Sunday 2 June 2024

General Popov (2): Corruption in Russia

Popular Popov

So: in a classic tale of Old Russia, the popular General Popov is being charged with extensive embezzlement - a misappropriated consignment of steel.   A good few years ago I spent a lot of time in Russia and had cause to observe, nay study (it was important) a great many Russian traits at first hand.  Anyone who thinks all humanity essentially behaves the same, and that attribution of national characteristics is rank stereotyping bordering on wickedness, is a fool.  

One of those traits was corruption at the day-to-day level.  You might even say I participated - although it was all perfectly legal from the PoV of US law, because I stuck to "expediting payments" [1] - for which one would get a receipt, since it was known that it needed to be claimed on expenses.  I came to the conclusion that Russian corruption was different in nature to, say, the Subcontinent variant.  In the latter, certain jobs are recognised to be opportunities for informal but systematic tax-farming, and are sought after, indeed competed for, accordingly.  "How much can you typically make on the side?" is a question a friend or family member will make of an acquaintance when discussing their work.  It is proactive, totally transactional, indeed quite businesslike and cheerful.

Russians are not quite like that.  First of all, we need to take a step back.  Russians are very convinced of their exceptional cultural superiority (and as regards basic education, literature and music, they are not wrong).  In that sense they are very nationalistic, but their primary loyalty is essentially to the local network / support system, their команда, of which they are an embedded member.  Everyone else is, more or less, fair game.  (You see how freely I generalise?)

The second aspect of their inner conviction - this one is a bit more difficult - is that their superiority means they shouldn't have to raise a finger to get their due; it should just sort-of naturally accrue to them.  At the national level this explains why, instead of being outward-looking and purposeful as other "exceptionalist" nations tend to be, Russia is reactive and basically just resentful.  (Why doesn't the world simply recognise their innate superiority, and award them their place in the sun / seat at top table?)

Here we get to the outright corruption.  When any jobsworth encounters, on his own patch, an outsider on a mission - a functionary from Moscow, a biznizman from abroad - he thinks: this chap has been sent to get something done.  He'll perhaps be in big trouble back in Moscow if it doesn't get it done (negative); he'll maybe get a big bonus if he pulls off his deal (positive).  But me?  I get nothing.  And that's not fair.  Resentment, never far from the surface, blossoms again: there's nothing cheerful or proactive in this thought-process.  So: he's going to have to cut me in: if there are any bonuses (positive or negative) associated with this, there needs to be something in it for me, too.  It's only fair.

As I discovered in a very different context - the Army - notions of fairness constitute the highest law amongst the soldiery.  They'll put up with almost anything, as long as by their lights it's been fairly dished out.  Schoolchildren are the same: the Life Lesson of "life's not fair" goes down very hard.  And so it is, by different lights, in Russia.  I'm the equal of you, indeed culturally I'm superior.  The apparent differences between us are mere happenstance.  It's not fair that there should be bonus coming your way and not mine.  So pay some of it across.

The amazing thing is, Russians would readily accuse themselves of all of this!  And they know how it looks to outsiders!  They are not remotely godless (though some are atheists) or amoral (by their own lights); and their loyalty within the команда knows no bounds.  They just wish life would be better.  Spontaneously.  And in the meantime, fairness dictates you cut them in.  And cheating the outsider is, well, that's what you do: the Man from Moscow or, in former times, the tribute-collecter from the Mongol horde.

Which brings us back to General Popov.  We've already said the truth about the embezzlement of the steel may never be known.  But every Russian thinks: yeah, but maybe ...  Because any top-down initiative comes from somebody high-up, far away, who badly wants it done - and it comes with resources, too, some of which can be creatively liberated and shared.

Now obviously there are also worldscale kleptocrats in Russia, and gangsters, and highly organised middlemen who know how to fence that steel.  These aren't the types I'm talking about.  It's the soldiers who understand how maybe some steel went missing; but anyhow, Gen Popov is a good bloke.  And you know what? - some diesel and tyres went missing in my barracks last week, too ...  As long as the rest of the команда gets a cut.

Finally on the good General:  one of the milbloggers wrote: 

Ah well, it seems there was no commissar to be there for him, like Furmanov was for Chapaev - to take him by the sleeve and stand in his way.  "Ivan Ivanovitch, don't do it!  It's wrong and it's not going to do any good.  Here's your glass, here's mine.  We'll knock them back in one, we'll sleep, and tomorrow we'll be back in battle."

This is the classic Russian way of making a potentially contentious point: you recount an incident from an impeccable source (a well-known poem, novel[2], or in this case, the film Chapaev, said to be Putin's favourite) that makes your point for you.  Even a really good bloke, an authentic hero, might sometimes be tempted off the straight and narrow.  With a bit of luck, there's someone in the team to head him off.  But hey, we're all human.



[1] "This is the traffic police.  Your new car has arrived at the Moscow city boundary.  Its paperwork seems to be in order.  Would you like to take delivery of it now, or in 6-7 weeks?  Now?  Ok, $50."

[2] Remember that fine Russian education.


dearieme said...

So essentially all Russians are like the US governing class?

How bent is our governing class?

Nick Drew said...

Middle-class Russians are better educated than most of the US governing class!

Bill Quango MP said...

Two years ago. But one of, if not the very, best explanation of how systemic corruption weakens and damages everything.
Specifically about the Russian military. But applies to all bureaucratic corruption too.
How corruption infiltrates all levels.

My friend’s experience of commercial property building in the Caribbean, shows this in applying for planning building permissions. Obtaining permits, insurances. Workers etc is a huge pain.

And is also, quite pointless. As NOTHING happens until the requisite bribe is paid to the person who needs it.
So even if you have all the official paperwork you need, there is still a whole bunch of government people who want payment.
Or the files sit in a drawer. Probably forever.
The size of the bribe relates to the level of office. It is not related, as the west prefers, to the size of the expected profits.

Even then, with all papers in order, many years have passed and still nothing happens.
Someone always needs a bit more. For somebody.

And it’s tax free. So, even a smallish amount goes much further.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the attacks on Russia's nuclear early warning radars? Strikes me as a dangerous development.

Also the precision long range weapons.

Supplied by NATO
Programmed by NATO mercs (or even remotely from say Germany)
Targets acquired by NATO ISR planes/satellites/drones
Missiles guided by NATO satellites/planes/drones
Damage evaluation/feedback by NATO satellites/planes/drones

In the immortal words of Lee Dorsey "how long can this go on?" before Russia decides to do, say, an Iran-style response - announce targets in advance.

Doomsday clock (remember that?) is at 90 seconds to midnight now. Closest ever. England very small, very crowded.

"these officials from NATO countries, especially the ones based in Europe, particularly in small European countries, should be fully aware of what is at stake. They should keep in mind that theirs are small and densely populated countries, which is a factor to reckon with before they start talking about striking deep into the Russian territory. It is a serious matter and, without a doubt, we are watching this very carefully."

At least I have my iodine pills...

Clive said...

As good an explanation as you’re likely to find as to why it’s just plain silly for the (small army) of Russian propagandists to piffle on about “oh, the west is terrible, if it had any sense it would just give Russia everything it’s entitled to…”

It’s also I think true to say that rampant jingoism for the west itself is similar misplaced. We don’t have the same overt self-justifying corruption. But we do reward incompetence, outsized senses of superiority and something-for-nothing fantasies (in different ways).

We can, and hopefully will, collectively come up with something better than either.

Clive said...

@ Anonymous12:39 pm

Do you think it might be worth Russia installing some air defence on these flagship military assets? You know, the ones it publicly declared it could start a nuclear exchange over the loss off, only to have them taken out by a few hundred thousand dollar’s worth of cheapy drones, the sort which Isreal shoots down by the hundred?

And why would Ukraine need NATO input to target them? I could navigate to them using my phone from publicly available location data.

Seems to me, and maybe this is what’s prompted your musings, Ukraine has at least some incentive to induce a nuclear strike (talk about the ultimate victim card…), Russia mouthed off about its “nuclear doctrine” (scary stuff and yes, indeed, it is scary) to which Ukraine, like I say, for the price of a Bentley, could create an incident where it could then say “okay, go on, then”.

Can you spell “asymmetrical reflex escalation”? I can, just about, with help from autocorrect. So can Ukraine, apparently.

dearieme said...

If the Russians would be kind enough to nuke Washington DC and NYC the West would probably be a better place.

But they won't because they'd lose Moscow and St Petersburg.

However they might be tempted to nuke, say, Berlin. I can't imagine any of the other NATO countries wishing to sacrifice their own capitals as part of a response.

Clive said...

@ dearieme 1:39

Which is why within a decade at the most (or even a few short years) I reckon Poland, or the Baltics, Romania, Sweden or Finland (or all, or some combination of these -- those with skin in the game, as it were) will either have a nuclear capability or be signalling pretty clearly they can come up with one at very short notice.

No-one, to return to a theme in the original post, outside of their (to use, as I prefer, the Japanese expression) "in-group" being, as you rightly suggest, being guarantee-able to really stand up for you.

Russian World, indeed.

Anonymous said...

But Clive, I'm not sure if you're getting the point. These long range radars are part of our protection as well as theirs, because they make for fewer misunderstandings. Would chances of war be lessened or increased if Fylingdales went up one night?

The F16s will be another problem, as they can carry nuclear weapons. You can't tell if they are carrying them or not.

Still, I'm hoping they'll follow the Abrams into the dustbin of history.

Clive said...

@ Anonymous 2:48

Oh, yes, I agree. It was silly of Ukraine to target these installations. But the reason they targeted them was because it was silly of Russia to threaten nuclear strikes in response to easy to hit but completely undefended assets. WWIII because of an attack with a few hundred thousand dollar’s worth of weapons even I could probably assemble if I put my mind to it? Really, Vladimir?

No, I don’t agree with any of this. But then we’re stilling here, nice and cosy in our countries which, unlike Ukraine, aren’t being invaded. I suspect that makes you think very differently about these things. And what did Russia expect (again, to return to the original post)? A nice, neat war that worked precisely as it expected with no unexpected surprises and everyone doing exactly what they were told?

Anonymous said...

@ Clive

Yes indeed, the enemy gets a vote, Vlad - and the more desperate you make'em, the more "creative" their reactions may be.

I think everyone is just showing what they might be capable of.

Wait till both Ukraine AND Israel have their backs to the wall and don't feel they have any (other) friends. Some time before the Inauguration, probably. It may not just be NK/Iran/Russia that can swap weapons tech.

Well, come on then, China - where's your global statesmanship? Just waiting for the above scenario, I'd say: then it's Taiwan time.

Anonymous said...

"we’re stilling here, nice and cosy in our countries which, unlike Ukraine, aren’t being invaded"

I beg to differ. We are, and have been, being invaded. It was bad enough in 2006-7, when millions of Slavic speakers arrived, without even snow on their boots. The Guardian said maybe 50,000 would come.

Boris and Rishi added millions of Indians and Francophone Africans, as a reward for Brexit voters. We've been invaded alright, and quislings opened the gates.

We're not nice and cosy either, house prices and rents are insane. Landlords paradise.

Anonymous said...

Big Serge on Russian military corruption:

The basic problem, as such, is that Russia’s defense spending has risen dramatically while problems with corruption (particularly in procurement) remain. There is no need to naively idealize the Russian state - corruption, while certainly much improved from the calamitous 90’s, does remain a thorn in the side of good governance, as in almost all post-Soviet states.

The obvious problem for Russia is that the stakes are obviously much higher during wartime, and the ballooning defense budget makes it harder to control such leakages. Simultaneously, Russia needs to chart a sustainable military-industrial policy as defense spending swells to some 7% of GDP. Hence, Belousov - a man known for being a true believing devotee of the state who lives a modest lifestyle and is himself seen as essentially resistant to corruption. The near instantaneous launch of a high-level purging of senior MoD officers under charges of corruption signals a similar sea change.

There is, however, another aspect of these anti-corruption arrests which is being overlooked. Most western analysis wants to regard these arrests as a Stalin-esque “purge”, possibly in an attempt by Putin to remove “Shoigu loyalists” from the ministry of defense. In this framework, Putin - like Stalin - fears a rival power center under Shoigu and wishes to neutralize an imagined threat by reassigning Shoigu and arresting “his men.” I think, rather, there is a different and more straightforward explanation. Putin has spoken repeatedly about his desire to promote a new Russian leadership cadre comprised of proven veterans of the SMO in Ukraine. Behind the particular Russian political vernacular, there’s an obvious truth: for the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia has a growing pool of experienced and battle-hardened officers to promote. The arrested officers represent a class of peacetime promotions, grown soft and corrupt on the largesse of the MOD’s past permissiveness. Under Belousov, it is clearly intended that the MOD be remade with leadership made up of commanders proven in Ukraine.