Review: “The Kremlin Playbook” depicts eroding democracies, prompting heebie-jeebies

By Robert R. Thomas

While looking for a Canadian hockey channel between the interminable rash of mind-numbing commercials during the final two minutes of a basketball game, I stumbled upon the conclusion to a C-SPAN telecast of a federal intelligence hearing. I never got back to the the game.

What caught my attention was mention of a book with a jock title: The Kremlin Playbook. Published in October 2016 as a combined report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for the Study of Democracy, the report is exactly what its title portends. In a nutshell, it is the Russian game plan and tools for influence in the world.

Sounds very conspiratorial, but the daily news is worsening in that direction even as I type these words.

CSIS and CSD are nonprofit, non-partisan organizations of scholarly research focused on public policy challenges and bipartisan solutions. Both are well-respected in the international community. Their informational pedigree can be readily checked. That’s what I did, and then I located a copy of The Kremlin Playbook.

Subtitled “Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe,” the report presents a model of Russian influence.

The preface opens with a quote:

“ … [Russia] uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”
– June 2009 Open Letter to the Obama administration from Central and Eastern European Leaders

There follows the strategy of authoritarian oligarchs running an international mafia operation on a grand scale.

“ .… In the aftermath of its economic devastation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia pursued a form of oligarchic capitalism that has become an enduring trademark of Russia’s economic and political model. The Kremlin has attempted to replicate or ‘export’ this model, albeit on a smaller scale, in other postcommunist countries.”

“The weakening of democratic standards in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe has enabled elected leaders to implement policies that run contrary to core western values and are increasingly authoritarian in nature.”

“The erosion of democratic institutions and rampant corruption are the most evident in countries where the Russian political, economic, and societal ties are the strongest and the rise of anti-European and anti-American sentiment have been the most pronounced.”

The report’s Executive Summary offers the Warning, the Threat and the Findings.

The Warning: The Open Letter to the Obama administration quoted above.

The Threat, stated succinctly: “This is not just a domestic governance challenge, but a national security threat, and efforts to counter it must be treated as such.”

The Findings:

“Maligned Russian influence in central and eastern Europe primarily follows two tracks: one aimed at manipulating a country by dominating the strategic sectors of its economy to abuse capitalism and the weaknesses in its economic governance system; and another that seeks to corrode democracy from within by deepening political divides in cultivating relationships with aspiring autocrats, political parties (notably nationalists, populists and Euroskeptic groups) and Russian sympathizers.”

“Based on the economic data we collected, we observed that those countries in which Russia’s economic footprint was on average more than 12% of its GDP we’re generally more vulnerable to Russian economic influence and capture. For those countries with less than 12% of its GDP, these countries demonstrated greater susceptibility to Russian political influence.”

CSIS and CSD focused on a 16-month study to understand the impact of Russian economic influence in Central and Eastern Europe in five countries: Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia and Slovakia from 2004 to 2014. The Kremlin Playbook is their report.

“Our work has determined that Russia has cultivated an opaque network of patronage across the region that it uses to influence and direct decision-making ….

“Corruption is the lubricant on which this system operates, concentrating on the exploitation of state resources to further Russia’s networks of influence. These Russian networks constitute a vital element of Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s doctrine of New Generation Warfare, which ’is primarily a strategy of influence, not of brute force,’ and its primary goal is ‘break[ing] the internal coherence of the enemy system—and not about its integral annihilation.”

In six short chapters totaling 35 pages, the report fleshes out the conclusions previewed in the Executive Summary. The final chapter cites several policy recommendations to resist Russian influence, from prioritizing enhanced EU-US financial intelligence cooperation to strengthening national policymaking and regulatory governance in view of increasing market diversification and competition and corruption.

The Appendix offers illuminating case studies of the five countries on which the study focused. Much can be gleaned in these gems of research highlighting Central and Eastern European history after the fall of the Soviet Union, highlighting Russia’s influence.

The “unvirtuous cycle”

A favored take from the report involves the endemic oily corruption in this cycle of influence. Termed “The Unvirtuous Cycle,” corruption is the greasing of the skids toward state capture via political and economic influence.

Another insightful section is Chapter 2 of the report, “Russian Influence: Eroding Democratic Institutions.”

“The Russian strategy,” states the report, “is simple and straightforward: it exploits the inherent weaknesses within the Western capitalist democratic system. By penetrating and utilizing the system from within—for example, taking advantage of lax ownership disclosure requirements, not investigating corruption allegations, preventing the work of an independent press and judiciary, preventing transparency into political party financing and nongovernmental (NGO) registration, as well as allowing media outlets to disseminate erroneous information that fosters public confusion and disillusionment—Russian influence can weaken European democratic institutions and thereby lay the groundwork for it’s corrupting influence to spread further with relative ease. Because it is designed to operate in a Western system, these channels have gone undetected for years (if not decades). Ultimately it is because of the lack of rigorous oversight and transparency of democratic institutions that they are readily available for exploitation.”

Corrosive co-mingling of public and private

The report cites Karen Dawisha’s book, Putin’s Kleptocracy, which states that today’s Russia is a “mafia state” ruled by “an interlocking network of associations and clan-based politics centered on Putin,” which serves the purpose of “strengthening Putin’s hold hold on power, silencing critics, and maximizing…economic benefits.”

“Russian influence,” The Kremlin Playbook states, “spreads through the corrosive co-mingling of public and private interests. The power to award and reward—primarily through monetary means, but also through monopolistic power and influence—is essential to the transmission function, as it creates loyalty, enabling participants to capture new actors in the domestic environment through the distribution of ill-gained reward.

“The promise and the protection of perpetual enrichment,”  the report continues, “is the incentive that allows this system to operate, and state resources provide an abundant source of wealth on which these drivers can draw. The ’captured’ individuals spread their antidemocratic and corruption contagion to others, widening and entrenching this circular system. Thus, Russian influence expands and sustains itself until its ultimate goal of state capture has been achieved. Russian influence has become so pervasive that it has challenged national stability in certain countries as well as their western orientation and Euro–Atlantic solidarity. What has allowed this unvirtuous cycle to persist and proliferate is Western susceptibility to, and at times complicity, with these practices and Russia’s exploitation of this susceptibility to ensure opaque news and non-transparency. “

When I finished reading this slim volume, I felt uneasy. The report creeped me out like a “Night of the Living Dead” horror film.

Columnist Robert Thomas

To distract myself from the hebee-jeebies, I turned on the TV news where I saw the President of the United States cavorting with the Russians in the White House. Only Russian media were present.

I turned off the TV. I had found the source of my uneasiness.

The Kremlin Playbook not only describes the Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe, it describes global corruption and influence. Consequently, it offers insight into what is going on in the United States:  corruption at the highest levels of the Great Chain of White Male Supremicists has gone globally viral.

Thanks to C-SPAN and the Intelligence Committee and The Kremlin Playbook, I now have a clearer picture of the dominant global nightmare culture in which we reside. The report is not particularly hopeful, but it certainly adds intelligent clarity to the Who? How? When? Where? and Why? of where we are as humans.

EVM columnist and reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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