In Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, foreign policy replaced improving living standards as a source of legitimacy. The significance of foreign policy and power projection, however, goes well beyond the “Crimean consensus” built around Putin following the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. Russia’s different ways of handling its European near-abroad and the Western Balkans tell scores both about its relationship with the West and the symbol that Vladimir Putin has become. These different approaches are hallmarked by two heavyweights of Russian politics, the informal minders of the two regions, who could not be more different themselves.
Vladislav Surkov, a smooth-looking, artsy political operator, a self-confessed fan of Tupac Shakur, is a former deputy leader of the Presidential Administration, a minder of domestic politics and known widely as the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal”. He is credited with the term “sovereign democracy”, used to describe Russia’s political system as well as with the creation of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi. Perhaps owing to his Caucasian origins, he has also been Russia’s point-man in the two separatist republics in Georgia, which, since 2008, have been de facto run as Russian federal subjects.
Surkov is believed to be the real person behind the name ‘Natan Dubovitsky’ who, shortly before Crimea’s annexation by Russia in 2014 published a short story on the “first non-linear war”. In this, he describes commanders who “understood war as a process; part of a process, its most acute phase, but maybe not its most important phase.” A war, in which conflict itself is the goal.
A never-ending sequence of self-explanatory wars is, of course, not Surkov’s invention. Authors such as George Orwell or Viktor Pelevin have used this idea to characterize the dystopian regimes in their writing. Still, there is a sort of evolution. In Orwell’s 1984 the never-ending wars between Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia provided an excuse to use resources and to keep the population in line by creating a sense of unity against a (constantly changing) foreign aggressor. In Pelevin’s S.N.U.F.F. war becomes a yearly reality show organised by “discourse-mongers” whose purpose is both to entertain Big Byz, the stronger and richer party, and to ensure that the underlings of Urkaina air their frustration in a controlled and harmless manner.
For Surkov, however, war – and the insecurity that it creates – becomes an end in itself.
He was widely considered to have fallen out of grace with Putin after 2011 when he made it clear that he supported the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev for the 2012 presidential election. However – maybe partly due to his links to Chechnya’s seemingly untouchable president Ramzan Kadyrov, maybe because he was unexpectedly put on the U.S. government’s sanctions list – he bounced back and was trusted, in 2014, with “curating” the two Ukrainian separatist statelets, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. A 2016 e-mail leak, deemed at least partly authentic, revealed that Surkov coordinated appointments, policies and covering up Russian military casualties. He reportedly tried to co-opt local barons, such as Rinat Akhmetov, an influential businessman and Mikhailo Dobkin, a former governor of the Kharkiv oblast.
At the same time, however, Surkov also took part in the informal talks between Russia and Ukraine, meeting several times with Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president. He was instrumental in preparing the Minsk agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015. These agreements took the Ukrainian conflict to a standstill but did not solve it. Rather, they turned it into what Mark Galeotti in RFE/RL’s latest Power Vertical podcast called “frozen in the centre, but piping hot at the borders”. A conflict with occasional violent episodes that seemingly come out of nothing and serve no purpose, car bombings to instill fear, drawbacks and reshuffles in the separatist territories.
If one looks at the Ukraine war as a traditional conflict, Russia’s game is definitely in an impasse. The separatist forces supported by the Russian military have not been able to make considerable advances for more than two years. Novorossiya, a name given to the idea of a land bridge between Russia and Crimea along Ukraine’s southern seacoast from Mariupol to Odessa, once a permanent fixture in the Russian media, is all but forgotten. It looks very unlikely that the separatist republics will ever be integrated into Russia – or into Ukraine. But perhaps this was never the actual purpose. The unimplemented Minsk agreements, the opaque and occasionally changing power structures in the separatist regions, the sporadic outbursts of violence seem to serve no purpose other than maintaining a sense of insecurity on both sides.
The situation is similar in Georgia where Surkov has been “curating” politics for a much longer time. In 2004, it was Surkov personally who told off Sergei Bagapsh, the freshly elected president of the separatist Abkhazia for running against a Russia-backed rival, and forced him to appoint Russia’s preferred candidate, Raul Khajimba, vice-president. After a particularly turbulent period of protests – in which Surkov is supposed to have played a major role – Khajimba was finally elected president in 2014, only to face Russian blackmail himself, shortly thereafter. Both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kremlin, occasionally through Putin but mostly through Surkov, has used its influence to secure the election of loyal leaders, but did this ambiguously, often catering to several sides (as in South Ossetia) or engaging in blackmail (as in Abkhazia). Similarly to the two separatist territories in the Donbas, the formal integration of the two regions into Russia, which has been on the table for most of the past decade, has never come to pass.
What remains is a perpetual sense of insecurity. Neither Ukraine nor Georgia can focus on moving on while these conflicts are at a standstill. Ukraine is reluctantly rebranding its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” a local war, bracing for a longer conflict, while its EU and NATO integration remains a distant, unlikely possibility. Georgia has visibly lost direction following a series of ambitious reforms in the past decade. Its leaders know that an association agreement signed with the EU and visa-free travel for Georgian citizens are presently the maximum that the EU was able to offer. NATO integration, due mostly to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, is an impossible goal to pursue.
Rather than taking territory, propping up loyal regimes or sending Trojan horses to hostile countries, Russia’s purpose in its shared neighbourhood with the EU is to maintain insecurity. This needs a great deal of ambiguity, division and catering simultaneously to several sides. A perpetual, never-ending, or, if you will, non-linear war. A war to the taste of Vladislav Surkov.
Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s point-man in the Western Balkans is, in many ways, Surkov’s complete opposite. A former KGB official and, during Putin’s first two presidential terms, a director of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, he is the textbook example of a thoroughbred silovik. Idolizing Yury Andropov, a former KGB chief who briefly became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he has conserved a view on the world that is deeply rooted in the Cold War and its militant anti-Westernism. He is the kind of Russian official who talks about a second Cold War and accuses the West of elaborate plots against an emerging Russia, for instance the war in Chechnya (which also brought about Surkov’s ally, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a person whom the FSB loathes). If Surkov’s world view reflects futuristic, post-modern, Pelevinian ideas, Patrushev has the rock solid mindset of a Cold War spy.
Patrushev also pairs his hardline ideology with admirable resilience: even though he is not one of Putin’s older KGB friends – the two men only met in the 1990s – he has gradually worked his way up in Russia’s informal power vertical. Suffering a setback in 2008 when he was removed from the helm of the FSB, he has become a defining figure of Putin’s third presidential term. Indeed, Mikhail Zygar calls him the “nerve centre” of Putin’s special operations – including the annexation of Crimea – and identifies him as the main architect of Russia’s isolationist, anti-Western “ideology” that started to become prominent at the beginning of Putin’s third term.
Patrushev remains a spy also in the sense of being tasked with carrying out missions with a clear objective or purpose. The annexation of Crimea, of which Patrushev was one of the masterminds, was such a mission. Russia’s recent activities in the Balkans also bear the mark of this approach.
In Montenegro, the Russian intelligence actively supported an anti-NATO opposition group and perhaps even a coup attempt in October 2016. Eduard Sismakov, one of the Russian citizens accused of planning the coup together with Serbian citizens, is a former military intelligence officer. A week after the alleged coup attempt, Patrushev personally visited Belgrade and met senior government officials to negotiate the extradition of Russian nationals. This was preceded by the discovery of a stack of weapons near the home of Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic.
In Macedonia, Russia has carried out intelligence operations for nearly a decade and, by spreading subversive propaganda, it tried to prop up the country’s embattled former leader, Nikola Gruevski in the 2015-17 Macedonian political crisis.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia lends ample rhetorical and perhaps also financial support to Milorad Dodik, the president of the country’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Dodik, a former moderate-turned-nationalist now echoes Patrushev’s conspiracy theories about the malign influence of the West. In 2015, Dodik decorated Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired intelligence general, the head of the Kremlin think tank “Institute of Strategic Studies”, and by all appearance, Patrushev’s helper in a region that he personally does not know well.
Russia’s overall objective in the Balkans is preventing the countries of the region from joining NATO (which Patrushev once called “the biggest Western threat” to Russia) but also from carrying out the thorough institutional reforms necessary for them to join the EU. The first mission is not going well: with its covert bullying, Russia has managed to completely alienate Montenegro, which has now become a NATO member. Macedonia’s NATO bid may get a new impetus following the change in the government. Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, so far a reliable ally, has become wary enough of Russia to appoint a strongly pro-EU ally, Ana Brnabic, to head the government.
Despite recent setbacks in Macedonia or Albania, Russia has been more successful with its other objective. Moldova – a mixed case, which has its own minder, Dmitry Rogozin – is stuck between a shamelessly corrupt pro-EU government and an extremist, pro-Russian president. The countries of the Western Balkans have been seriously demotivated to carry out institutional reforms in order to eventually join the EU. Arguably, this is much more a consequence of the mismanagement of the EU’s enlargement policy than of any intelligence operation. However, by forcing a geopolitical agenda onto legitimate opposition demands (i.e. endemic corruption or a culture of cronyism), Russia’s clients and allies are forcing the EU to accept Patrushev’s interpretation, namely, that the West and Russia are playing a geopolitical, rather than a normative game; therefore, the EU is more likely to support strongmen who nominally look to Brussels but balk at thorough reform.
The dependent symbol
Surkov and Patrushev come from very different backgrounds. They have very different approaches to foreign policy. They have very different and conflicting roots domestically. Yet, they were both instrumental to Putin’s rise and today both represent different facets of the symbol the Russian president has become. A prophet of a new East-West divide, a beacon of the alt-right, but also an ambiguous operator inciting feelings of insecurity and stability in voters and political leaders alike.
As Putin is increasingly becoming a symbol of Russian power projection and detaches himself from increasingly conflict-ridden domestic policies, it is difficult to pin down how much foreign policy will matter for Russia’s presidential election next year. A little more than a year ago, it seemed as if Putin were able to continue basking in the glow of Crimea’s annexation until next March. And then came a series of workers’ protests and most recently, Alexei Navalny. This might still change again, but one thing is important to realise. As Alexei Kudrin recently reminded Putin, Russia is dependent on globalisation, and thus, the West.
Putin is certainly aware of this. However, partly due to the domestic propaganda of the past years and partly due to the traditional Russian view that foreign policy is a zero-sum game, he can hardly afford to make any concessions. He will therefore try to make a deal. And for this deal, he needs Russia to appear stronger and more influential than it actually is. He needs the EU and the U.S. to accept that the Balkans are all geopolitics. He needs Russia’s neighbours to accept that due to constant insecurity, they need Russia as an anchor.
Putin seems to have found two suitable operators for these goals. For now, the strategy seems to be working. It would require a serious rethinking of the approach to both regions in European capitals to make it collapse. Europe has proven that in times of crisis, it can adapt and change rapidly and efficiently. All it takes, then, is recognising that this is a crisis. Or rather, a part of the crisis.