What Exactly Are 'Kremlin Ties'?

Was the lawyer who met Donald Trump Jr. an agent of Moscow or not? A little bit of both, maybe.

Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks and gestures towards the camera.
Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks during an interview in Moscow, Russia on November 8, 2016. ((Yury Martyanov / Reuters))

On its surface, the Donald Trump Jr. affair seems as bizarre as its cast of characters. A Russian corporate lawyer who Trump Jr. believed possessed Russian government kompromat—compromising information—on the Clinton campaign. A Russian-Azerbaijani pop star, Emin Agalarov, whose publicist made the connection with Trump Jr., and who himself is the son of the so-called “Trump of Russia,” billionaire property tycoon Aras Agalarov.

Was Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met Trump Jr., an agent of the Kremlin, or an opportunist shilling for a client? She herself has denied connections to the Russian government, and told NBC News that she neither had nor sought damaging information on Clinton. But in fact she need not be one or the other. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, everyone is potentially “hybrid”: both who they seem to be, and, at the same time, an instrument of the government.

It seems inconceivable that a state would use people like this as its instruments, when it has diplomats, spies, and other professionals at its disposal. But this is pro forma for the Kremlin. And until Western nations come to terms with this, they will continue getting flummoxed by the Russians in their midst.

On its face, Putin’s Russia looks like any other country. It has all the familiar institutions: a cabinet and ministries, a two-chamber parliament, a constitution, courts, cops, and consulates. In practice, things are very different. Putin continued the work of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin—who shelled his own parliament to resolve a constitutional crisis—in hollowing out the institutions of Russia. In their place, especially at the top of the system, we have something that almost resembles a royal court.

This is bad news for many people. For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a legend in international diplomatic circles, has no real relationship with Putin. So, despite his years of service and undoubted, if irascible competence, his influence on foreign policy is, in fact, negligible.

But this creates an opening for others. What has emerged is an “adhocracy,” in which people find themselves tapped for roles as and when needed. What matters is not your formal job, nor your official place in the pecking order, so much as your personal connections, especially to Putin himself, and how useful and agreeable you can be. When the Kremlin wanted to build a new palace for Putin, for example, or needed funds for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, rather than raising taxes, it turned to the rich oligarchs and expected them to “contribute.” After all, everyone knew that this was the price for staying in business.

These habits extend into geopolitics and even war. When the Kremlin was preparing to seize Crimea and realized it didn’t have the necessary agents in place, it turned to ultra-nationalist business magnate Konstantin Malofeyev to broker an alliance with local politicians and underworld figures, and essentially hand Putin the keys to the peninsula.

These hybrid relationships extend to virtually every arena of state business. The state media is an engine of propaganda. Private banks and businesspeople are, for the most part, exactly who and what they appear to be, but they are used to funnel money to sympathetic foreign parties and politicians when the Kremlin pleases. Increasingly, we even see organized crime being used as a tool of subversion in Europe. Policy for entire regions is farmed out to trusted henchmen. Syria seems to be in the hands of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; former political operator Vladislav Surkov is Putin’s point man for Ukraine; the Balkans seems to have been handed to Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev.

In this context, the idea of Veselnitskaya as a deniable intermediary is not entirely implausible. But the kompromat never seems to have materialized. Rather, by Donald Jr.’s account she was making insubstantial promises to secure a meeting to push her real agenda: campaigning against the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which blacklists certain Russians accused of human rights abuses connected with a particularly infamous fraud case. In the years since, it has expanded to other officials involved in similar incidents around the world.

For the past four years, Veselnitskaya has been a bitter enemy of the Magnitsky Act. She has also, presumably not coincidentally, been representing Russian businessman Denis Katsyv, who was accused of laundering profits from the original crime which prompted the Act. In May, his company agreed to pay almost $6 million to settle the case before it went to trial.

But in Russia’s adhocracy, a nobody can become somebody if they suddenly seem useful. The cliché about Putin-as-methodical-chess-player, plotting his geopolitical game ten moves in advance, is far from the truth. Instead, he and his administration are opportunists. They have a broad sense of what they want: to make Russia great again, to assert its place in the world, and block any attempts to control it by keeping the West divided, distracted, and demoralized. They will act when they spot a chance to advance that agenda.

But this also means that there are all kinds of groups, agencies, individuals, and political entrepreneurs, who carry out their own schemes, in the hope that, if they are successful, they will earn the only currency that really matters in Russia: the Kremlin’s favor.

Here is the distinctive complexity of the new Russia. There is no public evidence as of this writing that Veselnitskaya has formal ties to Russia’s federal government or Putin himself. With clients like Katsyv, connections like the Agalarovs, and a background working with the Moscow regional government, though, she knows how the system works. She could have been an agent of the government, she could simply have been working her own and her client’s agenda, but she could just as easily have dwelled somewhere in between. After all, had Veselnitskaya really managed to break the Magnitsky Act, she would have gained powerful and grateful friends in Moscow. If she had wormed her way into the Trump campaign, that is undoubtedly something that would have then interested the Kremlin.

On the one hand, this campaign of entrepreneurial, self-starter subversion presents the Kremlin with considerable advantages. It weaponizes the imaginations of all sorts of ambitious Russians, creating a host of small-scale activities that the Kremlin can use if they work, deny if not. For a state seemingly unconcerned with bringing about any specific, positive change—let alone win any friends—but rather spreading chaos and uncertainty, this is a powerful asset.

But this also means that Russia is increasingly becoming something of a pariah. Is every Russian really an agent of the Kremlin? Of course not. But we can never really know for sure, not least because they might become one, retroactively. Every Russian company could be or become a channel for dirty Kremlin cash; every diplomat a spy; every journalist a propagandist. We have to understand, in this age of “hybrid warfare,” that everything in Russia is, in some way, potentially hybrid. The Kremlin sees everything and everyone as a resource to be drawn on by the state if need be.

This is why such contacts as Veselnitskaya’s matter. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether she was acting as an agent of the Kremlin or on her own, because had her overtures come to anything, it is highly unlikely Moscow would not have then sought to use her. Indeed, she might well have shopped her access to the Trump campaign to a Kremlin always eager to reward that kind of success.

None of this means we should treat every Russian as a threat. It does mean, however, that everyone needs to understand the murky ambiguities of this modern political war, in which today’s private citizen can easily be tomorrow’s Kremlin source. Not to understand this, as would seem the case for Trump Jr., is startlingly naïve at best, dangerously foolish at worst.