My buddy and me: Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin in Grozny, October 2008.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Between 1996 and 2011, I served as a consultant to the Kremlin, advising Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev. And yet even I can hardly claim to understand the real mechanisms of power in today’s Russia. In the past few years, the country has reached a level of dysfunction that has pushed it to the brink, threatening its very existence. Ill-conceived military adventures, poor decision-making, and political skullduggery—sometimes of the lethal variety—have wreaked havoc on Russia’s economy and led to international isolation.

Some have concluded that the problem is simply one of autocracy, that there

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