Many pro-Kremlin political technologists argued with the Kremlin, politely, that it was too risky to give up the government’s monopoly on violence and have all kind of adventurers take up arms and go to Ukraine. It couldn’t end well—and it didn’t, when a Malaysian airliner was shot down in 2014—but that failed to undermine the Kremlin’s legitimacy. So pro-Kremlin political technologists lost access to the Kremlin and joined the liberals on the margins of society.
The losing side, which swelled with each new adventure—not only liberal politicians and political technologists, but also the community of experts, journalists, and intellectuals of every kind—argued that no country could get away with isolating itself from the world. That’s not how it played out. Russia lost its seat in the G8 but got its World Cup, and the Kremlin won deserved praise for its organization of the event from world leaders, who came to Moscow to cheer for their team. So more people moved to the margins, or left the country for good.
This summer has already evoked too many bad memories. The World Cup repeated the incredible success of the Sochi Olympics in 2014—the very success that many Russians believe emboldened Putin to annex Crimea. The last argument of rational people—forget about democracy—was that the country could not survive and prosper with governance this bad and bureaucrats this incompetent.
But we have Putin, many now reply. When things fail, Putin comes up with a solution, another brilliant tactical move, and saves the day. It’s the message his government promotes, and a sentiment many in Russia genially share. The Kremlin regime, which always revolved around one person, became even more tightly controlled by Putin over the past four years. Not only outside professionals found themselves losing influence—the expert community inside the government bureaucracy found itself in exactly the same situation. The declining role of all kinds of institutions—from defining and executing foreign policy to handling economy—became visible, but nobody seemed to care.
You cannot meddle in the elections of the most powerful country in the world and get away with it. After all, it has the most resourceful intelligence community. That, too, once seemed a rational argument. Too bad for those who dared to urge caution. If there was ever a competition between the intelligent and adventurous in the Kremlin, the latter are obviously winning the game.
After 2016, the United States hit Russia hard. There were sanctions, a worldwide hunt for Russian hackers known for their ties to secret services, and naming and shaming, which started with the FSB hackers indicted in the Yahoo hacking case and ended with 12 GRU officers exposed by Robert Mueller.
The effects are visible in Moscow. The main FSB cyber unit, the Information Security Center, was struck by purges, its head forced into retirement and two deputy heads prosecuted. Those firms in the Russian IT community that were involved in cybersecurity lost access to Western markets, while Russian oligarchs are curtailing their presence in the West. But these effects were largely felt by Russian institutions, which Putin himself was the first to attack, and Russian businesses, which Putin has been busy intimidating.