The Political Elite Under Putin

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on stability in Russia’s political elite during Vladimir Putin’s rule. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Russia’s political elite has undergone relatively little change under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Only sixty people have been ranked twentieth or higher at least once between 2000 and 2019 in the annual Nezavisimaya Gazeta list of the most politically influential Russians. Eighteen people have appeared on every list during this period. The greatest shift in elite composition occurred between 2007 and 2008, with smaller shifts around the presidential elections of 2004 and 2012.
  • Most of the political elite originate in the government bureaucracy in Moscow or St. Petersburg or came to their positions of influence through personal ties to Vladimir Putin, either in St. Petersburg or in the security services. Only ten percent came to power through electoral politics; another ten percent are businessmen who made their money independently of any connections to Vladimir Putin.
  • The elite is fairly evenly divided between individuals who have political influence solely because of their positions in government and individuals who have influence outside of their official role. People in the first group generally drop off the list quickly after leaving government or being demoted, and people in the second group tend to retain influence regardless of their position at any given time and remain influential for extended periods, even after departing government service.

Introduction

For most of the post-Soviet period, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta has conducted a monthly survey of Russian political experts. This survey asks its respondents to rank the 100 most politically influential Russians in the previous month. Throughout this period, the newspaper has also published an annual ranking,1 based on the average rank of those mentioned during the previous calendar year. These data can be used to identify the most politically influential members of the Russian elite during the twenty years of Vladimir Putin’s rule.2

Characteristics of the Data Set

The dataset used includes all individuals identified in Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s survey who ranked at least twentieth at some point during the period from 2000 to 2019. Since the annual rankings run through 2019, they do not include changes in elite composition resulting from the government reshuffle that took place in January 2020. Such changes will be reflected in the next annual ranking, which is expected to be published in early 2021. This group is composed of just sixty individuals. Although most of those named are politicians or senior government officials, eight are well-connected businessmen or executives of state corporations. Only six individuals came to power through electoral politics. Two are religious leaders. Only three are women. Almost all built their careers in Moscow or St. Petersburg, with only three originally coming from the regions.

The dataset shows each individual’s average annual ranking if they were in the top 100 that year. In the graphs below, gaps indicate periods when the individual in question fell out of the top 100. The primary characteristic of the list is the extraordinary longevity of the people on it. Eighteen people have appeared in the top 100 every year from 2000 through 2019. Nine of them also appeared in the 1999 list, indicating that their political careers extend at least to the late Yeltsin period.3 Only four people have returned to the top 100 after spending more than a year off the list.

Members of the Putin-era political elite can be characterized in various ways. Many analysts have divided them according to their background, as having emerged from the security services or from Vladimir Putin’s circles in St. Petersburg or from private businesses established in the 1990s.4 Others have divided them according to the nature of their position.5 These are very useful ways to categorize, therefore both background and position are mentioned in the discussion below. However, I take a different starting point and categorize the elite on the basis of when they attracted the notice of expert analysts of the Russian political scene as being influential in that scene. This undoubtedly creates some artifacts. Some individuals undoubtedly flew under the radar for some period of time before attracting the notice of experts. Most importantly, individuals who may be influential advisors to senior leaders but stay in the shadows may be undervalued or missed entirely. Nevertheless, given that the main goal of this study is to examine elite stability and change, a primary focus on the chronology of the subjects’ appearance on the scene is more appropriate than one that puts the main focus on the subjects’ background or role in the political system.

Survivors of the Yeltsin Era

Ten members of the political elite can be characterized as long-term survivors of the Yeltsin era. These are individuals who have appeared on the list since at least 1999, which is the earliest year for which data is currently available. Strikingly, half of the group is still considered among the top thirty most politically influential people in Russia in 2019, twenty years later. This group of Council and former Governor of St. Petersburg Valentina Matvienko; and current Presidential Envoy of to the North Caucasus region and former Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika. With the exception of Putin and Matvienko, these are people who have made careers as appointed senior officials rather than elected politicians.

Yeltsin-Era Survivors graph
The group of survivors also includes a number of people who have made their careers primarily in the business world, including such prominent oligarchs as Roman Abramovich and Vagit Alekperov. Vladimir Potanin is also included in the graphic as an oligarch known for his ability to maneuver through changes in Russia’s political scene and remain influential, although he is not part of the dataset, having never reached the top twenty in influence in any year measured. Although Anatolii Chubais was a prominent government official earlier in his career, during the period being analyzed here he has made his career in the world of state corporations, first as head of Russia’s electricity monopoly and then as head of the Rosnanotech state corporation. All four of these individuals have seen a decline in their influence in recent years, reflecting a general decline in influence among oligarchs in favor of bureaucratic officials.

The two other members of this group deserve a brief mention. Aleksandr Zhukov is a survivor who has played a variety of roles in government, including as a leading member of the State Duma, as the head of the Russian Olympic committee that organized the Sochi Winter Olympics, and as a deputy prime minister. Like the oligarchs, his influence has declined sharply in recent years. Finally, there is the case of Aleksandr Voloshin. Throughout Putin’s first term as President, Voloshin was the head of the presidential administration and considered one of the most powerful people in Russia. More interestingly, unlike other holdovers from the Yeltsin team described in the following section, he has consistently remained on the list of politically influential Russians since his resignation in 2003, albeit in relatively low positions.

Yeltsin-Era Politicians Who Did Not Last

A second group of members of the political elite were also survivors of the Yeltsin era, but have not retained their influence. These nine individuals are a fairly diverse group. Five of the nine were senior officials in the central government who stepped down at various points between 2001 and 2011 and thereafter disappeared from political life in Russia. These include Viktor Gerashchenko, who headed the Russian Central Bank until 2002; Aleksandr Veshniakov, who headed Russia’s Central Election Commission until 2007; and Mikhail Kasianov, who served as prime minister during Putin’s first term as president. There are also two former government ministers: Mikhail Zurabov, who headed the pension fund from 1999 to 2004 and was thereafter health minister until 2007 and Viktor Khristenko, who was deputy prime minister in both Yeltsin’s last year as president and in Putin’s first term and thereafter the minister of industry until 2012.

Yeltsin-Era Figures Who Did Not Last.

The other four members of this group can be described as more eclectic. Aleksei II’s influence came from his position as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. As we will see below, after his death in 2008, his successor retained a roughly similar level of influence. Yuri Luzhkov rapidly lost influence after his removal from his post as mayor of Moscow in 2010. The two businessmen in this group had very different trajectories. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, for a time, the most influential private businessman in Russia and remained influential even after his arrest in 2003, but he disappears from the list after his trial and imprisonment in 2005. Finally, Mikhail Fridman is somewhat different from the rest of this group. He is a businessman whose influence has gradually faded over time. In this, he is most similar to Vladimir Potanin in the previous group (the “survivors”), with the main difference being that the degree of his fade has taken him out of not only the top twenty, but the top 100, in recent years. Other than Fridman, the members of this group are all notable for having derived their influence from their positions, rather than their personal power. Unlike several people in the survivor group, their influence did not outlast their dismissal from their government positions.

Putin’s Original Team

When Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, he quickly installed his own team of loyalists. With only one exception, these twelve individuals who first appeared on the list in 2000 have remained highly influential players in Russian politics over the next twenty years. The majority of the team are connected to Putin, either through their work in the security services or from Putin’s time working in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s.

The security service contingent includes Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev, and Vladimir Ustinov. The first three people on this list have been among the core members of Putin’s inner circle throughout his time in power. One key difference when compared with the group of individuals that did not last is that the security service contingent’s influence has remained high regardless of the various positions they have held. Thus, Igor Sechin has variously served as deputy head of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister (while Putin was prime minister), and head of the Rosneft state oil corporation. His influence did not decrease when he departed from his government position in 2012 and he remains one of the ten most politically influential people in Russia to the present day.

Similarly, Nikolai Patrushev has been highly influential, both as FSB director and as secretary of the Security Council, despite the latter organization’s relatively limited formal power. Sergei Ivanov was highly influential first as defense minister, then as deputy prime minister, and finally as head of the presidential administration. His influence has faded in the last three years after his departure from the presidential administration, but the fact that he remains on the list despite having virtually no significant official role in Russian politics speaks to his personal connection to the president. Vladimir Ustinov is a somewhat different case. Although he played a powerful role in Russian politics while serving as prosecutor general, his removal from that position in 2006 was interpreted as a political defeat and resulted in a sharp decline in his perceived influence, even while he was still serving as Minister of Justice. After his dismissal from that position in 2008 and his transfer to the role of presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, he disappeared from the rankings entirely.

The St. Petersburg team includes Dmitry Medvedev, Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, Dmitry Kozak, and Boris Gryzlov. These are also figures who have exhibited political influence regardless of the position they held. Medvedev served variously as deputy head and then head of the presidential administration, first deputy prime minister, president, and prime minister, retaining a position among the ten most influential Russian political figures since his appointment as head of the presidential administration in late 2003. Gref and Kudrin survived their departures from positions as minister for economic development and trade and minister of finance, respectively. Gref has retained influence in his role as head of Sberbank, while Kudrin remained highly influential despite having no major government or business position from 2011 until his appointment as head of the Accounts Chamber in 2018. Boris Gryzlov was highly influential as minister of internal affairs and as speaker of the State Duma, but disappeared from the list after stepping down as speaker in 2011. He returned in 2017, however, despite having a fairly low-level position as the president’s representative to the contact group on the Ukraine conflict.

Putin's Original Team

Dmitry Kozak has held a wide variety of positions over the last twenty years, both in Moscow and in the regions, while remaining highly influential. His peak of influence was in Putin’s first two terms in office, when he held senior positions in the presidential administration and as presidential representative to the Southern Federal District. Note that his high level of influence in the latter position contrasts with the case of Vladimir Ustinov, who dropped off the influence list after replacing Kozak in this position. This strongly suggests that Kozak’s influence during this period was related to his personal connections, rather than the office he held.

Three other members of the team are not connected to Putin through prior service. Vladislav Surkov and Aleksei Gromov were already working in the central government in the 1990s but first rose to positions of prominence under Putin. Surkov served in the presidential administration until 2011, then briefly as head of the government executive office before becoming a personal advisor to Putin. Although his influence declined in the latter position and he is likely to drop out of the rankings entirely in 2020 after his very public resignation in February, he remained on the list throughout the period of the study. Gromov was the president’s press secretary in his first two terms, followed by twelve years in the presidential administration as deputy and first deputy chief of staff. His influence has steadily increased over the years, especially once he moved into the presidential administration. Finally, Oleg Deripaska is an outlier among this group, as his role is in business rather than government. Although he is linked more closely to Putin than some of the businessmen who appeared in the other groups, his influence has declined in the last decade as power has shifted away from people in business and toward government officials.

People Who Became Influential During Putin’s First Term

Individuals who joined the list of politically influential figures between 2001 and 2004 fall into very similar categories as Putin’s original team. Once again, the majority are figures whose background is in the security services or in the St. Petersburg government, while a few rose through other channels. Unlike Putin’s original team, few of these individuals have the political capital to have influence separate from their positions.

Siloviki, political figures who rose to power in the security services, such as Mikhail Fradkov, Rashid Nurgaliev, and Viktor Ivanov, are good examples of this tendency. Fradkov, for example, appeared in relatively low positions on the list as head of the tax police in 2001 and 2002, then disappeared from the list entirely while serving as Russia’s representative to the European Union in 2003. He then spent four years as one of the most politically influential people in Russia while serving as prime minister, before again disappearing from the list entirely after losing that position. He returned to the list in 2013 while serving as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, but disappeared after being dismissed from that position in 2016. Similarly, Rashid Nurgaliev was highly influential while serving as minister of internal affairs from 2004 to 2011, but disappeared from the list immediately after stepping down from that position. Viktor Ivanov spent several years as an assistant to President Putin and then several more as director of the Federal Narcotics Service. He disappeared from the list after being dismissed from the latter position in early 2016.

The political figures who came out of St. Petersburg are a relatively diverse group. Among them are two who have remained on the list throughout the period since their initial appearance in 2001–2002. Sergei Mironov served for many years as the speaker of the Federation Council, although he retained a certain amount of influence after moving to the State Duma in 2012. Aleksei Miller has remained among the twenty-five most politically influential Russians continuously since 2003 while serving as the head of Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly. Vladimir Iakunin was on the list only during the period from 2005 to 2015, when he headed the Russian Railroad state corporation. His immediate disappearance after his departure from that position in 2015 suggests that his influence derived from his position, rather than his personal power. Viktor Zubkov first made the list while running the Financial Monitoring Committee and reached higher positions on it, having served as prime minister and first deputy prime minister. He dropped off the list after losing the latter position in 2012.

Putin's First Term Additions.

The remaining four people in this group have had highly varied careers. Igor Shuvalov has served in a variety of roles in the government, including as the government’s chief of staff, as an assistant to the president, and as first deputy prime minister. He was most highly ranked on Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s list in the latter period, although he retained some influence even after departing that position in 2018. Aleksandr Khloponin is one of the few people on the overall list who appeared on the list while holding a position outside of Moscow. He was, for many years, the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai and then served as deputy prime minister. The peak of his influence was in the period 2010–2014, when he concurrently served as deputy prime minister and presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. Even during this period, his highest position in the survey was twentieth in 2010, highlighting the extent to which Moscowbased political figures dominate the rankings.

Dmitry Rogozin first came to prominence as one of the few elected national-level politicians on this list. He was one of the leaders of the right-wing Rodina party until 2005 and was thus one of the few influential politicians with an independent power base. However, he dropped off the list after departing the party due to conflicts with other leaders. He returned to a position of influence in 2012 after being appointed deputy prime minister in charge of the defense and space industries. Finally, Sergei Pugachev is unique, in that he only appeared on the list for two years, but in very high positions. He was a businessman with close ties to Putin, but quickly fell out of favor after refusing to reinvest his capital in Russia. He has since renounced his Russian citizenship and now lives in France.

People Who Became Influential During Putin’s Second Term

A fairly large group—thirteen people—became politically influential during Putin’s second term. Although a few of these people appeared on the list early in the term, most joined or rose to high rankings in 2007 or 2008. Individuals who joined the political elite during this period fall into two major categories, with a few outliers.

Five people in this set had close ties with Putin, mostly dating to their schooling in the 1970s and 1980s or through working together in the security services in the 1980s and 1990s. All five of these individuals rose to highly influential positions at around the same time and have remained near the top of the list throughout Putin’s presidency. Aleksandr Bastrykin was a university classmate of Putin. He worked at the Ministry of Justice and in the Prosecutor-General’s office before being appointed in 2007 as head of the Investigative Committee (IC), an anti-corruption agency within the Prosecutor-General’s office. His influence increased further in 2011, when the IC became an independent agency directly subordinate to the president.

Sergei Naryshkin has served in a variety of roles over the years, including chief of staff to the prime minister, deputy prime minister, head of the presidential administration, chair of the State Duma and, most recently, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service. His influence has always come less from his position and more from his close ties to Vladimir Putin, whom he has known since the early 1980s, when they studied together in the Soviet security service (KGB) schools in Leningrad. He was perceived as having been appointed head of the presidential administration under Dmitry Medvedev in order to ensure Medvedev’s loyalty to Putin.6 Aleksandr Bortnikov spent his entire career in the KGB or its successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), primarily in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) office. He was appointed deputy director of the FSB in 2004 and became its head in 2008. Although all three are influential because of their positions, they achieved these positions through a combination of their previous work and their connections to Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, Sergei Chemezov and Yuri Kovalchuk have attained their positions almost entirely through their connections to Putin. Chemezov worked with Putin in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s and again in the Presidential Property Office in Moscow in the late 1990s. Since Putin became president, Chemezov has held senior positions in a variety of state corporations, beginning with Rosoboronexport (the state defense export company) and since 2007 as general director of Rostec, which, under his leadership, has become the dominant player in Russia’s defense industry. Although Yuri Kovalchuk did not go to school or work with Putin, he has had close ties to the president dating back to the 1990s. Like Chemezov, he has never worked in the Russian government, having instead used his personal ties to Putin to amass a large fortune as the head of Bank Rossiia, a position that has led him to be labeled as “Putin’s personal banker.” 

A second set of five people rose to political influence by rising through the ranks of their agencies. Sergei Lavrov is perhaps the archetype of this figure. He has served as foreign minister since 2004, having previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as Russia’s representative to the United Nations. Although he was, for many years, described as someone who is a civil servant and chief implementer rather than a member of Putin’s inner circle, his longevity in his post has gradually translated into greater influence on decision-making. 

Putin's Second Term Additions.

Tatiana Golikova rose through the ranks of the Ministry of Finance, becoming Deputy Finance Minister in the late 1990s. She was then appointed as Minister of Health and Social Development in 2007, going from that role to the position of Chair of the Accounts Chamber in 2013 and then becoming Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy in 2018. Similarly, Elvira Nabiullina rose through the ranks at the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, becoming the head of the ministry in 2007. She has retained influence since transitioning to her current position as head of Russia’s Central Bank in 2013.

Arkady Dvorkovich rose through the Finance Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Development, having developed close ties to German Gref in the latter ministry. He first rose to prominence as then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief economic advisor and then as deputy prime minister once Medvedev assumed the position of Prime Minister in 2012. He dropped off the list of politically influential Russians after losing that position in 2018, and now serves as president of the World Chess Federation. Finally, Patriarch Kirill rose through the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and headed the Church’s Department for External Church Relations from 1989 until his election as Patriarch in 2009, following Patriarch Aleksei’s death.

He first appeared on the list of influential people in 2007, when it became increasingly clear that he was likely to become the next patriarch, even as Aleksei’s health was declining. All five of these individuals are influential because of their positions, rather than through personal ties.

Only two members of this group attained their positions through the political process, both initially in regions outside of Moscow. Sergei Sobianin has had a long career in electoral politics at the regional level, first winning election in 1991 as mayor of a small town in Siberia, gradually rising to higher positions in the region, including a five-year stint as governor of Tiumen. He moved to Moscow in 2005 to serve as head of the presidential administration, and has remained a fixture in the top twenty most influential Russians since 2007. He has been the mayor of Moscow since 2010.

Viacheslav Volodin won his first election even earlier, serving on the Saratov city council beginning in 1990. He represented Saratov in the State Duma beginning in 1999, serving as the Duma’s deputy speaker. He succeeded Sobianin as head of the government executive office in 2010 and has remained on the top twenty list since then, serving as deputy head of the presidential administration and, since 2016, as chair of the State Duma.

Finally, Anatoly Serdiukov is unique among this group in that he achieved his influence by virtue of his ties to someone in the top elite other than Putin. He appears on the list in 2007, when he moved from his previous position as head of the Federal Tax Service to Defense Minister. He dropped off the list in 2012, when he was dismissed from that position. His appointment was linked to his connection to Viktor Zubkov, as he was married to Zubkov’s daughter. Despite constant criticism from members of the military, he remained in the position until his wife filed for divorce in 2012, at which point he was quickly accused of corruption and removed from his position.

People Who Became Influential in the Last 12 Years

Although much has been written about efforts by Russia’s senior leadership to renew Russia’s political elite, very few people have joined the ranks of the most influential Russians since 2008. In fact, only one person who joined the list while Dmitry Medvedev was president has become highly influential, while another four rose to top positions between Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and the end of 2019. As we saw in the previous section, a few others appeared on the list earlier, but only became highly influential after 2012. The five people in this group come from a variety of backgrounds, though most share the characteristic of rising to positions of influence through the ranks of the organizations they now lead, rather than achieving that position through personal connections to Putin or members of Putin’s inner circle. Dmitry Peskov rose through the diplomatic service and then through the presidential press office before becoming Putin’s press secretary in 2008. Anton Siluanov rose through the finance ministry, replacing the previous minister in late 2011. Anton Vaino rose through the presidential administration and has headed it since 2016. Vladimir Kolokoltsev served in various positions in the interior ministry, followed by a term as the Moscow police commissioner, before being appointed to head the interior ministry in 2012. Viktor Zolotov is the one exception in this group because he has been personally close to Putin since serving as a bodyguard to St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak in the 1990s. Although he only appeared on the list of influential Russians in 2016, he headed the presidential security service from the start of Putin’s tenure in 2000 until his appointment as head of the newly established National Guard in 2016. He thus serves as a good example of the type of individual who was missed by expert rankings because of his tendency to keep out of the limelight.

Putin's Recent Additions, SI#53

Inflection Points

Although Russia’s political elite has experienced relatively little change over the last twenty years, there have been a few key moments of substantial renewal, most immediately before or after presidential elections. After the initial introduction of Putin’s team in 2000–2001, an initial shift took place in 2003–2004. This was a period of consolidation, during which holdovers from the Yeltsin administration such as Kasyanov and Voloshin left their positions and the influence of independent businessmen was largely eliminated after the arrest of Khodorkovsky. These figures’ residual influence meant that they remained on the list, though in relatively low positions, for some time thereafter. However, starting at this point, all senior officials were either members of Putin’s circle or technocrats.

A much bigger elite transition took place in 2007, with the departure of Veshniakov, Fradkov, and Zurabov and the decline in influence of Chubais, Gref, Zhukov, and Viktor Ivanov. At the same time, a large number of new people appeared on the list, including Chemezov, Bortnikov, Bastrykin, Kovalchuk, Golikova, Nabiullina, Dvorkovich, and Serdiukov. In addition, Naryshkin, Zubkov, Iakunin, and Shuvalov, who had all been on the list previously, first attained high levels of influence in 2007 or 2008. These changes occurred as part of the transition to what became known as the “tandemocracy,” a period during which Medvedev served as president while Putin was prime minister.

There was a second major transition around the 2012 presidential election, with the departures of Zubkov, Gryzlov, Khristenko, Nurgaliev, and Serdiukov and the decline of Kudrin and Surkov. At the same time, Shoigu, Bastrykin, Volodin, and Peskov became highly influential for the first time while Siluanov, Rogozin, and Kolokoltsev either first appeared on the list or returned after a lengthy absence. This date marked the consolidation of the conservative turn in Russian politics, with security officials in the ascendance and economic modernizers relegated to secondary roles.

Putin’s third term was characterized largely by stability, with only a few significant shifts in influence. There were early signs of a generational shift, although few younger officials had yet reached positions of highest influence by the end of 2019, as highlighted by the dearth of people in the final group discussed above. Although a big government shakeup took place in January 2020, initial monthly polling suggests that this will result primarily in a reshuffling, with potentially limited impact on the composition of the top elite beyond the addition of the new prime minister. The shift to a new generation is coming, but the highest level still consists primarily of the people who have been with Putin since the early days of his rule. This will likely remain the case at least until the next presidential election in 2024.

Conclusion

The small number of people represented in the elite suggests a high level of elite continuity, which has allowed the regime to remain remarkably stable over a twenty-year period. Regime stability can be fleeting and authoritarian regimes, in particular, can shift from the appearance of eternal stability to collapse in a brief period. Nevertheless, the level of elite continuity in Putin’s Russia has allowed for relatively high level of policy consistency. While Putin’s team certainly has its share of tensions, everyone in his inner circle understands how the others operate.

The expert survey data clearly show that Russia’s Putin-era political elite includes two types of officials. Members of the first group have influence because of their roles or positions in government, while members of the second group have influence independently of their positions because of their ties to Vladimir Putin. Those in the second group tend to remain influential even when they are no longer in positions of power, while those in the first group drop out of the rankings as soon as they step down from their official role. This finding suggests that the number of people with real power may be even smaller than the sixty people represented in the data set, as only the second group has lasting influence at the highest levels. It also suggests that the members of the elite who were displaced in the government turnover of January 2020 will have different fates. People who have close ties to Putin, such as Dmitry Medvedev, will remain influential, while those who have had power because of their roles in government, such as Surkov, are likely to disappear.

Notes

1 The most recent annual rankings were published in Dmitri Orlov, “100 ведущих политиков России в 2019 году,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 1, 2020, http://www.ng.ru/ideas/2020-01-13/7_7766_people.html.

2 The question of how well an expert survey of this type reflects actual power dynamics in Russia is a valid one. Because the main goal of this study is to examine political influence, ratings by Russian experts on domestic politics are likely to be a fairly accurate representation, especially because the survey used a consistent methodology throughout the period under study.

3 “1999 год. 100 ведущих политиков России.” https://ru.telegram.one/CorruptionTV/1499.

4 Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “Putin’s Militocracy,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 19(4):289-306, 2003.

5 Tatiana Stanovaya, “Пять путинских элит на фоне транзита,” Carnegie Moscow Center, February 27, 2020. https://carnegie.ru/2020/02/27/ru-pub-81158.

6 Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Stott, “Medvedev’s Kremlin chiefs are Putin men,” Reuters, May 13, 2008. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-cabinet-kremlin/medvedevs-kremlin-chiefs-are-putin-men-idUSL1323497720080513.

The impact of the currency crash on Russian foreign policy

The Russian currency crash on Monday and Tuesday is likely to reduce the chances for Russian leaders to initiate new foreign adventures and may well result in efforts to make a deal on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and his allies realize that in an economic downturn, they won’t have the financial resources to undertake efforts to destabilize other neighboring states. Instead, we should be looking for Russia to undertake some retrenchment, with Putin to try to calm things down a bit in the hope that he can persuade EU states to allow the sanctions they have in place against Russia to expire. This would allow for market sentiment to improve somewhat, which Russian leaders hope would allow the ruble to strengthen even if continuing U.S. sectoral sanctions mean that a corporate liquidity crisis is inevitable.

Russian leaders recognize that for European sanctions to end, the conflict in eastern Ukraine needs to be resolved. It is no coincidence that the situation in the Donbas has been calmer in recent days than at any time since last spring. While I imagine that neither the Russian nor European sides at this point know exactly what it would take to call off the sanctions regime, Russian leaders may be hoping that even a partial stabilization of the conflict may be enough to prevent EU member states from reaching consensus on renewing the sectoral and financial sanctions that are particularly economically painful to both sides and that are due to expire in July and August 2015.

Given this analysis, one might be surprised that Putin didn’t express more of an intent to compromise in his press conference today. But anyone expecting a soft line in this forum doesn’t understand how Putin operates. The press conference is first and foremost a PR opportunity for a domestic audience. In such a forum, he has to maintain his position in order to reassure his base that he’s not changing course. Even if he wanted to compromise, he wouldn’t announce it at the press conference. In fact, I doubt that he’d announce it publicly at all.

Instead, we should watch Russian actions in coming weeks/months. They will provide a better indication of Putin’s next move(s). But at the same time, I don’t expect much more in the next few months than an effort to avoid further escalation. I think that for now the leadership thinks it can still wait this out, that oil prices will rise sometime in 2015, that the EU will fail to agree to renew sanctions next summer. This is not 1998. Russia has the reserves to wait out the hard times, if they only last a year or two.

—-

Parts of this post appeared originally in The Monkey Cage.

Multiculturalism à la Russe?

Here’s an interview I just did with RIA-Novosti’s Valdai Club. It originally appeared here: http://valdaiclub.com/culture/52720.html.

—-

In your opinion, is there any tension between ethnic Russians and so-called Muslim communities in large cites like Moscow and Saint Petersburg?

Sure, of course there is tension. I think there are different kinds of tension, depending on the communities. One of the more visible forms is tension between migrants from the Caucasus and Russians in the major cities. But not just in the major cities. A few years ago, we saw the riots in Kondopoga. So you mentioned Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it goes beyond them, there are a lot of smaller communities too, and in places where there’s a sizable presence of different groups, there can be tension.

The tension comes from both sides. On the one hand, there are migrants coming in, who are trying to preserve a somewhat different culture from what they’re finding in the new place. And so that leads to resistance from the people who have lived there longer – from the dominant culture, let’s say. But on the other hand, the migrants are responding to discrimination from the majority group, so there are sources of tension on both sides.

Does Russia have a thoughtful ethnic policy? Or do Russian authorities try to solve problems ad hoc?

There is a policy, but it’s somewhat rudimentary. It’s more of an inertial policy, in that rather than actively trying to shape the situation, it’s continuing policies that are partially left over from the Soviet Union, and partially left over from the Yeltsin period. So Russia still has the big overarching set of institutions with ethnic regions, for example, left over from the Soviet Union, and it really hasn’t been modified very much in terms of how these republics operate.  On the regional level, there’s less freedom to implement policies on ethnic culture and language than there was in the Yeltsin period. But it’s more a matter of degree, rather than a categorical difference.

On the other hand, there were changes from the Soviet to the Yeltsin period. For example, eliminating the requirement to list one’s nationality in forms and in the internal passport made it easier for people to change their ethnic identity, if they chose to do so. But that was something that was implemented already in 1997 or ’98. And so, what’s been going on since then is the political leadership trying not to rock the boat too much.

Apart from politics and political rights in the USSR what is worthy in the idea of Soviet supranational identity?

I think it’s a necessary idea that any country that wants to maintain itself as a united country needs to have some identity that includes everyone who lives there. So the Soviet identity, then this Rossiskaya identity that came in after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were very much needed. The innovation is not this supra-ethnic identity, because there are lots of countries in the world that do this. Let’s say South Africa has a lot of different ethnic groups, each of which has an ethnic identity, but there’s also an idea that everyone is also a citizen of South Africa, so there’s this distinction between ethnic identity and what we might call national identity. That’s common around the world.

The Soviet innovation was to try to make a different kind of category, this idea of the Soviet people – Sovetsky narod – where it was being promoted concurrently with ethnic identities and for a period of time almost as an alternative to those identities. It didn’t last long enough to really change identities. And it was countered, because there wasn’t any real way for people to shift to just the Soviet identity. So in that sense, it didn’t really turn into an overarching identity that everyone could accept. But if it were not for the need for people to state their nationality in their passports, etc, in a few more decades it could have led to the creation of a real supra-ethnic identity. I don’t know if this would have been a good thing or not, but it would certainly have led to a very different political environment.

Can you see any voids in Russian legislation pertinent to ethnic policy? Which norms and acts need to be adjusted in order to regulate relations between ethnic communities in Russia?

I don’t think that necessarily legislation is what is needed. I see it more in the realm of policy rather than law, so what is needed, to my mind, is more effective measures to integrate newcomers to a city or a town with people who have lived there for a while, in terms of education and mechanisms for adjustment. I’m not sure that a legal change, a big law, would be necessary.

What would be very much counterproductive is if the government followed through on the occasional proposals to get rid of ethnic republics and replace them with non-ethnic regions, such as having Kazanskaya oblast instead of Tatarstan. If the government started from a completely blank slate, then that might be an option, although it would lead very quickly to assimilation of minorities, so that would certainly not be a good thing for the minority groups. But in the current situation where ethnic republics already exist, it’s a recipe for instability, not just negatively affecting just the minority groups, but also leading to tension and conflict.

So I don’t think that a grand new law to change relations between ethnic groups is the way to go. What Russia needs instead is more grass-roots measures to help minority groups adjust to their new environment, together with efforts to train the police not to discriminate against minority groups, because like I said, it works both ways; the police’s biased attitude towards minority groups and migrants certainly aggravates their grievances.

Kyiv Post interview

The following is a repost of an interview I did recently with the Kyiv Post’s Ilya Timtchenko on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the United States. I really like how it turned out.

A nation that is ‘both Ukrainian and Russian’

Dmitry Gorenburg is a lecturer at Harvard University, editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a senior analyst and director of Russian and East European Studies at CNA Strategic Studies, a non-profit think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. His is the author of Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation and a number of articles, including “Rethinking Interethnic Marriage in the Soviet Union.” In this Kyiv Post interview Gorenburg analyzes Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the U.S. and gives advice for Ukraine’s nation-building.

Kyiv Post: What has prompted your interest in Eastern Europe?

Dmitry Gorenburg: I think much of it had to do with my personal biography. I was born in Russia and came to the U.S. when I was a kid. Since I was fluent in Russian and the Soviet Union was in the middle of perestroika, I got interested in the region’s politics in college and continued in that field of study in graduate school. I studied ethnic politics for the first 10 years, finished my Ph.D. and went to D.C. where I started to work on security and defense issues for a think tank. I have been interested in that field ever since.

Kyiv Post: What exactly is “Problems of Post-Communism?
DG: It is a standard private non-profit and non-academic journal. The goal is to bring academic research to be published in a way that is accessible to the policy community. We strive to be at the intersection between academia and policy in a way that is more rigorous and scholarly than something like Foreign Affairs. There is more emphasis on field research but we try to avoid too much academic jargon, publishing articles that end up being interesting to both scholars and policy people.

Kyiv Post: In Failed Crusade Stephen Cohen criticizes the U.S. for approaching the Soviet Union too lightly, in the sense, that it was too optimistic of the full recovery of Russia after the Perestroika. Do you agree, and have you seen a change in Western scholarly thinking regarding the situation in post-Communist countries in the last decade? 

DG: I think it’s not quite as uniform as he portrays. There was a dominant view, but there are always those who were challenging it in terms of where they thought Russia was going. Certainly some were less familiar with the economic side of it, but on the political science side there were people challenging this idea of the inevitable transition of Russia to being just like us. There was hope and there were attempts; Steve (Cohen) would argue misguided attempts. In Russia there are many people who think this was done deliberately to weaken Russia. I don’t think anyone was being disingenuous. People had an idea on how to improve things and some of them did not favor Russian conditions. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and many Americans think the current Russia is the “return of the evil empire.” I think if there’s anything lacking it’s not the lack of models on how to improve relations but just an inability to understand how the other side thinks.

Kyiv Post: Do you see any potential positive results of the 2004 Orange Revolution and what should Ukrainians realize for future nation-building?

DG: It unified part of Ukraine but I am not sure if it unified the entire country.  I think it failed to transform Ukrainians and one reason is because of the infighting between Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko; they were never able to bridge that divide and bring the whole country forward. Certainly there were positive aspects in terms of liberalization and decrease in government control. But, unfortunately, I don’t think there was that much of an effort to fight corruption; new government officials would come in and do a lot of the same things. If you compare the situation with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Georgians actually dealt with their corruption. For example, in today’s Georgia it is unheard of to give bribes to traffic police, whereas, that was a constant before. There were things that were done. For those years of Yushchenko’s presidency there was a lot of appearance of democracy and freedom but it wasn’t really institutionalized. There was no strong consensus on institutions of democracy because no one had the upper hand –there were “clans” fighting with each other. One really positive achievement that unfortunately didn’t last is the constitution that reduces the powers of the presidency. When that was repealed it again created a system that makes it easier to control a society.

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s international position developing since the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych? Do you think Ukraine is becoming more pro-Russian?

DG: Definitely it is more pro-Russian than before. But at the same time there are limits. When Yanukovych was first elected I think there was this period of panic among the anti-Russian, pro-Western group in Ukraine where they thought he was just going to give everything away to Russia. I think he wants to have positive relations with Russia but he wants to have other options as well. In the grand scheme of things even for Moscow and certainly Washington this is just a small part of what they are interested in the world, whereas, if you are in Kyiv this is a much larger part.

Kyiv Post: In the book “Rebounding Identities” you mention that Russia is very strict with preserving the Russian Orthodox Church as its dominant denomination and religious agenda so to speak. What is your opinion on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church?

DG: I think there is a very close cooperation there. The church depends on state support for promoting its agenda but the State also uses the Church for legitimacy or to increase its legitimacy because the Church is a popular and trusted institution. There have been interesting changes with Patriarch Kirill, who seems much more publicly active. He is more of a public persona I would say than Alexey was. Kirill is trying to push some church agenda items such as having chaplains in the military or courses on religion in schools. The point is that they are trying to get the Orthodoxy a little bit more embedded in society.

Kyiv Post: In your opinion how should the West develop its relations with countries like Ukraine and Belarus considering its long-term relations with Russia?

DG: These are countries that are much closer to Russia geographically and so it is inevitable that Russia cares more about its relationship with say Ukraine than the U.S. From that point of view it’s unrealistic to think that we are going to be able to shape this relationship since it is much more important for both Ukraine and Russia. Also, the U.S. is best served by taking ideology out of its foreign policy. For example, there is a lot of discussion about to what extent should we focus on pushing Russia to be more democratic and respect human rights. I think that is important but the tricky thing is not to turn it into lecturing. It’s more useful to do practical things in terms of supporting initiatives and developing positive relationships rather than making grandiose statements. There is one camp in the U.S. that thinks we need to protect Russia’s Near Abroad from Russia. We can’t do that. I would think that the focus would be more on figuring out what the interests are and pragmatically following them.

Kyiv Post: Do you find a fundamentally different thinking in Russia’s policy-making compared to the West? 

DG: I think that Russians have more doubt about Russia’s place in the world, and I think that leads to a lot of philosophizing; whereas, if anything, the U.S. has an overabundance of its certainty about its place in the world and there is less desire for reflection. There is more of “well we know what we stand for so let’s act on it.”

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s main differences with other post-communist countries? What makes it different?

DG: I think that the division between eastern (Russian-speaking) and western (Ukrainian-speaking) is the most unique aspect of Ukraine. There are certainly other countries in the former Soviet Union like Kazakh-Russian, Estonian-Russian or Kyrgyz-Uzbek that have ethnic divisions; however, in those cases the divisions are much starker. The interesting thing about Ukraine is that you have this division but it’s much more fluid: there are people that are kind of both. You can see this in surveys where you ask about identity in Ukraine and you give more than two choices. You get a huge percentage that in some way feel both Ukrainian and Russian. That is unique. Today there seems to be division but that is something that could be reconciled and overcome with the right circumstances and the right actions by politicians to unify Ukraine. You do not have to be anti-Russian to also be pro-European or vice versa. Ukraine can really act as that bridge. That can give more hope for the future.

Midrats appearance May 20

I’m back from my travels. Regular updates should resume next week. In the meantime, I’ll be on the Midrats talk radio blog tomorrow (Sunday May 20) at 5pm to talk about Russian politics and security issues.

Here’s the description of the topics we will cover from their website:

The USSR may be gone … but Russia has not gone anywhere.

While the news seems to be all around Russia from the rise of China, the incredible success of the Baltic states, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics, to the European edge of the “near abroad” – Russia continues to be a major player.

Is it still feeding off the corpse of the USSR, or is there a new dynamism and potential? If not a democracy in the Western sense and not Communist either – what is it?

Where does it see its role beyond a seller of weapons and energy? Is Putin just about Putin – or does he have a larger vision for Russia?

Why has Russia taken the position it has from Syria to Iran in the face of world opinion?

 

 

Quick reaction to Putin’s announcement

Josh Tucker over at the Monkey Cage asked me to comment on yesterday’s announcement that Putin will run for President next year. My comments can be found at his blog, together with those by several other PONARS members. I focused on the potential impact of the decision on foreign policy, and particularly U.S.-Russian bilateral relations. Here’s my comment.

There has already been some loose talk about the potential negative impact of Putin’s return on U.S.-Russian relations. On the contrary, I think this move in and of itself will have very little impact on bilateral relations or on overall Russian foreign policy, for that matter. Russia was not ruled by Medvedev over the last 3.5 years, and it will not be ruled exclusively by Putin over the next six. The Russian leadership is in some sense a collectivity, with Putin acting (in the words of Olga Kryshtanovskaia) as primus inter pares among a group of 4-6 top leaders who together make the decisions. In this environment, the current foreign policy course has to have been supported by the leadership, and by Putin in particular. There’s no reason to think he will want to change it as president. Russia will continue to seek to cooperate with the United States on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation activities and will provide an increasingly important transit route to Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian leaders will continue their sporadic efforts to find a way to integrate their country into Western security institutions, though most likely with no more success than they’ve achieved to date.

To be sure, the atmospherics may be somewhat different. Several Russians I’ve spoken to about Putin’s decision argue that the main difference between him and Medvedev is in their style, rather than their substance. I have no doubt that Putin’s rhetoric will at times cause a great deal of consternation in the West and in the United States in particular. In these circumstances, it will be especially important to focus on Russian actions, rather than their rhetoric, in order to avoid an over-reaction that would derail aspects of the relationship that provide concrete and significant benefits to the United States.

Again, please make sure to go over to The Monkey Cage and read the comments there, especially if you’re interested in the potential impact on Russian domestic politics.

An Interactive Planning Approach to Shaping U.S.-Russian Relations

The annual PONARS policy conference in Washington DC took place Friday. I usually post my memos for it a week or two in advance, but I was hiking in the wilds of Utah in late August and away from the internets, returning just in time for the conference. So here it is after the fact. Other memos, including several related to the Russian military and arms control, may be found here.

U.S. policy toward Russia, as toward the rest of the world, tends to be highly reactive. Analysts and policy-makers usually spend their time discussing what the Russian government might do in the future and how the United States will (or should) react. This is not actually a useful model for foreign policy planning. Over thirty years ago, Russell Ackoff, one of the pioneers in operational planning research, described reactive planning as walking into the future while facing the past. In his words, a reactive planner “has a good view of where the organization has been and is, but no view of where it is going.”[1] In this memo, I will describe the three forms of planning outlined by Ackoff and make the case for the advantage of developing a Russia policy based on the principles of interactive planning.

 

Three Types of Planning

In his article, Ackoff describes most planning as a form of “ritual rain dance performed at the end of the dry season to which any rain that follows is attributed.” Rather than having some effect on subsequent outcomes, it makes the planners feel better about any future successes that come their way, while allowing any failures to be attributed to externalities or unforeseen circumstances. The main reason for this lack of impact is that while most planning is designed to address existing or expected problems, problems as such do not exist in the real world. Rather than face finite and well-defined problems, decisionmakers confront what Ackoff calls messes—systems of problems in which all the problems interact with each other. With such systems, solving each problem only creates new ones and may only make the situation as a whole worse.

The most common type of planning is of the reactive or retrospective variety. Policymakers who use this form of planning are focused primarily with “identifying and fixing up bad situations.” The goal of reactive planners is to try to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Government action officers generally spend the vast majority of their time in this mode, dealing with crises that in one way or another imperil the functioning of the programs for which they are responsible. In large part because of limits on time and resources, they are preoccupied with tactical questions and ignore strategic issues.

Prospective planning is the second type of planning commonly used by policymakers. This approach consists of attempting to predict what the world will be like at some point in the future and then preparing to deal with that future. In Ackoff’s words, “it doesn’t try to buck the tide, but rides on its leading edge, so as to get where the tide is going before anyone else does.” The key tools of prospective planners include forecasting and scenario-building. While reactive planners focus on short-term issues, prospective planners focus on long-range programs that attempt to optimize a particular set of policies given a set of assumptions about the external environment at some future point. While this approach is less commonly used in government, it does feature in departments that focus on long-range planning. An improvement over reactive planning, this approach suffers from two critical problems. First of all, the scenarios used by prospective planners are generally based on some combination of past experience and current trends. However, as any stock market analyst can tell you, past results are no guarantee of future performance. The only time that the future can be forecast accurately is when it is completely determined by the past. As Ackoff points out, that is also the condition under which no amount of planning can change the situation. Second, it makes no effort to affect the external environment, assuming that this is not something that can be influenced by policymakers.

This willingness to change the external environment is what sets apart the interactive planner. He or she “believes that the future is largely under an organization’s control” and depends largely on actions and events that occur going forward than on the events of the past. Therefore, the goal of planning is to design a desirable future and invent ways to bring that future about. Ackoff calls this type of planning “the art of the impossible.” He argues that the goal of planning should be “to convert what is initially considered to be impossible into what is subsequently accepted as possible.” The most effective way of accomplishing this is to change the environment in a direction that makes the preferred future end-state more likely to come about. Unfortunately, this approach to planning is hardly ever used by the policymaking community because they feel they will be able to deal with the future simply by doing a better job of predicting it and preparing for it.

In order to make the impossible possible, Ackoff advocates starting by developing an idealized vision of the future as the planners would like to see it, “if they were free to replace the current system with whatever they wanted most.” The only constraints on this “idealized redesign” are technological feasibility and operational viability. The idea is to stop planning away from a current state and start planning toward a desired state. Ackoff is careful to note that he is not advocating trying to design a future utopia. In his words, an idealized design “is built on the realization that our concept of the ideal is subject to continuous change…” Therefore, the planners have to include a capability for the system to be able to adapt to shifts both in the environment and in the policymakers’ preferences.

Once an interactive planner has developed a vision of a desired future, she or he can work backwards to find potential critical juncture points that can help change the current environment in a direction that would bring it closer to the ideal state. Some of these efforts will succeed, while others will fail. As a result, the conception of the ideal state is likely to change over time and the planning process has to be sufficiently flexible to take such changes into account. But the end result is that planners stop focusing on how to modify the existing world at the margins and start thinking creatively about how to bring about their ideal future.

 

Building toward an Idealized Redesign of U.S.-Russian Relations

The agenda in relations between Russia and the United States appears to be permanently stuck in reactive mode on both sides. Residual fear of the other side’s intentions, seemingly left over from Cold War days that ended 20 years ago, continues to exert an influence on policy planning in both countries. Many American policy planners continue to worry about the possibility that Russian leaders harbor aggressive intentions toward the other countries that became independent when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Russian planners, in turn, still seem to genuinely fear the possibility of a NATO invasion of Russian territory, at least if one were to take at face value documents such as the 2010 Russian military strategy.

As a result, policy planning on U.S.-Russian relations usually revolves around an agenda based on the past. The dominant issues—NATO-Russia relations, nuclear arms control and proliferation, even missile defense—would be completely familiar to policymakers working in the 1960s and 70s. The few truly new areas of cooperation, such as transit of supplies to Afghanistan via Russian territory and intelligence sharing in counter-terrorism, are often treated with suspicion by analysts and politicians on both sides.

There have been some efforts to engage in prospective planning in the relationship. This has primarily taken the form of efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities. In some cases, these efforts have had some positive impact, such as the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council as a step to prevent the creation of new dividing lines in European security. Similarly, arms control efforts over the last twenty years have led to fairly significant cuts in the two countries’ nuclear weapons arsenals. And planners on both sides continue to look for ways to reduce distrust and increase cooperation in the bilateral relationship, including through the well-publicized attempt to “reset” the relationship after the 2008 elections in both countries. The various bilateral commissions set up by President Obama and President Medvedev are relatively successful aspects of this effort.

But these efforts, while laudable, suffer from the faults common to all prospective planning. They take the current environment as the starting point and attempt to build the relationship from there. They also focus cooperative initiatives on dealing with the threats that exist today or that seem likely to exist in the future based on current trends. In doing so, they are inevitably doomed to do little more than modify the existing relationship at the margins. What is needed instead is a new paradigm for the bilateral relationship, akin to the ideas that in the aftermath of World War II envisioned a full partnership between the Allied states and Germany and led to German participation in NATO just ten years after its defeat in the war.

What might such a new paradigm look like? The rest of this memo is obviously speculative, and presents a personal point of view of what an ideal Russian-American relationship might look like twenty or thirty years in the future.[2]

  1. Russia and the United States would be partners in a new European (or perhaps even worldwide) security architecture. They would cooperate with other states in ensuring stability and strengthening governance in potentially unstable parts of the world.[3]
  2. The nuclear relationship between the two countries would be similar to that of the United States and Great Britain. In this environment, bilateral nuclear arms control would no longer be relevant. Instead, Russia and the United States would focus on counter-proliferation and multilateral nuclear arms reductions that include all states that possess nuclear weapons.
  3. Both countries would be working together to adjust the international security system to deal with China’s rising power. The ideal would be to incorporate China seamlessly into existing international security structures or to establish new structures in which China is a full partner.
  4. Russia and the United States would be partners in developing technologies to intercept long-range ballistic missiles that could threaten international security. This partnership would be extended to other potential partners, including the European Union and perhaps China and India.
  5. Both countries will work together to stem the potential danger from transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling. They will also cooperate in dealing with the potential security effects of global climate change.

Given this set of aspects of an ideal security relationship between the United States and Russia, policymakers could work backward to develop a set of policies that could shift the world in a direction that would make some or all of them more likely to occur. For example, it may turn out that thinking along these lines leads to the realization that maintaining NATO in its current form is actually damaging to European security in the long run, leading to efforts to replace it with another organization that includes a broader range of states and does not carry the burden of NATO’s Cold War legacy. On the other hand, Russian planners may realize that their country does not face any threat from the West and can therefore transfer their military forces away from European borders and toward more likely security threats on its southern borders. Both of these scenarios seem to be completely unrealistic given today’s security environment, but interactive planners may find that they provide the best way to maximize their countries’ security in the long run.

Again, in this brief memo I have simply sought to provide some illustrative examples of this approach. The main point is not to focus on the specifics of the particular ideal state of the relationship but to make the case that an interactive planning perspective will be more likely to lead to improvements in security for both the United States and Russia than approaches based on a combination of continued mistrust due to Cold War legacies and piecemeal efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities.


[1] All quotations in this memo are from Russell L. Ackoff, “The Corporate Rain Dance,” The Wharton Magazine, winter 1977. My thinking about this topic was greatly stimulated by Peter Perla, “Beyond alternative futures: Thinking about designing the future Navy,” CNA Quick Response Study CQR D0024818.A1, March 2011.

[2] Due to space constraints, I focus here only on security issues. A full analysis would also look at economic relations between the two states.

[3] Based on current trends, such areas might include Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, but of course the zones of instability might be in completely different areas by that point in time.

Russia’s Conflicts on Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian Government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan Government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitry Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO air strikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

This article was originally posted at Atlantic Sentinel, where I blog occasionally about Russian politics.

Upcoming Midrats appearance

Just a bit of shameless self-promotion: This Sunday, I will be appearing on the Midrats talk radio blog to talk about Russian politics and security issues.

We will discuss some of the following topics: Where Russia stands in the 21st Century and how its domestic politics, demographics, the rise of China, and the evolution of its relationships in its near abroad will challenge this important nation.

I gather that you can listen live here at 5pm on Sunday, February 13 or listen to the archived show later on.

Update: The archived show is now available.

Is Tatarstan Facing a Surge of Religious Extremism?

I am now blogging occasionally at the Atlantic Sentinel on broader Russia-related issues. I’ll cross-post here for ease of access. Here’s a post on religious extremism in Tatarstan.

—-

I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago,  I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the FSU. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were 5-10 years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria 5-6 years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against authorities who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian interior ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, and then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against non-violent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously-based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.