – have manifested in the hybrid tools used by the Russian political elite: unleashing wars in local conflicts, informal armed groups, outright bandits, agents networks, criminal money, co-opting Western politicians, propaganda and disinformation.

The North Caucasus plays a significant role in the spreading of this “market of violence,” says Sokolov, having significant influence within Russia and spreading beyond borders as well. One of the most powerful criminal groups is that led by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, with its private army and FSB backing. It represents an inseparable mix of criminals, intelligence officers and jihadists, with a network operating in Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Europe. According to various sources, up to 7,000 combatants who took part in the war in Syria came from Russia, primarily from the North Caucasus. Of these, according to various studies, about 2,500 primarily came from the North Caucasus, 500 people have gone to war from Chechnya, and 2,000 second-generation of emigrants after the Chechen wars have traveled through Istanbul from Europe. Those who survived have later gone to Turkey and Ukraine, says Sokolov.


Losing control

The question that arises is whether Putin maintains control over this spreading network. “I think that his control is constantly diminishing,” says Sokolov.

Over the last five years, Russia’s involvement in various conflicts and the use of hybrid tactics has led to a transfer of decision-making from the top to the bottom, says Sokolov. The situation is complicated by the various competing interests, which range from entrepreneurial activity to economic and political motives.

“This is a mosaic, which has not been described in detail – I have not seen publications describe this mosaic in detail, but it would be useful to understand how it is organized,” says Sokolov, adding that if Putin himself is no longer in control, it would be useful to know who is. “It’s a matter of security,” says Sokolov.

And in the case of Kadyrov, with his private army and transnational networks of gangsters and agents, the Chechen strongman sometimes acts on direct orders from Moscow, but other times makes decisions independently, at his own risk.

In a way, the North Caucasus represents Moscow’s declining influence, says Sokolov. There are fewer people who represent Moscow, and generally speaking fewer Russians as well. In the eastern and western Caucasus, Islam and alternative ideologies of independent statehood are developing. In some regions, conflicts in the criminal world are no longer resolved through gangster methods, but through sharia. For now, it is more convenient for Kadyrov to maintain the status quo, rather than to embrace separatism, but when Moscow runs out of money, Sokolov asks, how will it remain in control?

The network as a whole is fueled by and kept together by revenues from natural resources, and Moscow can more or less hold on to its authority as long as there is enough money, says Sokolov.


Growing risk of conflict and violence

There is a growing danger of conflict and violence within and outside of Russia, due to rising tensions between Moscow and Russia’s regional powers, says Sokolov.

The parallel process of a generational shift is underway among the ruling elite, says Sokolov, and to maintain control Moscow has appointed bureaucrats and siloviki to replace regional heavyweights. However, the new appointees are not integrated into the regional powers, says Sokolov, forcing them to rely on the FSB to assert their power.

“Thus, the chief of the regional FSB becomes a ‘warlord’ of a vast territory,” says Sokolov, “and I think that regional politics will see the development of competition with these warlords. They will try to strengthen their positions and deprive the centralized powers of the opportunity to change the composition at the regional level of the FSB.”

On the other hand, these FSB officers are driven mainly by economic interests while the regional elites – local politicians, regional business owners and criminal actors – will try to protect their own economic interests. Yet in order to protect these interests, Sokolov says, they must rely on ethnic, religious or regional groups. This is the case in the North Caucasus, he says, where there are many such groups, which can easily be mobilized. Raising the role of these regional identities may lead to the emergence of a process of de-colonization.

Moreover, in the absence of fair political processes, the only option for regional elites in this conflict is to resort to violence – all types of violence, says Sokolov.

“There is a risk that the whole network will fight among themselves and compete for favoritism with the centralized powers, as we saw in the Caucasus,” says Sokolov, adding that such conflicts could take place in many other regions, including outside of Russia.

If at some point, the situation gets out of control to the extent that the global community imposes tougher sanctions against the major companies that generate financing for the network, it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this would help decrease violence outside of Russia, since there will be less money to finance external military initiatives, says Sokolov. But on the other hand, cutting off funding could increase criminalization within Russia even more. Revenues from natural resources would still find their way into the system – in ever more disintegrated and illicit ways – creating more players and making this “market of violence” more competitive. “We need to be prepared that it doesn’t all turn into Iraq,” says Sokolov.


The role of the West

To avoid the worst, the West should build closer ties with Russia’s regional elites, says Sokolov. To some extent, this work is already underway, mainly between business communities, yet more should be done.

“It is clear that at the political level, there is no such work going on today. There are no legislative or administrative mechanisms for this, and there is no motivation to develop these mechanisms due to the risks involved,” says Sokolov.

“It is, of course, a challenge,” says Sokolov, “yet there is a need to at least develop policies toward working with the regional and industry elites in Russia, and to at least understand who these people are.” In addition to the business communities, this cooperation could also include regional political, community, ethnic and religious leaders, says Sokolov.

But is it possible to have such cooperation within Russia? “There is a clear need for discussions in the regions today about how to organize life inside the regions, how to arrange the rules of the game within the regions. Because everyone understands that the system in its current state does not have a future. It will not be able to exist for long and it is impossible to develop in this system. There is a definitely a demand for change,” says Sokolov.

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