Among the legitimate questions is a swirl of speculation. Vladimir Putin and Vladislav Surkov have got in our heads, says Gabriel Gatehouse, a BBC foreign correspondent
It is the fashion these days, in certain circles, to see the hand of Moscow behind all of the political turbulence of the present moment: Brexit, Trump, the rise of the European right. John McCain once even suggested that Russias real aim in Syria was to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.
Vladimir Putin must be delighted. Setting aside the question of the extent to which Russia is actually pulling the strings (Robert Mueller will soon tell us what he thinks about the Trump presidential campaign; the arguments around Russias role in Brexit rage on), the very fact that people believe in his power to drive massive population movements, bewitch electorates and divide allies is a win for the Kremlin. It is a form of hypnosis in its own right, and Russia tried it out on its own population first before exporting it abroad.
The pioneer was Vladislav Surkov, also known as Putins Rasputin (in the west) or the grey cardinal (in Russia). He rose from a background in the theatre and PR to become the architect of Putinism the undisputed master of Russias internal politics.
At the height of his power, he represented a sort of Kremlin svengali, controlling most of the MPs in the Duma, the Russian parliament, both from pro-Kremlin parties and the so-called opposition. He created youth groups, pulled strings in the media, in the tech sector, NGOs, even the Orthodox church.
But his real skill was myth-making. Legends multiplied around him like bacteria in a petri dish. Former colleagues describe a man of ferocious intellect and temper who could digest vast strategy documents in minutes while reciting beat poetry in English and penning lyrics for rock bands. When in 2004 there was a split in the Communist party, Surkov had engineered it. When a journalist was beaten nearly to death in the streets of Moscow in 2010, fingers were pointed at Surkovs youth groups. When snipers massacred dozens of protesters on the streets of Kiev in 2014, Ukraines government said Surkov was giving the orders.
Was he really behind all of these events, and more? Most likely not. But the truth was less important than the fact that everyone believed he was. People saw the hand of Surkov directing everything that happened.
His power was his ability to harness the human imagination and allow it to run riot in the minds of both his friends and his enemies. In 2009, he published a short novel in a Moscow literary magazine. He wrote it under a pseudonym, then let it be known that he was in fact the author. He even wrote his own review.
The story, Almost Zero, describes a dystopian world in which a gangster publisher bribes critics and journalists in the service of corrupt politicians, manipulating the truth to create fake news. In the fevered minds of his opponents, Almost Zero looked less like fiction and more like confession: a man from inside the system telling the world just how powerful, how twisted the system really was.
Surkov is no longer the pre-eminent force in Russian politics. In 2016, a leak of emails from his office showed him to be running pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine, part of Putins war against the pro-western government in Kiev.
But his system of control and confusion has become a much wider international operation. Today, Moscow nurtures networks of activists, journalists and politicians across Europe, from Germany to Poland, Italy to the Baltics. In reality, most of these peddlers of influence remain in the margins. Moscows role in shaping our politics is not nearly as powerful as some imagine. But that is not the point.
In February, Surkov published an article in a Russian newspaper. In it, he makes a bold prediction. Putinism, he says, will outlive us all. The system he created is spreading: Foreign politicians complain that Russia is meddling in elections and referendums across the world. In actual fact, its much more serious than that. Russia is meddling in their brains, changing their consciousness, and they have no idea what to do about it.
Once again, with a nod and a wink, Surkov pulls back the curtain. But he also gives the game away. Were doing the work for him: fostering suspicions and manipulating the facts to suit our agendas. The power of Surkov is mostly in our heads.
Gabriel Gatehouse is a BBC foreign correspondent. The Puppet Master is on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds from Monday 25 March
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