A Page from Putin’s Playbook: Political Commissar on NSC


A Publication of Eurasia Analyst

Volume II, Number 1             2 February 2017

Der Kommissar’s in Town, uh-oh

Newly minted US President Donald Trump has been very busy in his two weeks in office, demonstrating his flair for the dramatic, headline-grabbing executive actions, tin-eared statements and appearances, confoundingly erratic policy pronouncements and investigations. <The sound of jaws dropping at his insistence on conducting an investigation of fraud in the election that brought him to power was nearly deafening.>

With this whirlwind of activity, it is easy to lose sight of the details…and the truly important changes taking place. Whether your focus is on the putative erosions of civil liberties, corruption in the executive branch, or the importance of civil-military relations, these two weeks have provided plenty of fodder to process. But for all the policy mishigas, which can be challenged in court and subject to injunction, as with the “Muslim ban,” serious attention is focusing on the structural changes ordered to the highest security and defense advisory body in the nation.

Trump’s presidential memorandum, “Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council,” adds “the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff,” Reince Preibus, and “the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist” Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council (NSC) as “attendees.”  It also adds them ex officio to the “Principals Committee” (PC), which is a smaller advisory core tasked with “considering policy issues that affect the national security interests of the United States.” (1) It is unusual, but not unprecedented, to have the president’s political strategist on the NSC; however, it is astounding, when juxtaposed against the removal of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the highest level presidential security advisers by statute—from the Principals Committee, except “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” (2)

When questioned by those damned first amendment literalists—the press corps—on the rationale behind the move to separate the leading military and intelligence officials in the country from the highest-level security advisory body, Trump press spokesman Sean Spicer fumed: “The idea that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the DNI are being downgraded or removed is utter nonsense.” (3) This, of course, is a lie. The purpose of leaving the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the DNI off the list of regular attendees of the Principals Committee is precisely to let them know that they are not in charge of security policy. To say they “are welcome to attend” meetings is not to say they are in charge of the agenda or discussion. Political strategy now trumps security and this classic power move over committee membership versus invitees is what passes for subtlety from these alpha dog wannabes.

While their tactics are remarkably ham-handed, don’t doubt that there is a strategic vision at the heart of these executive changes. It did seem curious that the very first rule Trump insisted his republican compatriots break involved civilian oversight of the military for the nomination of General “Mad dog” Mattis. (4) It also seems resonant of Putin’s appointment of Sergey Ivanov, his longtime strategic adviser, to be the first “civilian” head of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Ivanov put aside his general’s uniform—his KGB/FSB general’s uniform—to move to the defense ministry. This shuffle was less about civilian control and more about Putin’s control, an attempt to put one of his most trusted allies in charge of a military he did not trust. (5)

And Putin’s decision to move Ivanov to the Defense Ministry followed by a year his first attempt to assert control over the Russian military by decreeing the insertion of FSB commissars in military units, where they were “tasked with investigating terrorist activity, espionage, smuggling, sedition and a host of other criminal activity within the Russian military.” (6) While this attempt to revive political commissars to supervise the military failed, it was a significant signal that Putin tried to assert himself in this way so soon after his appointment as acting president.

Perhaps Trump’s appointments and restructuring of the National Security Council and Principals Committee membership likewise give indication of the organization he fears would be capable of disrupting his strategic vision. Yet, that seems ridiculous. The military has enough to do protecting this country from all threats foreign and domestic to involve itself in presidential politics and power struggles, right?

It should be noted that Trump’s strategist, Stephen Bannon, fancies himself a “Leninist,” (7) so perhaps pulling a page from President Putin’s playbook is less about the Russian president’s sway over the Trump administration and more about the political strategist who has elbowed the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff out of his statutory advisory role having a fondness for the ideological father of the Soviet Union. Who would ever have imagined?


End Notes

1) White House, “Presidential Memorandum Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council,” January 28, 2017, via https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/28/presidential-memorandum-organization-national-security-council-and.

2) Ibid.

3) Pamela Engel, “White House press secretary goes on lengthy rant in attempt to clarify changes to national security team,” January 30, 2017, via http://www.businessinsider.com/spicer-trump-national-security-council-2017-1.

4) For a discussion of the appointment provisions, please see: Mike Rappaport, “Mad Dog Mattis, the 7 Year Delay Provision, and the Appointments Clause,” December 5, 2016, via http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/12/05/mad-dog-mattis-the-7-year-delay-provision-and-the-appointments-clause/.

5) Sophia Lambroschini, “Putin Reshuffles Government,” RFE/RL, March 28, 2001, via http://www.rferl.org/a/1096081.html.

6) Susan J/ Cavan, “Watching the Troops,” in “Executive Branch,” The NIS Observed: An Analytical Review, Volume V Number 4 (29 February 2000), via http://www.bu.edu/iscip/digest/vol5/ed0504.html. The Edict under discussion was accessed here: Edict No. 318, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 12 Feb 00; FBIS-SOV-2000-0220, via World News Connection For more discussion of this edict, please see: Jacob Kipp and Robert Love, “A New Russian Presidential Decree on the FSB Organs Operating Inside the Russian Militaries: Analysis and Abstract,” Foreign Military Studies Office, via http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/putin.htm.

7) Here’s the quote as cited by Ryan Lizza, in The New Yorker, November 14, 2016, via http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/steve-bannon-will-lead-trumps-white-house:“I’m a Leninist,” Steve Bannon told a writer for The Daily Beast, in late 2013. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too.”

Susan J. Cavan

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