Russia’s ruling structure bears the marks of authoritarianism, oligarchy, and three different presidents.
Under Boris Yeltsin, rapacious despotism at the centre was accompanied by anarchical cooperatives of regional oligarchs. But Yeltsin’s rule also witnessed a high level of individual and corporate freedoms, and even occasional attempts to build democracy.
Under Vladimir Putin, the number of freedoms and their quality has decreased. Power has passed to a comparatively large number of ruling clans, predominantly from the Petersburg security services and Moscow financial circles. By the end of President Putin’s second term, he had moulded these disparate groups into a pseudo-absolutist structure, whereby members of the clans could advise the leader on questions of vital importance only in their spheres of expertise. These spheres were recognised and in a sense officially confirmed by the naming of a clan’s head as an official adviser on a given issue. The leader could also recognise abilities by seeking the advice of members regardless of their official position.
A ‘reduced sense of danger’
Sources confirm that this is almost a tradition for President Putin: to ask an ally (or a group of allies) for advice before announcing a decision he has already made. The advice is not really required, but seeking advice is a means of cultivating goodwill, and demonstrates to his courtiers that they and their opinions count. Putin has usually followed this tradition, at least until the crisis in Ukraine broke out. Of course, following the advice was far from necessary, and the courtier was merely to be grateful that his opinion was being taken into account.
A more complicated situation arose when it came to unsolicited advice, as the adviser might overestimate the level of his own competence. But if someone approached Putin with advice on the Donetsk People’s Republic, for example, it would be regarded as entirely inappropriate behaviour.
Several trusted individuals are given the right to decide issues within their sphere of expertise. Igor Sechin is trusted on issues of oil, Alexei Miller on gas, Dmitry Medvedev on the legal window-dressing of state policy. For example, Prime Minister Medvedev, as President in 2008-2012 and member of the ‘tandem’, was far from a fully-empowered president, but he did have the right not to bother Putin with minor questions on reform of the judiciary or on the appointments to the Ministry of Justice or General Prosecutor’s office.
President Putin often brags that, in his time, KGB psychologists gave him a diagnosis of a ‘reduced sense of danger’
President Putin often brags that, in his time, KGB psychologists gave him a diagnosis of a ‘reduced sense of danger’. But Putin has stated and confirmed on more than one occasion that he always carefully considers the consequences of his actions and, as a result, is yet to make any serious mistakes in his tenure. Yet this begs the question, how far did the president consider the consequences of the Crimean annexation and the effect of Western economic sanctions on the Russian economy?
The Crimean consensus
No one knows if Putin asked his advisers about the consequences of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In any event, during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Russian security services and analytical centres received orders to conduct simulations and predictions of NATO, EU and member countries’ reactions, in case Russia’s foreign policy on Ukraine was ‘activated’. Some formally independent analytical centres also received orders to evaluate the political stability of Crimea, Donbas, the Ukrainian Black Sea region, and Ukraine as a whole, including predictions of political interference and military actions.
Notwithstanding, whatever the original attitude of influential people in the Kremlin to the annexation of Crimea, the question still has to be asked: did Putin carry out a poll of his advisers and how did this poll influence (or not influence) the final decision? Moreover, was there a similar survey carried out regarding the next level of policy in Ukraine — the escalation of conflict in so-called Novorossiya, the territory constituting the Russian-speaking regions of Donbas and the Black Sea regions of Ukraine?
If one was to attempt to carry out such a survey (even an anonymous one) in today’s circumstances, it would still undoubtedly show a high level of consensus about the future of Crimea in pro-government circles and beyond. Even opposition leaders such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny recognise the impossibility of returning Crimea to Ukraine without accounting for the opinion of the peninsula’s local population. The liberal Yabloko party, which considers a referendum in accordance with Ukrainian laws necessary, ignores the fact that this requirement would force Ukraine to change its laws. The Ukrainian constitution does not permit proposals regarding secession or regional referenda.
Moreover, not one of the oligarch clans, nor any of the influential courtiers in the Kremlin, call for returning Crimea to Ukraine, regardless of the possible concessions (from cancelling sanctions to guarantees of non-NATO membership or EU accession). If the international expert community discusses the possibility of Ukraine trading its non-aligned status in exchange for a guarantee of territorial integrity, then it is discussed as a purely theoretical initiative from the West rather than a possible move by the Kremlin.
The current problems are an unavoidable price to pay for the return to an imperial future.
The current problems, and their future cousins, are seen as a given — an unavoidable price to pay for the return to an imperial future.
No doubt, it would have been a completely different matter if, on the eve of the decision to annex Crimea (or other Ukrainian territories), the oligarchy had been consulted. Opinions most likely would have been split. Did Putin ask for advice from his inner circle, and was that in any way a deciding factor? No one knows. But if the President had asked, someone likely would have mentioned, carefully, that neither Crimea nor Donbas was necessary for Russia.
A deadly argument over Crimea and Donbas would have seemed impossible even a year ago. Let us not forget that the oligarchs keep their money in the West and educate their children there. Those analysts who ran simulations for Putin, looking at the consequences of the seizure of Crimea, most likely excluded only a nuclear conflict and a full-scale naval conflict. The possibility (and the unavoidability) of sanctions most likely was taken into account, but Putin decided to proceed anyway.
Practically all the loyal oligarchs have had experience with the Komsomol [young communists], Soviet Communist Party, KGB, bandits, and criminal capitalism, in the course of their lives. These factors governed one or the other half of their lives and have influenced their upbringing. However, if some of Putin’s allies still live by ideas of empire and open violence, then others prefer less dangerous methods of acquiring luxury living space and resources.
Members of the ‘economic-administrative’ clans (who come overwhelmingly from ‘civilian’ sectors), are supporters of a safer policy of rapprochement with the West. But others with backgrounds in the security services prefer confrontation with the West and co-operation with Asian elites. The most pro-China politician in Putin’s circle is most likely Igor Sechin.
It is a paradox that the proponents of closer relations with Islamic elites of the Middle East are primarily the clans known for fundamentalist religious (Christian) orthodoxy, including the groups known as the ‘Orthodox Chekists’ [Cheka – the first Soviet security organisation, forerunner of the KGB, later FSB].
At the most basic level, the Orthodox Chekists are former members of the KGB and FSB who identify not so much with Felix Dzerzhinsky’s ruthless Cheka (from which ‘Chekist’) and the communism of Lenin and Stalin, so much as Russian nationalist groups, existing and otherwise. This group is centred around several nationalist organisations, such as the St Andrew the Apostle Foundation. While the chairman of the organisation, Vladimir Yakunin, is the head of Russian Railways, the president is the railroad banker Mikhail Baidakov. The Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, is close to Yakunin and his foundation. Medinsky’s father-in-law, Oleg Nikitin, is the head of the Federal Passenger Company, which, likewise, is affiliated with Russian Railways.
Another key nationalist Orthodox organisation is the Russian Athos Society, The founder and head of this society is Putin’s masseur, Konstantin Goloshapov. St Petersburg mayor Georgy Poltavchenko and several deputy mayors also are members. Meanwhile, the Vasily the Great Foundation is headed by Konstantin Malofeev, and its members include presidential aide Igor Shchegolyov and the head of the communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov.
Orthodox Chekists support the development of the Novorossiya project
The Orthodox Chekists support the development of the Novorossiya project through the open and increased participation of Russian forces. Malofeev’s colleagues Igor Girkin and Alexander Borodai personally took part in setting up the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Republics.
The patronage and power networks of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and presidential aide Vladislav Surkov are slightly different. Both men can be characterised as nationalists but nevertheless have been accused by other, more extreme, nationalists of ‘selling out Novorossiya’. Yet neither Shoigu nor Surkov has any reason to ‘sell out’ Novorossiya, and both bristle when described as ‘liberals.’ They prefer the term ‘enlightened conservatives.’
This explains why it was likely Surkov who recalled the ‘Malofeev detachment’ from the leadership of the self-proclaimed republics (Girkin was defence minister and Borodai was the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic) in favour of more subservient and disciplined local separatists.
Then there is the Transnistrian Vladimir Antyufeyev. Antyufeyev was the head of the Transnistrian KGB and is considered to be an FSB puppet. It is believed that the official leadership of these republics is closely connected to the Orthodox Chekists and the clan of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (also a radical hawk). Antyufeyev is now working in the service of Surkov, who together with Shoigu is personally overseeing the ceasefire with Kyiv. Surkov doesn’t approve of the more extreme hawks, with their intentions to seize Mariupol, and their sights on Odessa and Kherson.
Sergei Ivanov is another hawk when it comes to the Novorossiya issue, as is his deputy Vyacheslav Volodin. It seems this should have pushed these two men closer to Dmitry Rogozin, the Orthodox Chekist clan, and thus to Sechin. But if Ivanov and Rogozin simultaneously ‘gang up’ against pro-Western liberals Prime Minister Medvedev and his right hand man, Arkady Dvorkovich, then Sechin, a sometime rival of Medvedev for the second place in the tandem-triumvirate, and an ideological opponent of Dvorkovich, will now look for a reconciliation with Medvedev and his clan, not wishing to strengthen either Ivanov (who aims to become prime minister) or Rogozin (who wishes to become simultaneously deputy prime minister and defence minister). In this situation, the moderately liberal Medvedev and hardline Sechin would support the moderately hawkish Shoigu. Medvedev doesn’t wish to be counted among those who ‘sold out Novorossiya’ (though Rogozin and his clan, all the same, count him as such), and he always underlines his solidarity with the President on questions of combatting sanctions, and more generally in relation to the government’s policy on Ukraine.
No one would decide to oppose the course Putin has chosen on Ukraine, openly or otherwise.
No one, no matter what clan they belong to, would decide to oppose the course Putin has chosen on Ukraine, openly or otherwise. Nevertheless, we might suspect that Dvorkovich and other courtiers with Western backgrounds (such as German Gref, the head of Sberbank, or First Deputy Minister Igor Shuvalov) regret the drastic turn in relations between Russia and the West. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before their loyalty will be put to the test when the President asks them the all-important question; which is more important to them — victory in Ukraine or good relations with the West?
The price of loyalty
Loyalty has a price. Many oligarchs and government employees are already suffering from the conflict with the West. For example, the Petersburg banker and Putin judo partner Arkady Rotenberg had his castles, apartments and hotels in Italy seized, despite the fact they were owned through an offshore company in Cyprus.
And the man behind the transition of Sevastopol to Russian legal codes, Alexei Chaly (formerly the governor of Sevastopol and now speaker of the city’s parliament) has already lost business interests in Estonia, managed by his Crimean company Tavrida Electric, which had (again through a Cypriot offshore) interests in America, Canada, Ireland and Australia. Chaly perhaps is not far away from losing his empire. He is on the sanctioned list, but while the Americans have not yet gone after him, Chaly’s competitors, both in business and politics in Sevastopol (including the new governor, Sergei Menyailo, a protégé of Shoigu), might not shy away from sharing information with those Western structures imposing sanctions.
The reverse is true for Yakunin, who is under American and Canadian sanctions. However, he has managed to avoid European ones with the help of friends in Austria and Germany.
A shared burden will not be enough to rally the Putin oligarchy behind the president. Many oligarchs have arranged to receive compensation for their losses from the National Wealth Fund, but even that fund has its limits. Still, as yet, the aggrieved will not dare blame Putin for their problems, at least not openly. But somewhere, sitting inside the Kremlin, biding his time, sits his successor.
Standfirst image via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.
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