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.

Circumstances Have Changed Since 1991, but Russia’s Core Foreign Policy Goals Have Not

I have a new policy memo out with PONARS Eurasia. Here’s the first half.


Since the Ukraine crisis, the dominant Western perspective on Russian foreign policy has come to emphasize its increasingly confrontational, even revanchist, nature. Experts have focused on discontinuities in Russian foreign policy either between the ostensibly more pro-Western Yeltsin presidency and the anti-Western Putin presidency or between the more cooperatively inclined early Putin period (2000-2008) and the more confrontational late Putin period (2012-present). In this memo, I argue that Russian foreign policy preferences and activities have been largely continuous since the early 1990s. These preferences have focused on the quest to restore Russia’s great power status and maintain a zone of influence in states around its borders as a buffer against potential security threats. Throughout this time, Russian foreign policy has been neither revanchist nor expansionist in nature. Instead, it has been focused on first stopping and then reversing the decline of Russian power in the late 1980s and the 1990s and on ensuring that Russia was protected against encroachment by the Western alliance led by the United States. However, perceptions of Russian foreign policy during the post-Soviet period among other powers and outside observers have changed markedly as a consequence of a gradual increase in the extent of Russian relative power vis-à-vis its neighbors and especially vis-à-vis Western powers.

The Discontinuity Argument

The argument that Russia’s foreign policy has changed markedly over time comes in two versions. The first version of the discontinuity argument paints a sharp contrast between the pro-Western foreign policy followed by Russia in the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin with the anti-Western foreign policy preferred by Vladimir Putin after he took over the presidency. In this reading, Russia under Yeltsin was in the process of transitioning to democracy and generally supportive of Western foreign policy initiatives despite some occasional disagreements. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has been committed to countering U.S. interests in the world, especially when it comes to the spread of democracy.

This narrative overstates the continuity of Russian foreign policy under Putin while understating continuities between the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, Russian support for the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which included putting pressure on Central Asian states to accept U.S. bases on their soil and a 2009 agreement to allow for the transit of military goods and personnel to and from Afghanistan through Russia, is downplayed in favor of a focus on Russian opposition to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Serious disagreements during the Yeltsin period, particularly regarding Western interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, are seen as aberrations in agenerally pro-Western Russian foreign policy, while Russian involvement in the early 1990s in internal conflicts in neighboring states such as Moldova and Georgia is ignored altogether.

The second version of the discontinuity argument runs counter to the “good Yeltsin, evil Putin” narrative. It focuses on the very aspects of Putin’s first two terms as president that the first narrative elides. This narrative highlights differences between Russian foreign policy in 2000-2012 and the period after Putin’s return to the presidency. Here, Russia is described as a status quo power until the Ukraine crisis and a revisionist power thereafter. The episodes of cooperation in the 2000s are contrasted with Russia’s confrontational statements and actions after 2012. Meanwhile, the confrontational aspects of Russian foreign policy during Putin’s first two terms in office, such as efforts to divide the Euro-Atlantic alliance over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, to force the United States military out of Central Asia after 2005, and to highlight the consequences of Western recognition of Kosovo independence in 2008, are downplayed. The result is a picture of Russian foreign policy under Putin that gradually slides from cooperation with the United States and Western institutions early in his presidency to all-out confrontation in recent years. While this trajectory is largely accurate in terms of the overall relationship, I argue that it is less the result of changes in Russian foreign policy goals and more a consequence of changes in Russia’s relative power in the international system.

The Argument for Consistency in Russian Foreign Policy Goals

While the two readings of post-Soviet Russian foreign policy presented above are at odds with each other, they both overstate the extent of discontinuity. In reality, with the possible exception of the very beginning of the Yeltsin period, Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent throughout the post-Soviet period. The main driver of Russian foreign policy both under Yeltsin and under Putin has been the effort to restore respect for Russia as a major power in world affairs. From the Russian point of view, this respect was lost as a result of Russia’s political and economic weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evidence for this lack of respect in the 1990s included disregard for Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement to Central Europe and NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. When NATO chose to admit Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1997, Russian politicians condemned the move as a betrayal of Russian trust and a sign that Western leaders and military planners still perceived Russia as a potential military threat. Russian leaders also felt betrayed and humiliated by the lack of consultation by NATO and Western state officials during the process leading up to the decision to bomb Serbia to stop its ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. They argued that NATO enlargement and the Kosovo War showed that Russia had become so weak that its opinion no longer mattered in determining world reaction to regional crises. Further confirmation of this point of view came in the early 2000s, when Russian opinion was ignored in the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The response, both in the 1990s and under Putin, was to seek to restore Russia’s great power status while maintaining a zone of influence in states on Russia’s border as a buffer against potential security threats. As early as 1993, Russia’s Security Council promulgated a foreign policy concept that included “ensuring Russia an active role as a great power” as a key foreign policy goal and asserted a special role for Russia in the former Soviet republics.


Please click here to read the rest of the policy memo.

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.

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Parts of this post appeared originally in The Monkey Cage.

Personalization and Patriotism

The following article originally appeared at the Carnegie Forum on Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations, where it is one of a number of contributions by eminent experts such as Henry Hale, Mark Kramer, Thomas Graham, Steven Pifer, and many others. 

——

American media narratives generally tend to excessively personalize politics and international affairs, and recent coverage of Russia is no exception to this overall trend. During the entire Ukraine crisis, and especially in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as an evil leader bent on some combination of restoring the Soviet empire and destroying the international order. His motivation has frequently been framed as a sense of pique for the exclusion of Russian leaders from key decisions, such as on the Iraq war, on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and on NATO enlargement.

While Russian leaders certainly do have a sense of grievance over perceived slights by the West, and particularly by the United States, against Russia that have accumulated over the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these grievances are not sufficient to explain Russian foreign policy. Instead, Russian foreign policy is driven by a combination of a desire to restore Russia’s great power status, the perception that Russian security can only be guaranteed if Russia is surrounded by friendly states, and the fear that the United States is taking active measures to overthrow the current Russian government.

Furthermore, the personalization of Russian foreign policy hurts U.S. policymaking toward Russia by creating a perception that Russian actions, as guided by Putin, are irrational and therefore cannot be dealt with through strategies other than containment. Furthermore, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) undercurrent that the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations will inevitably continue unless and until Vladimir Putin is removed from his position as Russia’s leader.

While Vladimir Putin has unquestionably installed a repressive domestic regime in Russia and pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to establish a set of dependent buffer states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy does derive from a rational set of beliefs, goals, and interests. The inability of many Western commentators and some policymakers to see the world from the Russian point of view damages the ability of the U.S. government to adopt a Russia policy that allows for a reasonable response to Russian actions without defaulting to the outdated image of Russia as a direct descendant of the Soviet “evil empire.” In addition, Western analysts neglect the likelihood that if Vladimir Putin is forced out of office, his replacement is unlikely to be a pro-Western politician. Instead, any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent.

Throughout the current crisis, Russia has been acting from weakness, rather than from strength. While various commentators have described Putin as playing a chess game against the West, I would argue that he has actually been primarily reacting tactically to what he saw as a major defeat. After all, in late February, Ukraine went in just a few days from having chosen alliance with Russia over Europe to a victory by anti-Russian forces and the prospect of a close alliance with the West, and the potential loss of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.

Russian leaders see the protests in Ukraine as part of a Western plot. For them, colored revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They have argued that this is part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept American hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were tied more closely to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

If this is the dominant perspective, then Russia’s opposition to the United States and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. In that case, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the United States does not get such an opportunity.

In that environment, Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukrainian economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even with potential Ukrainian NATO membership. And the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal is to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. response to such a position would have to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime with the restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it would prefer to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular government.

Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

I’ve avoided writing anything on the situation in Ukraine, because there’s so much material being written already and I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian military. But I do want to make just a couple of quick points.

1) Russian military experts seem to have been caught up in their government’s propaganda. This is especially disappointing when it comes from usually top-notch analysts such as Ruslan Pukhov and Igor Korotchenko. In an article that was picked up and translated by Russia Beyond the Headlines, they display a frightening amount of self-delusion in arguing that Ukrainian troops are not combat-capable simply because they stayed in their barracks while Yanukovych was being deposed. To assume, as Korotchenko does, that a military that stays on the sidelines during an internal conflict will not be able to act in the event of a Russian invasion betrays a willful lack of understanding of the difference in motivation between intervening in an internal conflict and defending your country when it’s under attack. Pukhov argues that because the army is made up of contract soldiers, local Crimean boys will not fight the Russians. This is a much more serious possibility and may well turn out to be the case, but so far there are at least a number of units that are refusing to submit to the “polite people” without insignia that are surrounding their bases. For the moment (and thankfully), they have not received any orders to fight, so the jury is still out on this question.

Now from what I know, the Ukrainian military is not in particularly good condition and would undoubtedly lose to the Russian military in any serious conflict. But that doesn’t mean that it would not be able to inflict some serious pain on its opponents in the process. And I would venture that should the conflict spread to “mainland” Ukraine, the soldiers would be highly motivated to defend their homeland.

2) Some Western analysts have argued in recent days that Putin is scoring a massive victory by taking Crimea with pretty much no resistance. But it seems to me that this action was taken not as a triumphant victory but as an effort to avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in the aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovych. This seems quite short-sighted to me, as without the Russian intervention the Maidan forces were likely to fall to squabbling and would have most likely come to a relatively quick accommodation with Moscow. Now, it appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state (or new province to subsidize) while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership. I would count this as a net strategic loss for Putin. 

The second likeliest scenario is a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, leading to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict with Russian troops involved. Even though Russia would be likely to win such a war, the result would be long term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time. And Russia would have to bear the full cost of supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future. This would be an even bigger strategic loss for Putin.

Putin has also already lost all of the international goodwill generated by his investment in the Sochi Olympics. He is gambling that EU states will fail to impose any serious penalties on Russia for its actions. Given past history this may seem to be a reasonable bet, but sending Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be seen as a game-changer in the most important European capitals, including Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw. While sanctions are by no means guaranteed (especially if Russian intervention remains limited to Crimea), they are more likely than one might expect given Europe’s general unwillingness to act.

For more on this, I would suggest that readers take a look at Mark Galeotti’s assessment, which parallels mine in many ways.

 

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law considers how the political system functions in Russia, focusing especially on the differences between formal rules and informal practices. The issue starts with a discussion of the personalities involved in running the Russian political system. In “Formats of Russian State Power,” Ol_’ga Kryshtanovskaia, one of the leading experts on Russian political elites, compares the power resources at the disposal of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. She shows that the two leaders divided responsibilities between themselves in a way that does not match the constitutional division of power between the president and the prime minister. Instead, “the siloviki, the economy, parliament, the regions, and the party have been left to Putin, while Medvedev is responsible for the formal performance of constitutional obligations, the courts, the fight against corruption, and the training of a personnel reserve.”

The comparison of resources available to the two leaders reveals that after two years in power, Medvedev had largely failed to develop his own political team and remained dependent on Putin. By examining the resources available to both members of the ruling tandem in late 2009, Kryshtanovskaia correctly forecast Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. However, she does not think that the Medvedev presidency will pass without consequences for Russia’s political system. In her conclusion, she discusses the possibility that the creation of the Putin–Medvedev tandem has changed the Russian political game, setting the stage for ongoing shifts between the president and the prime minister in future election cycles.

Grigorii Golosov’s article, “Problems of the Russian Electoral System,” moves the discussion to the sphere of institutional rules of the game. The author analyzes how the Russian electoral system has evolved since 1993, showing how electoral institutions that are commonly used by democratic states around the world have been distorted to eliminate their democratic potential. He enumerates a list of problems withRussia’s electoral system, beginning with the single national electoral district—a feature that can work in small homogenous countries such as Israel and the Netherlands but makes no sense in a country as large and diverse as Russia. An excessively high threshold for party entry into parliament further distorts the proportional representation system, allowing the ruling party to easily dominate parliament. Finally, he criticizes the “locomotive” system that allows candidates who have no intention of sitting in the Duma to run at the head of their party’s list, only to be replaced by unknown deputies after the election.

Having discussed the problems that characterize Russia’s electoral system, Golosov then considers what kind of system should be adopted in the event of democratization. He shows that a majoritarian system based on single-mandate electoral districts would not work well in Russia because of its tendency to create highly disproportional outcomes and to entrench local bureaucratic clans in power. He recommends instead a modification of the current system of proportional representation, with lower thresholds and with relatively small electoral districts.

The bureaucracy plays a critical role in the functioning of the Russian political system. In “The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy,” Sergei Sytin describes the bureaucracy as a social stratum or corporation with its own subculture and political and economic interests. While traditionally state bureaucrats have been tasked with implementing decisions made by their political superiors, they are no longer willing to limit themselves to such a neutral role. Instead, Sytin argues, they are increasingly seeking to implement their own agenda, a tendency that has led to their partial politicization. He believes that the bureaucracy is gradually usurping power over state policymaking, although its dominance has only limited potential.

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power, propaganda has come to play an increasingly important role in the Russian political system. Aleksandr Belousov’s article, “Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia,” analyzes the forms and content of propaganda under the Putin–Medvedev regime, with a focus on the ideological concepts of the “power vertical” and “sovereign democracy.” He notes that the regime’s propaganda efforts were most successful in influencing the population during the first two Putin terms, when the regime established a circle of intermediaries who publicized its positions without necessarily having an official position in the government.

As far as the content of the propaganda, the concept of the power vertical was the basis for all subsequent propaganda constructs. It helped that the population was ready for an increase in centralization and control after the relative chaos of the Yeltsin years. The concept of sovereign democracy came later, with the goal of distinguishing the Russian political system from both the democratic ideals of the early postcommunist period and from Western democracies. The concept of sovereign democracy allowed the Putin regime to justify the changes it had made in the Russian political system without explicitly rejecting the democratic revolution of the late 1980s or the partial rapprochement with Western democracies.

The last two articles in this issue focus on efforts to change the rules under which Russian politics takes place. Mikhail Il_’chenko’s “Inertia in Russian Politics” discusses the extent to which reform of the Russian political system is hampered by institutional inertia. He argues that in the 1990s Russian reformers failed to import the institutional innovations that would have been necessary to turn Russia into a functioning democratic state. Neither the party system nor federalism worked as intended, creating instead what Ilchenko calls a decentralized version of the old Soviet nomenklatura. Despite extensive changes in the formal rules of the game, the mechanisms through which power is produced and through which leaders relate to society remain essentially unchanged. What many analysts consider to be traditional Russian values, such as paternalism, strict hierarchy, and clientelism, are in fact merely the representations of Russian political institutions. Putin’s reforms have ensconced these mechanisms more firmly in Russian politics, closing off alternative paths of development and foreclosing the possibility of gradual reform from within.

Ivan Bolshakov’s article on “The Nonsystemic Opposition” addresses the functioning of political opponents of Russia’s current political leadership. Bolshakov argues that the terms “extrasystemic opposition,” “antisystemic opposition,” and “nonsystemic opposition” all fall short as descriptions of what separates opposition parties from those in power, calling instead for a new vocabulary that would more accurately describe the role of such parties in the Russian political system. Bolshakov argues that none of the opposition parties existing in Russia today have a positive evaluation of the Russian political system. Their goals vary between seeking to change the existing system and wanting to destroy it entirely and start over.

The six articles in this issue show that the rules of the political game in Russia depend very little on the formal institutions of the political system. Instead, informal practices, interpersonal relations, and inertia determine power relations. This makes reform both highly necessary and very difficult to implement. The recent protests against fraudulent elections petered out largely because the majority of people who supported them quickly realized that they were not going to be able to affect the system, which would survive this brief scare. The comfortable reelection of Vladimir Putin showed that the system of power had weathered the storm and could endure with minimal modifications until the next crisis. As a result, the chances for real political reform declined further; the system appears likely to survive essentially unchanged until it is brought down completely by a future crisis that it cannot handle.

 

Russian Politics and Law, May 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 3 / May-June 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This issue contains:

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Formats of Russian State Power  p. 7
Ol’ga V. Kryshtanovskaia
Problems of the Russian Electoral System  p. 18
Grigorii V. Golosov
The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy  p. 40
Sergei Sytin
Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia  p. 56
Aleksandr Belousov
Inertia in Russian Politics  p. 70
Mikhail Il’chenko
The Nonsystemic Opposition  p. 82
Ivan Bol’shakov

Putin spells out national security strategy

As part of his campaign for the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been publishing a series of articles on various themes. Yesterday, he turned to national security and specifically the Russian military. Since the full text is available in English, I won’t spend much time describing what is in the article, but will just comment on some themes that caught my attention.

I have to say, of all the articles Putin has published as part of his electoral program, this one is one of the best. It’s not a terribly high standard, given that at least one of them was found to have been plagiarized from other sources, but still.

The first part of the article provides one of the best justifications I have seen for the military reform that the government undertook starting back in the fall of 2008. Had this statement been made this clearly and forcefully back then, I think Putin, Serdiukov and company might have had an easier time convincing the expert community that they knew what they were doing. (Back then, the reform was rolled out without a clear plan or explanation, which generated a lot of criticism.) I’ve been a fan of the main ideas behind the reform effort from the start, so I’m glad to see this all spelled out so clearly by Putin (or, more likely, his ghostwriter). Here are the key points justifying the reform:

But previous experience proved that the potential for developing the military system inherited from the Soviet Union had become depleted….

It was not possible to build up the military simply by adding personnel and equipment partly because it didn’t solve the inefficiency problem and partly because the country lacked both the human and financial resources. Most importantly, that system did not meet contemporary and long-term requirements. We could eventually have lost our entire military potential, and we could have lost our armed forces as an efficient mechanism.

There was only one way out. We had to build a new army. We had to establish a modern and mobile army which could maintain permanent combat readiness.

This is followed by an equally clear discussion of accomplishments to date. These primarily have to do with changes in organizational structure, including the transition from brigades to divisions and from military districts to unified strategic commands.

Procurement

The section on future tasks focuses primarily on procurement. The list of priorities is worth quoting:

Our number one priorities are nuclear forces, aerospace defence, military communications, intelligence and control, electronic warfare, drones, unmanned missile systems, modern transport aviation, individual combat protection gear, precision weapons and defence capabilities against such weapons.

In terms of specific platforms and weapons, the list for the next decade reads as follows:

Over 400 modern land and sea-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, 8 strategic ballistic missile submarines, about 20 multi-purpose submarines, over 50 surface warships, around 100 military spacecraft, over 600 modern aircraft including fifth generation fighter jets, more than 1,000 helicopters, 28 regimental kits of S-400 air defence systems, 38 battalion kits of Vityaz missile systems, 10 brigade kits of Iskander-M missile systems, over 2,300 modern tanks, about 2,000 self-propelled artillery systems and vehicles, and more than 17,000 military vehicles.

Parts of this are more believable than others. Given that the military still isn’t sure what tank it wants to build, the 2,300 modern tanks number is particularly unlikely. And I have doubts about 600 modern aircraft and 50 surface warships (unless we count patrol boats and the like). Targets for helicopters, submarines, air defense systems and missiles are more likely to be achieved.

The social dimension

The biggest problems with the reform effort to date have been with the social dimension of reform. This dimension is given an extensive amount of attention in the article. The increase in salaries that came into effect in January is expected to solve the recruitment problem. We shall see.

Putin also made a new proposal to create the Russian equivalent of a GI Bill for soldiers to help with admission to and payment for a university education. This could prove attractive to less wealthy families who otherwise would have little hope of paying the bribes that are often necessary to gain admission to a Russian university.

At the same time, it’s not encouraging that the fiction of a million man army is being maintained. According to the article, there are  220,000 officers and 186,000 contract soldiers and sergeants currently serving in the military. The total number of conscripts serving at present is 350,000. That means the total force is around 750,000, rather than one million. To put it another way, 25 percent of all billets in the Russian military are currently vacant, although this is not being acknowledged. That’s a big problem. The only way to solve it is to step up recruiting of contract soldiers. Again, we shall see if the higher salaries help with that. If it works, then the plan to have 700,000 professional soldiers in place might be achievable, though almost certainly not by the target date of 2017.

Then there’s the housing issue. Putin again makes promises that the issue will be solved, this time by 2014. That’s a year later than previous statements. The deadlines for providing apartments to all active and retired officers who are owed one have been pushed back year after year, so I wouldn’t hold my breath on this.

Dealing with defense industry

The last third of the article deals with new demands that the military and government are placing on Russian defense industry. There’s not much there that hasn’t already been said by various officials elsewhere over the last year. After starting with the usual statements on the importance of domestic defense industry and their modernization, Putin once again makes clear that the military is not going to just accept what they’re being sold. As he puts it, “It is unacceptable for the army to become a market for morale-sapping obsolescent weapons, technologies and research and development, especially if it is being paid for out of the public purse.”

Modernization is to come in a number of ways:

  • The acquisition of foreign technologies with the aim of improving domestic production in the future.
  • Providing greater financial predictability for defense industry by placing state defense orders for a 3-5 (or even 7) year period.
  • Increasing transparency and competition among defense industry companies.
  • Privatizing state-run defense industrial companies.
  • Creating synergies between the defense and civilian economic sectors in order to spur innovation.

The parts about privatization and competition are interesting, as they seem to contradict efforts made in the previous Putin presidency to nationalize many of these same companies through the creation of quasi-state owned sectoral holding companies.  Is this an implicit admission that the government made a mistake then?

All in all, some reasonable grand plans for Russian defense industry, but few specifics on how they might be carried out. And that can probably double as an assessment of the article as a whole. The vision is clearly there. But the question still remains: can the vision be implemented successfully given Russian realities? Or will corruption, the intransigence of the old guard, and just plain old inertia stymie this vision? The jury is still out on that question.

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.

The Nature of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

As we get closer to the 2012 Russian presidential elections and the prospect of the potential return of President Putin, Russian scholars have increasingly focused on thinking about the nature of Russia’s political system and speculating on how it might develop in the future. In the next two issues, we explore these questions. The articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law investigate the main characteristics of the “Putinist” political system as it developed in Russia over the last decade. The next issue will feature articles that examine potential future trajectories of this system.

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