Responding effectively to Russian interventionism abroad requires understanding its governance. Russia is an adhocracy – a decentralised regime defined less by top-down commands than by bottom-up opportunism – with oligarchs acting on President Vladimir Putin’s perceived interests to earn patronage. Approaching adhocracy requires resolve; the UK and its allies must establish a strong deterrence and clearly elucidated red lines to prevent conflict.
Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was in sight of the Kremlin when he was killed. Crossing the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge around midnight, he was intercepted by an assassin who shot him four times before jumping a barrier and fleeing the scene.
Nemtsov’s muder shocked Moscow. Even Putin seemed stunned, condemning the “shameful” killing and announcing he would take “personal control” of the investigation.
Then came the cover-up. In three days the Federal Security Services had a list of suspects, including one Zaur Dadaev, the former deputy commander of Sever, a police battalion under the authority of Chechen strongman and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. As suggestions of a connection between Kadyrov and the killing started circulating, the Chechen leader did little to dispel them, instead describing Dadaev as a brave soldier and devoted Muslim.
The investigation stalled. Further suspects were swept under the rug and the murder’s mastermind was unmasked as Ruslan Mukhudinov, a personal driver never found for questioning. Zaur Dadaev was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Case closed.
This rapid reversal exposes the reality of Russia’s governance structure. As researcher and author Mark Galeotti has argued, Russia is not a centralised autocracy but an opaque ‘adhocracy’. Members of Putin’s inner circle do not necessarily act on direct orders from the President. Instead, they entrepreneurially seek opportunities to advance his perceived interests and earn patronage.
This system permits Putin plausible deniability. But it can also cost the Kremlin. In the case of Boris Nemtsov, an ally embarrassed the regime by incorrectly interpreting the President’s description of opponents of the war in Ukraine as “national traitors” and assassinated one hours after he called for demonstrations against the ongoing conflict.
Adhocracy is equally evident in Russian foreign policy. Although the annexation of Crimea was state-led, the subsequent war in the Donbas has been sustained by entrepreneurial oligarchs such as Evgeny Prigozhin, who link separatists in Luhansk with the mercenaries that provide them men and arms. Despite denying involvement in such exchanges, Prigozhin recently bankrolled an action film dramatising the exploits of an infamous mercenary organisation, the Wagner Group, in a romanticised Luhansk.
It is unclear what Russia will do next in Ukraine. Putin’s desire to bring the country back into Russia’s sphere of influence is established, the President arguing Russians and Ukranians are “one people – a single whole” in a July article. The most recent mobilisation is more comprehensive than April’s, and there is evidence of combat preparations in the field modifications made to Russian armour, which correspond with Ukrainian capabilities. Yet Ukraine is better armed and trained than in 2014, and the publicity and slow pace of Russian movements might imply more diplomatic aims.
In such an uncertain environment, the risk of escalation relates to Russia’s adhocracy. The danger is that a powerful political opportunist acts on Putin’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric, oversteps the mark as Kadyrov did, and causes a major European conflict.
Approaching an adhocracy and avoiding this outcome requires resolve from Britain and its allies. More specifically, it requires a strong deterrence and clear red lines.
A strong deterrence means more than stern words like ‘severe consequences’. It means threatening to cut Russia off from the SWIFT banking network and ban lending to and business with Russian state-controlled banks. It means stressing to Russia that any intervention in Ukraine would force NATO to reassure its eastern members with more military support, creating the kind of border build-up that Moscow is keen to avoid.
This deterrence should come with clear conditions of use, established by the UK and European allies in partnership with the USA (which Russia sees as the West’s most influential actor on Ukraine). These red lines should include military incursions, but extend to blockades of strategic towns such as Mariupol as well as hybrid tactics such as cyberattacks on government offices or crucial infrastructure, similar to those carried out in 2015 and 2017.
Combined, these measures might alter the cost-benefit calculus not only of the Russian President but, crucially, of the adhocrats that make up his entourage, clarifying the fact that any opportunistic interventions in Ukraine would cause the Kremlin pain instead of earning them preferment.
Against adhocracy, strategic ambiguity invites instability. Strength and clarity are the best tools if the UK wants to stop the next shots in the dark escalating into a continental conflict.
Dylan Rogers is a member of Agora’s Democracy & Governance programme.