Russia’s Strategy of “Capture”

Russia’s Strategy of “Capture”

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine represented the Kremlin’s latest and most extreme reaction to a process that has been unfolding for decades: the final breakup of the Soviet Union.

As the two-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, there is palpable discord at the top of Kyiv’s wartime leadership. After months of tension and weeks of speculation and rumors, President Volodymyr Zelensky fired General Valery Zaluzhny, the plain-talking and wildly popular chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, which spearheaded the country’s defense against Russia’s onslaught.

Zelensky and Zaluzhny had been feuding privately for months over war strategy, most notably over Zaluzhny’s opposition to the president’s desire to spend manpower and resources on the defense of Bakhmut. This strategically insignificant city fell to Russian forces in the summer of 2023. Zelensky was also unhappy with some of Zaluzhny’s blunt public pronouncements, most notably an interview and essay in The Economist in November 2023 in which the general said the war had reached a stalemate. There was also widespread speculation that Zelensky was jealous of Zaluzhny’s stratospheric popularity with the Ukrainian public.

Zaluzhny’s sacking on February 8 was a watershed event considering his outsized role in the war and differing opinions regarding its wisdom. But its deeper and enduring significance was the calm, orderly, and civilized way it proceeded—how the two men conducted themselves, displaying unity of purpose despite their obvious differences. Both posted identical photos of themselves shaking hands and smiling on their respective social media accounts. In his post, Zelensky thanked Zaluzhny for “two years of protecting Ukraine.” Zelensky also reportedly offered Zaluzhny an ambassadorship, but the general declined, saying he preferred to continue serving his country as a military officer during wartime—albeit in a diminished role.

This all contrasted sharply with the high-stakes and deadly drama that played out in Russia just seven months prior in the summer of 2023. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group of Forces—a mercenary group that has been designated a transnational crime organization by the U.S. government—was locked in a fierce power struggle with the leadership of the Russian military—Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov—over resources and authority in the war in Ukraine.

In May 2023, Prigozhin famously posted a video on social media from the front lines in eastern Ukraine where he screamed, “Shoigu, Gerasimov, where is the [expletive deleted] ammunition!” In June 2023, Prigozhin launched a mutiny that saw his forces take control of the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city. He then led a column of tanks north toward Moscow, repelling air attacks from the Russian military and advancing as close as 100 miles from the capital before ultimately backing down and retreating.

Prigozhin was not arrested for his rebellion—but he eventually was punished. Exactly two months after the armed mutiny, on August 23, he died along with Wagner’s top leadership in a suspicious airplane crash reportedly orchestrated by Vladimir Putin’s National Security Council Secretary and right-hand man Nikolai Patrushev.

The contrasting resolutions of these twin conflicts illustrate the divergent political paths Ukraine and Russia have taken since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago. In Ukraine, this civil-military dispute was resolved in a way familiar to anybody in a liberal democracy. In Russia, it went down in a way one would normally expect from an organized crime syndicate. This difference is vital to understanding the causes and consequences of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as well as Moscow’s broader efforts to dominate the former Soviet space.

The Menace of “Mafiaism”

These divergent approaches to resolving civil-military disputes were not the first instance where the underlying differences between Russia and Ukraine became manifest. Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1993–94, Russia and Ukraine were experiencing identical political crises: twin power struggles between presidents and parliaments over who would wield power in these newly independent countries.

In Russia, the dispute was resolved with force in October 1993 when President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to shell the parliament, killing nearly 150 people and establishing an overbearing and unaccountable executive. This set a precedent for the violent settlement of political disputes.

In Ukraine, by contrast, early political turmoil was resolved not with bullets but with ballots. In the July 1994 elections, Ukraine’s incumbent president, Leonid Kravchuk, lost narrowly to challenger Leonid Kuchma and relinquished office peacefully. This set precedents for competitive elections and peaceful transfers of power that remain to this day.

It’s worth noting that in the six presidential elections Ukraine has held since independence, only one incumbent, Kuchma, in 1999, won reelection. By contrast, in each and every election post-Soviet Russia has held, the incumbent or the incumbent’s chosen successor has won.

Over three decades of post-Soviet independence, Ukraine has managed to establish a functioning democracy, albeit an imperfect, chaotic, and often raucous one. Russia, in contrast, has established something else: a governing system best characterized as mafiaism.

To be clear, mafiaism as a system of governance does not refer to Russian organized crime groups per se, although the Russian state does often use such groups as instruments of statecraft. Instead, mafiaism in this context refers to a state whose internal logic, processes, and behavior resemble those of an organized crime syndicate.

The key tenets of mafiaism, as it has developed in post-Soviet Russia, are as follows:

1) Governance by a small cabal of elites and their cronies that relies on a web of patronage networks to enrich itself and maintain power outside formal institutions.

2) A ruling elite able and willing to use extrajudicial force, including lethal force, to protect its interests without accountability or fear of reprisal.

3) A state structure characterized by weak formal institutions, officially sanctioned kleptocracy, the preponderance of unwritten and informal rules and codes, and an absence of the rule of law.

4) A political elite is defined by an impulse to expand and control markets and territory and is convinced that such expansion is essential for survival.

Mafiaism is thus conceptually similar to the web of informal patronage networks, unwritten codes, and complex kleptocratic clan structures that the scholar Alena Ledeneva dubbed sistema in her book Can Russia Modernize? The battle between Russian mafiaism and developing liberal democracy elsewhere, most notably in Ukraine, has been one of the defining struggles of the former Soviet space. In this sense, mafiaism is the new Communism. As Ukraine progressed in establishing itself as a functioning democracy over the past thirty years, conflict with Russia became highly likely—if not inevitable. But while Ukraine may be “ground zero” of the battle between liberal democracy and Russian mafiaism, it is not the only theater.

The Hybrid Threat of Capture

Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine represented the Kremlin’s latest and most extreme reaction to a process that has been unfolding for decades: the final breakup of the Soviet Union. While the USSR formally dissolved in December 1991, the empire’s phantom limbs and zombie brains—in the form of Moscow-centric patronage networks, financial ties, and Russian imperial political attitudes—continued to twitch, pulse, and throb. This kept many of the newly independent states of the former USSR at least partially inside Moscow’s orbit through a combination of oligarchic structures, disinformation, manufactured frozen conflicts, and the threat of kinetic military force.

However, in the thirty-plus years since the Soviet Union dissolved, another development was underway: a new generation grew up with democratic sentiments. It was this generation that spearheaded Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Revolution of Dignity, and the massive pro-democracy protests in Belarus in 2020.

Unlike their parents’ generation, these young adults had no memory of or nostalgia for the Soviet Union. They spoke foreign languages and had more contact with the West than previous generations. And while young adults in the West tend to see the deficiencies in the liberal-democratic model of governance, the rising generations in the former Soviet space mainly see the benefits. For them, the West means prosperity and stability. There was also a growing awareness among young Belarusians, Georgians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians of their own national histories outside of Russian imperial structures.

As the rising post-Soviet generation in Ukraine and elsewhere yearned—and fought—for democracy and accountability, these social processes were seen as profoundly threatening to the Putin regime in the Kremlin. Mafiaism, after all, is incompatible with pluralism and transparent, accountable government on its borders.

Faced with the prospect of decisively losing the empire, Moscow has responded with a policy of “capture.” In the late 1990s, the World Bank defined state capture as “a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage.”

The twist is that the private interests in question in the former Soviet Union aren’t really private at all—they are and have always been connected to the Russian state apparatus.

In order to maintain hegemony over the former Soviet space, Moscow has pursued a four-pronged policy of capture: 1) social capture, 2) elite capture, 3) state capture, and 4) land capture. Understanding each and how they reinforce each other is a crucial step in understanding the Kremlin’s imperial policies and in crafting Western countermeasures.