“Theory of opers and operators” — in search for rational explanations of Russia's actions

For a few decades now there was an interesting model of #Russia statehood discussed inside the country, called the “theory of opers and operators”, created by Aleksandr Volkov.^2 Its name is a game of words: “operators” was allegedly term used by FBI to describe financial managers of KGB assets in the West. “Oper” is a Russian slang word for KGB officers.

Quoting directly from one of recent articles that describe the theory:^1

The gist of the theory is that in the early 1970s the KGB of the USSR set up a network of offshore companies to help foreign trade missions circumvent Western sanctions on the purchase of high-tech equipment. The oil crisis and the increase in the US discount rate to 20% under Ronald Reagan led to the accumulation of considerable sums in the accounts of #KGB offshore companies, which ended up in a grey area: the party organs no longer controlled them, while from the Western perspective they were normal capitals. Having both large sums and understanding of how they could be disposed of, officers in Soviet foreign offices began to invest money and make profits within the framework of Western economy. As a result, in the 1980s, the KGB's offshore capital rose to its feet and became independent of cash infusions from the Union.

While Soviet Union existed, the cash was kind of frozen – KGB officers couldn't spend it completely at their will, only steal fraction on various service-related expenses. But then comes 1991 and everything changed:

After the fall of the #USSR, these funds are partly returned home and used to buy up assets. In the framework of the theory, the nineties are a period of struggle between the KGBists, who have settled in the West, and the party-economic elite of the former USSR – a struggle for control of the assets of the communist empire. The Chekists, as a more consolidated group, having at their disposal large capitals, financial infrastructure and, most importantly, close ties with the security/law enforcement agencies on the ground – won this struggle by gobbling up both the “red directors” and the “new Russians” from the organised crime. By the late nineties and early 2000's, the process of redistribution of big business was complete. The offshore Chekists had taken control of the biggest assets and could have stopped their careers at this.

But history never stops at any given moment — the “old guard” could have earned billions by merely working in KGB/FSB, then why not us, thought young aspiring officers? The financial success of the KGB created a huge demand for jobs in the security services, but there were no longer any secret KGB stashes abroad. Another solution was found:

By that time, a mechanism had been developed for taking over businesses through quasi-legal mechanisms and, most importantly, a large layer of operatives had grown up who perceived racket as an organic part of their career development. Since the youngsters could not repeat the success their ancestors, they turned for the regular people: they started stealing first medium and then small businesses. In fact, the devouring of businesses by low-ranking Chekists (hungry operatives) is the main content of 2000-2010's. It is typical that during this period Putin systematically called for an end to the crackdown on business, but in fact did nothing about it, because he simply could not go against the backbone of the regime.

Widespread racket, takeover and stealing of businesses in Russia in 2000-2010's is a fact: all private media and TV stations were taken over this way — cases of Vladimir Gusinsky^3, VK^4, Hermitage Capital Management^5 were most reported, but there were thousands of other smaller and less known companies stolen.

The authors of the “theory of opers and operators” believe that this wave of cannibalistic takeovers, often carried out by people with zero experience in business, led to gradual decline of Russian economy and decline of its competitiveness.

There was nothing more valuable left to be taken over, but appetites of the “opers” were still high, and their cadres were still growing in numbers – I remember statistics where at some point ~15% of the working population in some regions was employed in some kind of security services.

Grab for Ukraine

The authors believe the conflict with #Ukraine that started in 2014^6 is largely influence by the economic motives among the Russian security apparatus running out of businesses to steal in their own country, as described above. Having said that, authors interestingly point out that while annexation of #Crimea logically seems to be an extension of this “economic grab”, they argue motivation behind specifically Crimea was entirely political.

If we stick to economic determinism, we can assume that the return of Crimea was dictated by a desire to expand the fodder base of the KGBists. In fact, this (inherently Marxist) assumption is flawed. If Putin had been guided by this consideration, he would have taken not a single (and very small) region, but all or a significant part of Ukraine, redistributing property there and distributing fodder. This, as we know, did not happen.

I cannot but notice, that the article contradicts itself in this specific part: the authors argue that “the new aristocracy” (FSB) had no motives to start the whole “Crimean affair”, thus hurting their own interests, only to satisfy the appetites of their younger colleagues. Firstly, the economic decline in 2010's Russia was a fact, as was declining ratings of Putin (record low 62% in 2013), and constantly growing security apparatus.

In 2013 there was a strong pressure on Ukraine for “economic integration” with Russia and the very direct cause for #Euromaidan was specifically the surprising decision of Yanukovych to turn away EU association agreement^7 and instead join Russian economic zone. If the latter happened, FSB could simply continue expanding their “fodder base” into Ukraine unhindered, as it did in Russia. But that was prevented by mass-scale protests of Ukrainians, by order of magnitude larger than Russian protests against Putin's “re-election” in 2012.^8

And as the fodder has been taken away from FSB, they had a strong motivation to at least grab Crimea, which would both provide some consolation to the hungry elites, punishment for Ukraine, and rating boost for Putin.

Crimea certainly provided a wealthy trophy, as wave of business takeovers demonstrated shortly after it was annexed, with plenty of new private, fenced beaches in the most attractive places.^9 How does war in #Donbass fit into this hypothesis? It's interesting case, because politically war in Donbass has been a complete failure, leading to no political wins and instead a lengthy, frozen conflict and plenty of troubles for Russia.

Was there anyone gaining from war in Donbass? Of course — only in the first two years of the war over 50% of large industrial enterprises have been looted by occupiers^10 and, noted by many people, the absurd separation into two — Luhansk and Donetsk — “People's Republics”, has no political purpose or explanation. But it creates perfect “zones of exclusive economic rights” between organized crime controlled by FSB and GRU respectively. And, as with every organized crime groups competing for resources, there were a number of assassinations of top LPR/DPR heads and even shootings between LPR and DPR militias.

FSB and the war in Ukraine

Returning to the Ukrainian extension of the “theory of opers and operators”, authors believe this orientation of Russian elites exclusively on its own wealth and welfare explains lukewarm attitudes towards the victory. Make no mistake, the authors represent 100% Russian nationalist view and definitely support the idea of forcible submission of Ukraine, they are just critical of how Putin does it.

They believe what others call “incompetence” is simply result of different than official actual goals of the conflict: they argue, the “economic vector” explains the vague and frequently changing official objectives of the “special military operation”, lack of any specific description of what “victory” would mean for Russia in this war, but also demoralisation inside Russia itself — widespread corruption in the army, theft of military equipment that would otherwise help war effort and even shutting down of specific military industries when they are most needed.

In essence, the Chekist regime seeks not so much to win as to adapt to conditions new to it (in fact, the conditions of a forced and unnatural confrontation between bees and honey). Within this logic, the population and the economy continue to be viewed solely as fodder (and hence there is nothing strange about the sawing up of a factory needed for the front), and the military defeat and destruction of Ukraine does not look particularly attractive.

The advantage of an extended war, for Russian “elites” following this logic, is not only the mobilization effort which allows continued theft on the generously allocated military budget (30% of overall state budget now!), mobilization of the poorest parts of the society (who had been likely kept in this state for the last decade for purpose) with the perspective of generous military compensations^11 but also unrestricted looting of the newly occupied territories.

Looting on mass scale allows to at least for a while satisfy not only individual “entrepreneurs” on all levels, from regular soldiers stealing electronics or jewellery from Ukrainian homes, large scale theft of Ukrainian grain and up to professionally organised theft of artwork from Kherson museum^12, but — most importantly — the FSB that likely takes share of every item brought back to Russia.

— Paweł Krawczyk https://krvtz.net/ Fediverse @kravietz@agora.echelon.pl