The term “Kremlinology,” coined during the Soviet era, has been permanently reinstated in our daily vocabularies. Since it is practically impossible to calculate the Kremlin’s next moves based on its public statements or the “rules of the game,” interpreting the noise coming from the “bulldog fight under the rug” has once more become an in-demand service. However, many of these interpreters have promulgated a misperception regarding the categorization of Putin’s men that obscures the real internal dynamics of the Kremlin. This misreading must be corrected.
Whether political scientists or journalists and commentators, Russia watchers love to divide Putin’s inner circle and other decision-making groups in Russia into so-called liberals and étatists. According to this view, certain of Putin’s men believe in some form of liberalism, especially when it comes to the economy. They desire cooperation with the West and the cessation of global conflicts. Among these are Alexey Kudrin, the former Finance Minister and Putin’s personal friend, Herman Gref, CEO of Russia’s largest bank Sberbank, and Anatoly Chubais, a longtime Russian reformer and statesman, now head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation (RUSNANO). The other group is the so-called étatists or statesmen, who oppose liberal values, stand for more aggressive foreign and domestic policies, and are generally pro-conflict. Usually, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev, and CEO of Rostec Corporation (Russia’s biggest military exporter) Sergey Chemezov are named as the leaders of this group.
Most Russia watchers see the Kremlin’s decisions and policy shifts through the lens of these two opposing groups and their relationship with Putin. This simplistic paradigm portrays Putin as the political leader above all the groups and their spheres of interest. All decisions, thus, emerge from the balancing of the two sides. For instance, the evolution of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies since the 2014 annexation of Crimea is explained as the victory of the étatists over the liberals. By the same logic, any political statement by Kudrin, especially a declaration of intent to somehow cooperate with Putin once more, creates the illusion that liberalization is on its way.
In reality, this dichotomy is quite flawed and misleading. It not only oversimplifies the decision-making process in Russia, it encourages misperceptions that have little in common with reality. There have not been any active defenders of liberal ideas among Putin’s trusted elites for quite some time now, in the same way that there are no honest “statesmen” that work for the benefit of the Russian state. Virtually all of Putin’s men are interested in the same thing—the preservation of the system that allows them to accumulate almost unlimited wealth. In order to understand how the system really functions, we must categorize Putin’s men in a different fashion.
Four groups around Putin
The first group is the “progressives”—politicians and bureaucrats who understand how modern societies in the global economy work and who see clearly that Russia lags behind. Their political goal is reformation and modernization—getting Russia caught up with the most advanced practices of sustainable development. This group is almost entirely excluded from all decision-making in Russia today and consists of political figures who came to power with Putin during his first presidential term in early 2000s—former Minister of Finance Mikhail Kasyanov, the aforementioned Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref, and former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, as well as many former governors and some ex-Duma members who held power when political diversity was still tolerated. Members of this group are either in opposition, retired from politics, or simply relegated to technical positions that cannot affect the political system today.
The second group is the “neutrals”—technocratic functionaries who have not clearly voiced or formulated political preferences and who can thus implement any political agenda adopted by the President. This group is highly loyal and usually non-political, allowing most of them to retain their high positions despite political turbulence. Among them are Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov, head of the Central Bank of Russia Elvira Nabiullina, and most of the current cabinet (expect for the siloviki), as well as a considerable number of regional politicians and most current Duma deputies. The last thing this group wants to do is to propose any agenda, since only by being loyal and quiet do they guarantee their survival.
The third group is the “conservatives,” so called because they oppose modernization and opt to maintain the status quo, not because they represent conservative or traditional values. They are the ones producing arguments as to why Russian should not modernize or adopt Western concepts of human rights, criteria of corruption, or political mechanisms. In a broader sense they preserve Putin’s political system with all the tools at hand: from the ideological rationalization of Russia’s “uniqueness” to military build-up and conflict with the West. Among this group are Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, head of the FSB Alexander Bortnikov, most of the heads of state corporations, such as Sergey Chemezov and head of Rossiya (“Putin’s personal bank”) Yury Kovalchuk, and some of the most active Duma members, such as Irina Yarovaya and Vyacheslav Nikonov. Recently appointed Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin might also be included, but he is also the inspiration, perhaps even the godfather, of the fourth group.
The fourth and final group is the “bigots.” This is the most recently created and the most aggressive group of all. They are the frontrunners of “conservatism” in its most anti-liberal, anti-Western, and pro-isolation form. From whitewashing Stalin to calling the bombardment of Aleppo “a holy war” to promoting dubious conspiracy theories and praising the “imperial” nature of the Russian people, this group has been inserting into popular discourse the ideas of previously marginalized nationalist, imperialist, and basically fascist circles. State propaganda mouthpieces have magnified their voices to justify and promote Putin’s vision of Russia during his third presidential term, but now most of them have surpassed Putin in being Putin. Among this group are the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and most of the Church’s senior staff, President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev, and head of Rosneft Igor Sechin, as well as Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. This group is also full of colorful personas such as former Crimean prosecutor, now Duma MP Natalya Poklonskaya and leader of the Russian biker group Night Wolfs Alexander Zaldostanov. Members of this group today are among the most active in trying both to formulate public opinion and to get President Putin’s attention.
The main question for 2017-2018
During Putin’s rule from 2000 to 2012 (including 2008–12, when he was Prime-Minister), the balance between the progressives and neutrals on the one hand and conservatives on the other was maintained. More importantly, both Russians sympathetic to the progressives and those aligned with the conservatives believed their views were represented within the framework of state governance.
After 2012 the conservatives and the bigots displaced the first two groups, annihilating even the illusion among the minority of progressive Russians that they were somehow represented in power. The very goal of creating and giving voice to the bigots was to promote the agenda formulated by the conservatives, but due to unpredictable developments both externally (the ongoing confrontation with the West) and internally (slow but steady economic stagnation and rising popular dissatisfaction) the role of the fourth group became outsized and poorly managed. Compared to the calculated and balanced polices that Putin maintained throughout his first two presidential terms, the third term has been turbulent, threatening not only the relationships among the elites and Putin’s men but also the stability of the system overall.
The annexation of Crimea prompted unprecedented public support for all state policies, as for a time the majority of Russians tolerated conservative or even retrograde rhetoric even if it did not represent their own beliefs. Now that effect has worn off and purely domestic economic concerns once again preoccupy Russians far more than great-power relations, war in Syria, or confrontation with the West. But the bigots continue to treat progressives and neutrals as enemies of the state, along with those among the population who support or sympathize with them. And so the divide within the Russian public persists.
This divide could be roughly estimated as 80 percent to 20, where 80 percent of Russians are either politically inert or support conservatives (with a minority of them honestly supporting the bigots), while 20 percent at the most are economically and politically progressive. Never during Putin’s reign has this 20 percent felt more united in disenfranchisement than they do today, and if they are not engaged before the 2018 presidential election, Putin’s 4th presidential term will be marked by the most dangerous internal conflict ever seen in contemporary Russia.
Still, there are several reasons to believe that Putin will opt to adjust his relations with this minority to produce a broader consensus and thereby secure another six-year presidential term as the “leader of all Russians.”
First of all, Russia’s worsening economic hardship increases the need for better governance, which can only be delivered via the inclusion of progressives and neutrals in the decision-making process. Second, though U.S. and European political trends are obviously shifting toward more conservative values, these are much less extreme than the ones Russia’s bigots are promoting. Thus, to improve his chances of getting sanctions lifted and achieving greater cooperation with Western partners, Putin would need to distance himself from the bigots’ most radical rhetoric. Third, it is quite clear that without the knowledge and participation of the progressives and neutrals Russia would hardly overcome a long period of low oil prices and almost 0 percent economic growth. The opportunities for development and growth that progressives had during Putin’s first two presidential terms must be re-created.
If Putin signals his readiness to cooperate and include more progressives in the decision-making process, Russia’s liberal opposition would lose its cohesion, and thus the opportunity to unite against Putin in 2018 and beyond. If he neglects to do so, he will face a much greater challenge than low oil prices and Western sanctions combined. Will the divisions among Russia’s elites prove too difficult for Putin to balance?