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Russian 'Adhocracy' Helps Create Cushion Of Plausible Deniability For Putin


The Russian government runs on ambiguity and plausible deniability. That's why the story about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russians last summer may not be so clear-cut. The lawyer he met with was described as a Russian government attorney. The Moscow real estate developer who may have helped arrange the meeting has been described as Kremlin-linked. NPR's Lucian Kim has more about the informal nature of the Russian government.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet Natalia Veselnitskaya last summer, she was introduced to him as a Russian government lawyer with dirt on Hillary Clinton. But Trump Jr. says that Veselnitskaya didn't deliver the goods, and the meeting ended quickly. In her weekly radio show last weekend, Moscow columnist Yulia Latynina said she had an explanation.


YULIA LATYNINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Russian and American lobbyists are very different," Latynina said. While Americans are trying to actually change laws, Russian lobbyists demand huge fees from their bosses by simply arranging meetings with influential people. Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague says Veselnitskaya was probably on a phishing expedition.

MARK GALEOTTI: That's precisely the kind of thing you can then take back to Moscow and leverage. At that point, you suddenly become interesting for the Kremlin. So this is a classic case in my opinion of political entrepreneurship from an individual rather than some long-term planned intelligence operation.

KIM: Aras Agalarov, the Russian real estate magnate whose son may have helped organize Veselnitskaya's meeting with Trump Jr., might have been on a similar venture. Agalarov denies he was involved. Journalist Mikhail Zygar says despite his wealth, Agalarov has little political influence, so he may have been just providing a service for someone else. Zygar, the author of a book called "All The Kremlin's Men," says power in Russia is actually very diffuse, with government loyalists trying to anticipate what President Vladimir Putin wants without necessarily getting a direct order.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR: They usually do not say anything directly. They would never say, please steal those billions of dollars, or, please murder those journalists. They would hint. They would say, do what you have to do. You know your obligations. Please fulfill them.

KIM: Those same informal relationships have been evident in Russia's use of volunteers in the war in Ukraine or patriotic hackers in the U.S. election. Political analyst Vladimir Frolov says that loose system of command and control creates a filter of plausible deniability for the Kremlin.

VLADIMIR FROLOV: It's very convenient. Even if, you know, things fail, there is no direct fallouts, negative fallouts for the Russian government.

KIM: The impromptu ad hoc nature of Russian governance has prompted Mark Galeotti to coin a new term, adhocracy (ph).

GALEOTTI: In the West, we're used to a system in which people's job titles actually tell you what they do. Russia has become rather different. It's become deinstitutionalized. It's become what I will call an adhocracy.

KIM: Galeotti says that system may appear more nimble than ponderous Western democracies, but he warns that in the long term, it will hurt Russia. He says it will turn the country into a pariah state and make every Russian business person or diplomat look like a potential Kremlin agent. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.