The lonely hegemon

Last week, Nikolay Petrov, an astute Russia-watcher published an interesting article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In  this, he identified five dynamics that shaped Russian politics these days and declared that Putin’s regime had a year at most to live. The article generated a lively debate, including in RFE/RL’s Power Vertical podcast where participants discussed whether the “military mobilisation” that Putin has used to create legitimacy had really wore off. It has. And there is an important legitimacy crisis, too. But the two are not the same. Putin’s most important source of legitimacy lies elsewhere, and it is there where it is in serious trouble. 

In fact, most of what Petrov points out in his article constitute intensification of processes that have already existed for years: a bad investment climate; the chronic lack of feedback in decision-making; geopolitical posturing; manual control; elite infighting. We know all of these very well indeed. What is not clearly articulated in Petrov’s article is what the decisive factor is among all these, which is able to eventually bring down the Russian political regime in a year.

Brian Whitmore, the host of the PV podcast, and his guests, Donald Jensen and Sean Guillory singled out the idea of military mobilisation, which Petrov calls an “addiction”, a “legitimacy trap”, which forces the government to deliver “ever-increasing hits of military action” to draw legitimacy from. They were mostly skeptical about this premise, and rightly so. An addiction to military action would imply that Putin has had increasing returns on the military actions performed by the Russian army abroad in the past years. And this is not so.

Admittedly, Putin’s single most popular military action was the annexation of Crimea, which was bloodless. The military adventure in Eastern Ukraine, aimed to establish Novorossiya had to be scaled back significantly once it got stuck and has vanished from state propaganda altogether. The intervention in Syria was a half-success at best, which got far less sympathy from the Russian population than operations in Ukraine had, but managed to flame up tensions with Turkey, which cost the Russian middle class their preferred holiday destination, not to mention the direct economic costs of the trade war that ensued.

Perhaps Putin has conceded to losing the middle class, and is now concentrating on “Russia B”, less educated, more rural, more prone to accept geopolitical posturing as a substitute for governance. In this case, however, why did Putin not talk much about foreign policy more in his interactive call-in two weeks ago? Why did he concentrate on domestic issues and solving problems with people’s wages, potholes and dairy products, instead of speaking about Russia’s role in the world, a topic that he is probably also more comfortable discussing?

Military mobilisation has been a visible part of “neo-Putinism”. But it is not the most important one of the five dynamics that Petrov pointed out in his article. There is another kind of militarisation going on in Russia, and if anything changes the nature of the regime, it will be that. This is the creeping militarisation of elite conflicts.

A disgruntled selectorate

As I warned in an earlier blog entry, the creation of the National Guard, an almost almighty, elite force – hardly different from a private army – reflected a shift in the president’s thinking: he became more like the enfant terrible of Russian politics, Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s president who seems to have made himself irreplaceable, even by the president. Many pointed out that the newly empowered force could be used to crush popular protests before or after the Duma election this year. But this had been possible already; and whether or not the National Guard gets the right to shoot into crowds makes little difference. The fact, however, that Putin is reluctant to trust the Interior Ministry with this task tells a lot about the situation within Russia’s political elite. Mark Galeotti pointed out immediately after the creation of the guard that it would also be a useful tool for Putin to use on dissenters within the elite.

Besides the manual control and his image of a popular superhero, Vladimir Putin has one strong skill that he uses to keep his standing in his other electorate, the Russian political and business elite: the power of deciding conflicts. In his first and second presidential terms Putin created a system of overlapping competences and conflicting institutions, a system in which rival factions of the political elite were bogged down fighting with each other, while the president enjoyed both the legal guarantees and trust to become a decider when the situation demanded. Even after the 2012 presidential election, which sent ripples through both the elite and the population, most accepted Putin’s role as the man to whom all roads lead and from whom all decisions emanate.

But recently, this power seems to be shaken. As Petrov rightly points out, the conflict between the FSB apparatus, the siloviki and Ramzan Kadyrov last year, which resulted in Putin inexplicably disappearing for more than a week, points to this explanation. A year ago, I commented on Putin’s disappearance in a very similar manner:

“The most striking about this is the sheer number of fathomable explanations, alliance combinations and conspiracy theories. One thing seems clear: either Vladimir Putin has lost control over its proxies, or he is afraid enough to lose control to send them such a gruesome message. He may have tried to underline, with his eleven-day long absence, how necessary his presence was for the system to work – his sarcastic remarks today certainly suggest this – but in reality, it was more reminiscent of the grotesque disappearances of Konstantin Chernenko in his late days. The system seems to think that it works just fine without its creator. Whether it would or not is another question – but the past month marked the end of an era, if not yet a president.”

The problem for Putin is that while he did use military mobilisation as a way to gain popular legitimacy, this wore off too quickly, and did not engage the political elite. On the contrary: the Russian economic crisis, caused by low oil prices and Russia’s self-isolation made the pie shrunk. Based on the comments by Valery Solovei, a MGIMO professor, military adventurism also made the elite nervous. It is probably safe to say that the elite is not very enthusiastic about having to share Russia’s land or its energy assets with an increasingly assertive China, either. But that too, is already happening.

Putin’s sky-high ratings – the veracity of which is quite questionable – have so far balanced out this dissatisfaction. But the balance can be easily upset again if members of the elite get the idea that not even are their earnings going to stagnate for the foreseeable future, but Putin is not able to protect their wealth any more. Follow-up investigations after the publication of the Panama Papers or asset seizures abroad. More conflicts over shrinking resources at home, which Putin waits out hiding somewhere. Angry crowds threatening local elites, which the Moscow government is unable to handle for its absolute cluelessness about governance (as Sean Guillory pointed out, this has already happened).

The Russian state has been dysfunctional for several years. People have suffered because of this. Domestic policies have been replaced by adventurism abroad. This is no news. It is when the deep state becomes dysfunctional that trouble begins; it is when the elite get insecure. And hire private armies like Putin and Kadyrov did.

Show guns

This would not be the first time that insecurity leads to a takeover by the security services who then establish their own elite. Such an elite change led to the crisis of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. And if one is looking for a more recent example, this is exactly how Putin took over the Russian state in 1999-2000 and established his own kind of elite. If anyone, he knows how it functions; and this is why the creation of the National Guard should be taken as a warning. Alas, praetorian guards also kill emperors sometimes.

In his article, Petrov suggests one passive and one active way for Russia to exit the present trajectory. The first: wait for sanctions to be repealed or oil prices to soar. The second: change Putin. None of these is very likely to happen in the near future. First, European sanctions, despite Russia’s active political sabotage, are most likely to stay, unless the Minsk accord is implemented. Second, Russia has very little impact on the global oil price. Negotiations with OPEC contained a lot more wishful thinking than substance and without all the major oil exporters (including Iran) playing along, there will be no functional deal. And third, due to Putin’s personal popularity – rather than the supposed popularity of his military adventures – and security background, it would be very hard and potentially very dangerous for the elite to replace him against his will.

A third alternative to potentially avoid the chaos of the collapse, which Petrov does not mention, is what I would call the shogun solution. Between the 12th and the 19th centuries, Japan was ruled by a security elite – samurais – whose social class grew out of the general feeling of insecurity following the weakening of the central power of the emperor. Actual power in the country lay with the shogun who nonetheless kept the emperor – a supposedly heavenly superperson – as a figurehead and nominal leader.

In 2011 when Russia-watchers widely expected Dmitry Medvedev to carry on as president and Putin to continue calling the shots, there was talk about creating a nominally less significant but actually very powerful position, such as the chairman of the Central Military Commission. That solution may have suited Putin in 2011. But were Russia’s elite to go with the shogun solution today, the opposite would have to happen, with the president promoted to a nominally powerful but legally weak position – which nonetheless grants him immunity – to preserve popular legitimacy for the regime, but with a capable, domestically acceptable and externally presentable leader calling the shots.

The question is if there are such people in Russia.

Vladimir Putin’s personnel policy is partly pretense. The capable and sober Alexey Kudrin occasionally appearing to criticise the government’s policies, calm investors and write an economic policy plan that never gets implemented. The human rights expert Ella Pamfilova, heading the Central Electoral Committee, who vows to resign if the Duma election is not free and fair – but who has no mandate to ensure that they are fair. The businessmanlike Sergey Lavrov who can talk to the Americans but who then day after day has to explain the Russian government’s geopolitical trolling. And whatever is beyond this is power politics, without substance with bigger players, such as Sergey Shoigu, who nonetheless have obvious flaws that disqualify them and hardcore conservatives who would take over the title, but not the duties.

Not an easy decision. But without a credible alternative (or a surprise helping hand from the outside), collapse is indeed inevitable. And the last time the security apparatus chose a shogun, they ended up with only a showman.

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