This Wednesday Novaya Gazeta, traditionally the most critical newspaper in Russia, published a major leak: an unsigned “Strategy paper”, assumed to be dated between February 5th-11th 2014. The document, as we now know, includes some rather blunt and unashamed in their realpolitik proposals to the Russian government to solve a bunch of its problems (gas prices, balance of power in CEE, arms industry refurbishment, and Slavo-graphic replenishment, to name just a few). Some predictions that underpinned the proposals turned out correct (Yanukovich will not last a month, Crimea will vote itself out, Russia will suffer economically for a long time), others turned out quite off the mark (Kharkiv will rise up against Kiev first, the EU will accept the disintegration as long as we give it a legitimate-sounding name, and many more).
What is in the document is indeed interesting, and the global media paid due attention. But the real story for me here is who the author of this document is. And the answer may be hidden in who the messenger is.
Novaya Gazeta pre-teased the leak on another Kremlin-critical media, Echo of Moscow. The editor-in-chief said that they are certain that the document was prepared by “people close to Putin“, and that “Malofeev was one of the authors“. I expected that this conviction would be based on some by-line, or document properties, or email-origin analysis. But it turned out, there were no objective signs that the document came from Malofeev. Why did Novaya Gazeta claim that it did? (that said, in the commentary to the published version, Novaya softens the language by saying it is “likely” coming from Malofeev, following his standard threat of litigation in the meantime).
I spoke with the article’s author while doing prep research for our story in Die Zeit. He told me he believed the author was Malofeev for two reasons. First, he was told so by the source, and he trusts the source. Second, because the document’s style fits the style expected from Malofeev.
A different version of events was told by the NG chief editor, Dmitriy Muratov. He told the Daily Beast that the newspaper “got the document via email from the Kremlin, and the source wrote specifically that they [the Kremlin] received this proposal from Malofeev last February“.
Setting aside that these are two rather different versions of events, our own research showed few, if any, similarities with Malofeev’s style. I have yet to come across anything written by Malofeev in which he doesn’t explain Russia’s need to act one way or another with a “mission given us by God“. He appears so obsessed with God and King (yes, his other pet project is the resurrection of a Byzantine empire with Moscow being the new Rome), that even when he praises his employee Girkin for “killing the right Ukrainian ATO officers”, he finds a way to make sound like a God-pleasing achievement.. Nothing of the sort in the dull, realpolitik, down-to-earth analysis and proposal in the Strategy at issue.
Our research for the article in Die Zeit suggests a more plausible source of the document – the President’s own foreign-policy think-tank RISS. Or it might well have been RISS together with Malofeev, as they share a joint obsession in Orthodox empire-building. In November 2013, Malofeev and RISS’s boss Gen. Reshetnikov signed a joint appeal to Putin to enshrine an official role of the Orthodox Church in the Russian constitution. Or it might have been any other think-tank, or Ministry, or even a political consultancy outfit.
But the Kremlin leaking a highly compromising document to an opposition newspaper and throwing the blame on a God-loving, Church-sponsoring, Gift-of-the-Maggi-globe-trotting oligarch, who on top of all says Putin should be the new Tzar, doesn’t make any sense, does it? Or doesn’t it? Let’s break it down.
Does the Kremlin have issues with Malofeev? Surely it does. It has been having them since 2007. Then Malofeev borrowed $225 m from a state-owned bank, under fall pretenses according to VTB, and used it as starting capital to build out his billion-dollar “Marshal Capital” which for a few years became the controlling shareholder of telecoms giant Rostelecom. In that position, he apparently controlled more than phone bills. Confidential letters written to Putin by regional governors in 2012 (which I found amongst the hacked emails leaked by Anonymous International) allege that Malofeev used Rostelecom’s monopoly over e-government to extort higher and higher fees from local governments – at a time when the regions could hardly muster up pension money.
Russia is a big and unwieldy country. If Putin must chose sides, I doubt he would chose the side of one guy almost half his age, against hundreds of angered, vengeful local officials. The Kremlin tried to please the regional governments (as well as the strong “other-than-Rostelecom” telecoms lobby), by launching a criminal investigation into the VTB loans, freezing Malofeev’s shares in Rostelecom and blocking him from running for Senate (through proving that he bribed voters, for which the Communist party helped Putin to avoid criminal investigation for other crimes, but that’s a separate surreal story).
The Kremlin even tried to destroy Malofeev’s reputation in the way it best loves to – by dumping compromat material (true or false, doesn’t matter) on special-purpose websites in this case http://www.malofeev.info, http://www.malofeev.com and the full gamut. Unfortunately for the Kremiln, no one got to see these websites. Why was that? A few years earlier, Malofeev had made a very shrewd “investment” in the Internet Safety League, which decides which sites in Russia should be banned, give or take. Check out this guy complaining naively he can’t access malofeev.info via his…wait for it…Rostelecom connection.
Ok, so we know Putin was pissed at Malofeev for a number of reasons, and we probably don’t even know all of them. But even if we assume he would try to get him out of the way by, for example, jailing him for funding terrorist activity in Ukraine (which is an easily indictable crime under Russian law), and scoring some good-faith points with the World, would he ever use the “obnoxious” Novaya Gazeta to do that?
Well, the best predictor of the future is the past. The Kremlin already did that same exercise once.
On 18 November 2012, at 4:32 pm the Kremlin’s PR desk received via email a phone-camera photo of the fresh court verdict of the Smolensk regional court, confirming that Malofeev bribed voters. Only 45 min later, another email was sent to the same Kremlin account, with the title “already went out“. The email contained a link. To Novaya Gazeta, where the story had just been leaked – with a copy of the very same phone-cam photo of the verdict.
And yet, even if we assume all of this is plausible, one thing remains hard to swallow. Would the Kremlin, ever, discredit itself (by showing the kind of ruthless “strategies” that it encouraged, or tolerated, but certainly followed and executed), only to suggest that some else WROTE the proposal? Would Putin saw off his nose to spite his face?
Again, the past and the future… Just read this story about how the Kremlin leaked to LifeNews the story on how the Kremlin funded its most vocal opponent – Navalny. Didn’t Putin consider his own reputation cost when discrediting someone else by association? Apparently he did, and l’addition came out perfectly well for him.
So…Was it Malofeev who wrote the memo? Unlikely, although he was almost certainly involved in drafting it (the paper refers to “prep work already done in Crimea“, and at that time – early February – Malofeev, with Girkin who was stationed permanently in Crimea since January, was the only one who had actually done any prep work). But was it “him” (as opposed to “the State”), and did the State just find out and start feeling bad?
Highly unlikely. What is much more likely is that Putin is setting the stage for a removal of a highly inconvenient – while cherubically loyal, in lip-service – oligarch.
And good riddance, as Malofeev is provenly a war criminal who deserves to rot in hell. But at the same time, let’s take Kremlin red herrings at face value.
Even if we like the messenger.
UPDATE: Following the publication of our story in Die Zeit, Leonid Reshetnikov, chairman of RISS, replied to our request for comment by saying “This is not our document, we never write any strategies on Ukraine”.
Yet, this interview with Reshetnikov, published on 3 June 2014 on Riss.ru, says the exact opposite. In response to newspaper question “What do you advised Pres. Putin in regard to the situation in Eastern Ukraine?”, Mr. Reshetnikov openly admits:
“We advised [him] to create and declare independent republics, and for these republics to address Russia with a request to be recognized, and advised them to develop a process of creating of a Novorossya state. I can see, our plan is being implemented.”
In an interview to CNN, Putin’s spokesman Peskov said the following about the “Strategy Paper”:
“No, this is not true. This is not true. Or maybe, maybe. I mean, I cannot exclude. Because I don’t know the paper. I don’t know who is the author of the paper.”
“It’s a newspaper … sometimes they make, well, unimaginable publications. And I don’t see any reason for us to react. The only thing I can tell you — even if kind of that paper exists, it has nothing to do with the Kremlin. And it has nothing to do with official papers in Russian government.”
Just a note. When the Kremlin leaked to LifeNews documents suggesting Navalny’s structures were indirectly financed by the Kremlin itself, here is how the Kremlin reacted.
“Reports about the Kremlin financing [Navalny] are absolute nonsense and a stunt to increase ratings, with all due respect to LifeNews,” an unnamed source in the Kremlin told state news agency TASS. But if such documents exist, what they say should be looked into.”