MOSCOW - Intercepted phone conversations released last week by Dutch-led investigators featuring separatist leaders in Ukraine seeking guidance and practical support from Moscow in the weeks before the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysian jet are adding to a picture of the ties between senior Russian officials in the Donbas region in Ukraine and pro-Moscow rebel militias, say Dutch officials.
But according to some former advisers to Present Vladimir Putin, as well as analysts, the intercepted phone conversations also demonstrate how the Kremlin struggled to impose unity of command in the separatist-held Donbas with rebel groups, political opportunists and Russian security agencies competing among themselves for mastery, throwing into confusion strategy and tactics.
They say this is par for the course. The Kremlin is not a smooth-running machine and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not the all-seeing, all-controlling Czar as some in the West suppose, they say. Despite his efforts to project strength and purpose, his authority is sometimes limited and the decision-making process inside the Kremlin is much more messy than many realize. Top officials often take semi-autonomous decisions, hoping they will please the Russian leader. When things go wrong, he can deny he approved anything, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former aide.
The impression in the West of everything being ordered and directed by Vladimir Putin is wrong, he says. A so-called “political technologist” for Putin before breaking with the Russian leader in 2012 over his decision to seek a third term as president, Pavlovsky paints a picture of an insecure Kremlin which frequently improvises and bluffs.
“The idea of the ‘power vertical,’ which I coined 20 years ago, is propaganda and it was not real then and it is not real now,” he told VOA. He says the inner workings of the Kremlin are highly complicated with shifting factions competing for favor and with their authority limited upwards and downwards. Putin can make decisions, but he cannot always ensure they are followed. The decision-making process is “highly informal,” Pavlovsky adds.
The treasure trove of intercepted phone calls released last week of conversations between pro-Moscow separatist leaders and Kremlin officials in the weeks before the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner, flight MH 17, killing all 298 people on board, is being pointed to by some analysts as evidence of how much control Moscow exerted over rebel militias in the Donbas.
Those on the audiotapes include Vladislav Surkov, a top Putin aide, whom separatist leaders dubbed “our man in the Kremlin.” Other senior Russian security officials are referred to include defense minister Sergey Shoigu and the director of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov. Separatist leaders when talking with each other discuss the delivery of military aid, including night-vision equipment and ammunition, and from Russian officials they learn of plans by Moscow to dispatch “combat-ready” reinforcements.
The tapes would provide evidence that Moscow transferred BUK anti-aircraft missiles to the Donbas, one of which downed the Malaysian airliner. The tapes illustrate “the military and administrative hierarchy” which “enabled the shooting down of MH17 in eastern Ukraine”, the Dutch-led investors say.
But while they demonstrate the strong ties between Moscow and the Donbas rebels, the recordings also suggest Russian control was plagued by parallel chains of command and competing factions, says Mark Galeotti, an analyst at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.
“If anything they actually suggest a messy, contradictory situation in which factions and leaders are competing with each other, at once currying favor with Moscow and also advancing their own interests,” he says in a commentary for the English-language Moscow Times newspaper. Galeotti points to discipline and command problems, highlighting one phone exchange between separatists realizing they are being issued orders by different competing agencies, the FSB and Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Much of the decision-making whether in the Donbas or in Russia is fraught with confused lines of command, says Pavlovsky. He says a prime example of that has been the shifting tactics of how to deal with the anti-Kremlin protests that were triggered in July over a rigged election for the Moscow city council. The initial reaction was calm but then the “security people got involved,” he says. “Putin didn’t order them,” he added. “Muscovites were beaten up by National Guards and people were detained. From outside it might seem there’s a General Staff planning everything. Nothing of the kind!”
“Our state is weak,” says Pavlovsky. “We have to understand it clearly. It’s strong when there’s a confrontation with a small minority or when there are some special operations somewhere, but as a state, as a system of executive power, it is very weak, much more so than Soviet government.”