The Best and the Brighest

The KGB was not the best and brightest of the Soviet Union. This must be understood.

The leaders of the Soviet Union were the best and the brightest.

Men like Boris Yeltin, Leonid Kuchma, Alexander Lukashenko, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Islam Karimov were the best and brightest. These men had reached ;positions of influence by surviving a complicated, multiethnic, and obscure political system. Surviving the Soviet required somehow fulfilling the desires of higher-ups while not making any serious enemies in a multiracial empire that had to accommodate populations from the great civilizations of the classic world (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and so on). Thus it is no surprise that when the Soviet Union broke up, these same men found themselves in leadership positions in the post-Soviet states. The same scales that helped survival domestic USSR politics enabled success in international CIS politics. Soft power was the rule of the day, as elites attempted to consolidate power, either becoming the newly rich themselves or co-opting those who did so.

In the American system, the analogues to the men like Yeltsin are the CEOs and business entrepreneurs. Risk-takers and survivals, their skilled were perfectly matched to the late Imperial position they found themselves in. (Indeed, perhaps European “softness” on Communism was largely a function of recognizing the Russians as possessing the same sort of multiethnic empire than they had so recently possessed, or at least aspired to.)

Those who could not survive this systme, but still wanted respect and power, naturally gravitted into the Soviet Union’s “B-team.” Our “B-team” is composed of the political class — senators, presidents, and the like — who typically begin with a law degree and try to make their way in the aristocracy of poll. Russia’s “B-team” was the KGB, who likewise could not hack it in the big leagues but nonetheless could contribute in a relatively narrow if high-profile and important domain. Government is safer than business in the United States because your government will not dissolve, but your company might. In the Soviet Union, if you were on the path to the central committee mistakes you make today might haunt you in twenty years time: the KGB afforded the anonymity necessary for tolerating more mistakes.

Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin, is a KGB. It shows.

Consider this post by Tom from Febuary 2006:

Moscow will say their recent behavior on pricing energy exports is just normal “market principles,” and there’s some truth to that, but there’s also plenty of truth to the charge that Putin seems to think that selling energy equates to pol-mil power, when it doesn’t.

There is a natural limit to this, and that limit is Russia’s continuing and large need for outside capital to upgrade its infrastructure throughout the economy–not just in the energy sphere. Right now, Gazprom’s death grip on the gas market is restricting the ability of independent Russian producers to attract foreign money for this most capital-intensive industry. It’s an old issue: control the pie too much and it won’t grow.

So do I expect Putin or his successors to give up control over the energy sector out of their love for democracy? No. I expect them to loosen their grip out of greed.

This is logically correct. Merely exporting energy just gives you the blip that the Arab states enjoyed in the 1970s. Turning that into sustainable power requires connectivity to the west. But it requires the long-term thinking of the men like Yeltsin, not the operatives like Putin.

Putin’s solution. Squeeze Belarus. Attack the Southern Energy Corridor in Georgia. Cause havoc, temporarily raising the marginal utility of energy sent through your own pipes.

Putin is the high school student who, desiring more money, quits school to work more hours at McDonalds.

Operationally brilliant.
Strategically idiotic.

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