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.