The Kremlin Report – a big, fat nothing

Anyone hoping the U.S. Treasury’s “Kremlin Report” would show insight into Russia’s inner workings has been sorely disappointed. It shows little understanding of who the real power brokers are in Moscow, and cements the U.S.’s reputation as a bull in a china shop.

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the G20 summit in Germany, in 2017
Dialogue between the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin now seems highly unlikely. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Washington’s “Kremlin Report” shows how little it understands Russia
  • It cements the U.S.’s image of a bull in a china shop
  • Europe could have helped, but toes the American line
  • The outcome is bad for all involved

The publication of the United States Treasury Department’s so-called “Kremlin Report,” especially its Section 241(a)(1), the list of “Senior Foreign Political Figures and Oligarchs in the Russian Federation,” has been nervously anticipated in Moscow. It is rumored that some Russian businesspeople even paid significant sums of money to Washington lobbyists, trying to keep their names out of the document – something not too difficult to imagine. Especially menacing was the idea that the report would reveal the structure of Russia’s “dark state,” the true mechanics behind Moscow’s political decisions that have so often stunned other capitals around the world. American sources have many times hinted that the report would do just that.

Baffling result

The result, however, is baffling. The 210 people named are all simply highly placed Russian officials (without taking any account of the relevance of their actual political weight, role or function), as well as the first 96 people on Forbes’ list of the richest Russians (again without any consideration of their intimacy with the Putin regime).

Among the many caustic criticisms of the report, some compared Section 241 to a phone book. Indeed, there are many people on the list who are in no way associated with the Kremlin’s harsh political intentions, such as the chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, or the former Minister of Economics and Trade Herman Gref, now the CEO of Sberbank. Some are as distant from the authorities as possible, including billionaires Pyotr Aven, Alexander Mamut, Mikhail Prokhorov and Arkady Volozh.

It cannot be that the first volume of a novel is rubbish, while the second is pure genius.

At the same time, many well-known decision makers (and especially decision supporters) are absent from the list. There are other, classified annexes to the report, but they are not very likely to be radically different from the unclassified section. It cannot be that the first volume of a novel is rubbish, while the second is pure genius.

Ignorance reigns

To make this work, many months of effort by government bodies, special services, think tanks and experts would not have been necessary. The job could have been done by a graduate student in a single day for $100. If this is all the U.S. government in its present state can accomplish, things really look bad. During the Cold War, Washington spared no effort to know and understand its opponent. That approach contributed to the American victory in the Cold War. If the intellectual degradation of formerly glorious American institutions like the CIA is so advanced, can the U.S. really hope to “light up the world,” as President Donald Trump promised in his State of the Union Address? Ignorance is darkness, not light.

Chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights U.S. Treasury’s Kremlin Report
Mikhail Fedotov, (R), chairman of Vladimir Putin’s human rights council, made the U.S. list of influential Moscow insiders but has little to do with Kremlin power plays. © dpa

It is ignorance that seems to be dominant now. The irritation experienced by Anders Aslund, one of the best specialists on Russia who had participated in the early versions of the Kremlin Report, is understandable: “At the last minute, however, somebody high up – no one knows who at this point – threw out the experts’ work. … In doing so, this senior official ridiculed the government experts who had prepared another report … mocking U.S. sanctions on Russia overall.”

Some say that this bizarre event is evidence that President Trump is indeed a “Kremlin agent.” This is, of course, just a wild conspiracy theory. It does not make any more sense than considering George Soros, another American billionaire, a CIA agent, as Russian or Hungarian nationalists do. When the explanation for a puzzle comes down to cunning or stupidity, the latter turns out to be the case 99 times out of 100. Stupidity is more dangerous, too.

Europe’s role

Perhaps Europe could have played a positive role in this situation – for many obvious reasons, the Europeans are more closely acquainted with the structure and activities of the Russian authorities, as well as with Russia itself.

Europe has not been inactive on that count (the above-mentioned Anders Aslund is Swedish), but has mostly limited itself to discussion and commentary. As for policy direction, it has not offered any actionable alternative to the straightforward American line on Russia, which it reluctantly continues to toe. Only a car without a driver follows a perfectly straight line, and sooner or later it hits a wall. A European strategy would have most likely been better thought-out, more nuanced and, in the long run, more fruitful.

The Kremlin has been reminded that it must deal with a bull that is not only blind but also deaf.

What is happening is bad for America, cementing its reputation as a bull in a china shop – and a blind bull at that. It is also bad for Europe, which has become a seeming hostage of this blind bull.

For Russia, however, this state of affairs is tragic. The authorities have been reminded that they must deal with a bull that is not only blind but also deaf, a useless negotiating partner who is disinclined to talk. Yet only a dialogue with Washington could alleviate the fear that grips Russia and generates much of its disturbing external behavior.

In this situation, the possibility of even modest steps to ease the confrontation with the West that might at least theoretically be expected after Russia’s presidential elections in March 2018 is increasingly improbable. Among other things, this is because the Kremlin Report undermines the (admittedly weak) position of those inside Russia who could help build bridges rather than walls.

What is happening is bad for everyone.

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