In respect to deniability, the United States was frequently forced to turn to its practices during the Cold War – usually very ineffectively given that its various covert and political warfare operations sometimes failed rather spectacularly…even when successful, they fooled few observers. The Russians were quite good at deniability, even in the face of obvious facts, however other than in spying and espionage they found themselves able to operate more openly and had less need for it.
There are a number of elements in deniable practices but cut outs and autonomous operations are fundamental. A number of American CIA operations which could be called “rogue” were conducted with great autonomy, in an effort to isolate the President from blame if they failed – or from accusations given their illegality. General high level statements along the lines of “we need to do something” translated into more aggressive and often high risk operations as they passed down the chain of operational command.
In contemporary times, we are seeing quite similar practices occurring within the new Russia. There are some excellent books on Putin’s rise to power and his modes of operation – which are quite tactical. Reportedly he has become quite proficient at the leadership game of calling out issues to subordinates and when they respond with plans or actions simply telling them to do what they think best.
It’s a classic form of deniability but as certain American presidents found, it can also go very bad – very quickly. If you seriously want to understand the context of what is going on in the new Russia, I highly recommend All the Kremlin’s Men by Mikhail Zygar. It does an excellent job of describing Putin’s rise to power but is far more important for an appreciation of how he has repeatedly used various sets of Russian oligarchs for his purposes, leveraging them for deniability and ruthlessly discarding them if they embarrass him or fail to perform.
That practice is going to become very clear as the investigation of Russian information warfare makes it more visible – in the end Putin may well take the Reagan position over Iran-Contra i.e. it was a bad deal and nobody told me they were doing it. I was really sincere when I told your President my government was not officially involved, it was a group of bad apples, rogues…
At the moment, one of the risks is that this level of autonomous operations is translating beyond information warfare and into military operations. It was evident in the Crimea and Ukraine for those who were not in denial, with some “volunteers” actually recruited and financed by very wealthy Russian capitalists. It’s becoming even more obvious in Syria, with Russian military contracting companies being exposed.
The thing is that it often works well at first, until casualties start to pick up and friends and families at home begin to ask questions about the bodies. In Syria, it appears that the head of a contracting firm named Wagner (Dmitry Utkin, a former colonel in the Russian Special Forces) may have seen an opportunity to gain control and revenues from what was thought to be an ISIS vacated oil field. Utkin is under US sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and was formerly head of security for Yevgeny Prigozhin, himself recently indicted by Robert Mueller for funding the infamous Internet Research Agency, operating out of St. Petersburg.
If you have not been following the results of the Russian led military efforts in Syria, in particular the recent engagement with American backed forces, an engagement which proved to be highly violent and quite deadly for the Russian initiative, check out the following link:
Individuals with the wealth and connections of Prigozhin provide a great degree of deniability for policy decisions made in Moscow – and as long as their actions appear to be working it’s a fine thing. When they are either exposed or fail, things could get a bit nastier. Vladimir Putin is known for his classic Russian cultural world view, which involves supporting success but dealing harshly with failure.