Context is very important in understanding the Russian connections to the Trump administration – which of course was preceded by the Trump business network, its foreign business dealings and at one point its major need for foreign financial investment – and remember the Trump motto, never use your own money, use someone else’s.
One of the most important pieces of that context is Vladimir Putin. At present, understanding Putin and understanding contemporary Russian actions around the globe means appreciating that Putin is not an ideologue but that he is naturally tactician. For him strategy is simply control and power….it’s a survival mechanism bred within the Soviet leadership structure and especially within the KGB. On the other hand, tactics are how he operates day to day, week to week and year to year and those evolve – a tactician probes, measures responses and resets. In confronting an enemy a tactician also attempts to create as much chaos as possible since that exposes opportunities while keeping the target off balance.
Putin comes out of the operational side of the KGB, not the collections or analysis areas. Which means his experience was in seeking operational advantages for political action and psychological warfare – experience which translates directly to how he is conducting contemporary Russian foreign affairs.
To elaborate on that, at its most basic a practice called “shaping” comes into play. In combat it’s referred to as “battlespace shaping” and in sales it’s sometimes called “battleground shaping”. If you have ever been in a good sales war room, and I have, it often sounds like warfare and the terms can be used in much the same way when you are talking about competitors – or sometimes actually about potential customers.
In the military context shaping involves maneuvers to keep the enemy off balance, continually posing new problems for them. It sets the stage to gain operational advantage and hopefully makes any responses ineffective.
In sales – and in political action / psychological warfare – shaping is a matter of building relationships, establishing trust, creating a presence that makes you the one to listen to when your target begins to make decisions. These days there is a lot of talk about people listening only the news they want to hear – which means that in regard to psychological warfare, it’s very important to ensure you can penetrate the media for your target population – you need to become skilled in feeding information and disinformation through the correct channels to perform effective shaping.
All of which is pretty esoteric so back to Putin and context. Putin went through several stages to get where he is today. Initially in his first Russian Federation presidency he made sure to focus all the state’s resources, including its intelligence and security services, behind Russia’s energy companies – the obvious place to secure massive financial resources. In a way it was relationship building not totally unlike the CIAs early associations with major international American corporations. Of course for Putin it was also more personally rewarding.
Then in his second presidency he began to take positive control, if you played ball you kept your energy company and if not you went to jail and his associates took over your company. Following that, using the huge pool of money he created through such actions, he put selected cadre, including security service personnel, in charge of the banks and financial companies which were going to place it overseas. Good business but also in intelligence terms a type of “honey trap”. Given that the investment targets were in Europe and America, well you can begin to see the sort of political action shaping I introduced above. First you get bait, then you hook the little fish and then you go to the ocean and use the little fish for bait the really big fish.
Putin needed no long term geopolitical strategy, he certainly didn’t need to have a plan to put Trump in the Presidency. What he needed was to shape a positive financial relationship with western businessmen and in Europe set leverage by controlling eighty percent of their energy imports. With the shaping in place and in his second presidency, he could begin to get tactical, probing, testing, looking at the response, and maneuvering. The first test was in Georgia…
But for the moment, before we continue, don’t think “collusion” (that is really bad intelligence and political action tradecraft), instead think shaping, manipulation and deniability (it was only a business meeting, we just want positive relationships, check the tape).