R.Politik’s founder, Tatiana Stanovaya, is regularly quoted by major Russian and international media outlets. She is available for commentary in Russian and English.
Putin’s party suffers regional poll defeats over pension anger
The defeats announced on Monday come amid nationwide anger at government plans to raise the retirement age by five years, triggering protests across dozens of big cities and sending Mr Putin’s personal popularity sliding to a low not seen for more than a decade.
“On the morning of September 24, the authorities suddenly realised that there are people in this country,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, chief executive of R. Politik, a Russia-focused political consultancy.
Russia’s Youtube Duel: Zolotov vs. Navalny
Viktor Zolotov, commander in chief of the National Guard, recently released a video message challenging opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has accused Zolotov of corruption, to a duel. Zolotov, one of the most formidable and secretive representatives of the security services and a former bodyguard of President Vladimir Putin, is viewed as close to the president. The very idea of such a video message, as well as its substance and style, runs counter to standard protocol in a political system where conflicts are usually resolved in a very different way.
Will Russia meddle in the 2018 US midterms? And if so, how? Such questions get asked often on American news media channels. In an interview with MSNBC, US Congressman Adam Schiff said he expects Russia may follow the same ‘vector’ as during the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook, all the while, has been taking urgent steps to prevent that outcome. Recently the social media giant claimed it had foiled a plot to disrupt the midterms. But the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg warned that the company’s information was still ‘not complete.’
With all the fabled talk since 2016 of notorious Russian hacker groups or St Petersburg troll factories, any influence campaign on a similar theme would not carry an element of surprise. An NPR poll shows more than half of Americans consider it likely that Russia will interfere. And even Donald Trump, who is vitally interested in proving that Russia made no interference in the 2016 elections (i.e. did not help him to win), after meeting Putin in Helsinki in July accused Russia of intentions to help the Democrats in the midterm elections.
Then again, the focus of Russia’s involvement might bring surprises. The New York Times quoted intelligence sources claiming that Russia intends to shift its cyberwar focus. Less political influence campaigns, more threats to America’s power grid.
The motives and nature of Russian meddling, however, often get over simplified in the West. It is viewed as a basic top-down issue: Will Vladimir Putin give the command to influence the American elections again? What are the new technologies and tactics and how can they be thwarted? Framing questions in this way leads to mistakes. It pushes an answer that Russia will meddle, but the reasoning is incomplete. The use of cyber is more than a logical and inevitable outgrowth of Kremlin attempts to influence Western democracies since the annexation of Crimea. The reality is much more ambiguous and less subject to top down control.
To understand the motives and logic of the Kremlin leaders, one should take at least three points into account.
The first problem? Cyberwar matters enjoy a certain autonomy vis-à-vis political decision-making at the state level. This is a kind of geopolitical ‘outsourcing’. It means the ‘dirty work’ gets done by quasi-state structures, such as ‘troll farms’ or private military companies. Anyone who thinks that the Kremlin holds meetings to wonder whether or not to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections is seriously wrong.
This is not to say that there is no connection between the state and informal structures engaging in influencing the news. Yet these links are poorly institutionalised and remain confidential. An important facet here: for members of the government and the presidential administration (perhaps with a few exceptions) this sphere remains as ephemeral and mystical as for many outside observers.
This is deliberate. Vladimir Putin’s ruling style is such that the state should not be held responsible for actions that lie beyond the law. No actions that go beyond the logic of partner-like relations with other countries can be traced back to formal power structures. This is important to understand: in the mindset of Putin’s regime, the state has hardly any links to cyber wars. All real responsibility for this is attributed to structures which are, so to speak, ‘politically friendly’ towards the Russian authorities.
Accordingly, the Kremlin in principle does not need wonder whether or not to interfere in the U.S. elections. The question is worded quite differently: Does it make sense to hamper the work of regime-friendly structures operating in the fairway to protect Russia’s geopolitical interests? If this question were to be answered in the affirmative, the geopolitical situation would need to change dramatically. However, such a change is not happening and is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
The second problem is the presumption of Russia’s guilt. On the eve of the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki, there was a detailed discussion in the Kremlin. Should Russians assure the American leader (and how) that Russia does not intend to influence the midterm elections? Opinions in Putin’s close circles were divided into two unequal parts. The minority urged Putin to make every effort to erase any doubts and assure Trump that Russia would not ‘frame’ the head of the White House. They wanted Putin to insist Russia will not give any reasons for the American establishment to increase its pressure on Trump. In this context, Trump’s tweet about Moscow’s potential help for the Democrats is not only political speculation. It also reflects a fear of Moscow’s activity (if there is a will, Moscow could give a lot of reasons to get the American leader suspected of ‘collusion’). Realising this, Vladimir Putin was ready to give Trump all the needed assurances on the upcoming campaign.
Yet the second part of Putin’s close circles took a different stance. This part mirrors the mood of the majority of the Russian conservative elites who currently set the tone in Russian geopolitics. They persuaded Putin that there will be no change, no matter if Russia interferes in the elections or not. The Russian leader was presented with a simulation. The Kremlin, in this scenario, suppresses any initiative and activity from hackers and trolls. It commands the secret services to take a time-out. Would this help to reduce the anti-Russian sentiments in the West? Would it bring deescalation? The answer to this question is negative. There is a broad presumption of Russia’s guilt. As such, it becomes pointless and tricky for the Kremlin to ‘roll back’ and voluntarily renounce cyber-weapons. Putin’s political will or lack thereof is largely irrelevant. The accusatory tone of American elites and the media means an easy win for the Russian ‘hawks’. If there is no difference between interference and non-interference, why choose a weaker position?
Finally, the third, long-term problem. Cyberpolitics is not a one-time tool to influence current political events and processes. It turns into a vital infrastructure that requires high investments and political attention. The aim is to collect and analyse information about the ‘enemy’ and its weaknesses. Cyberpolitics is a mechanism to keep an eye on things at all times. To be relevant means staying active. Either strike a blow or take a pause. Unlike traditional warfare, the special nature of cyber weapons lies in the fact that they can be ‘deployed’ relatively unnoticeably in the enemy’s territory. Then they can be activated and regulated to manage the degree of damage or impact, depending on tactical tasks. Cyber weapons can be either passive (aimed at future operations or intelligence gathering) or active, affecting the current life of systems.
Having experienced the taste of cyber-power, Russia will not voluntarily renounce it. Hiding for a while is an option but it is certainly too late to even consider redeployment of cyber weapons. Incidentally, one should not be too caustic about Putin’s offer to Trump to create a cybersecurity task force. What underlies this proposal is a recognition of the fact that ever more countries are building their cyber-muscles. This process needs regulation. Moscow understands better than anyone else that Putin’s regime can become the target of such attacks tomorrow. Effective safeguards against such attacks (and also a lower degree of cyber vulnerability) are available right now only for technologically underdeveloped countries.
Today, the Kremlin is preparing for the worst in relations with the United States. It does not expect any positive developments in the foreseeable future. Hence, the wartime logic will continue to prevail among the overwhelming majority of the Russian elites. Most are deeply disappointed about what they see as an impossibility to negotiate things with the West. The first world cyberwar is entering into its most active stage. And Moscow does not intend to leave the battlefield voluntarily.
Two Trumps in Helsinki: Russia’s Approach to the U.S. President
The U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki lasted just one day, but the battle of interpretations that unfolded around it seems endless. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s meeting is one of the most enigmatic diplomatic events of recent years. There is virtually no understanding of what the two leaders said, what (if anything) they agreed upon, and what the next steps might be.
But that isn’t because the next steps are being deliberately kept secret. Rather, even those plans that have tentatively been made could quickly dissolve amid mutual misunderstanding and antagonism.
There is only one conclusion that the Russian and U.S. political establishments can agree on: Putin “won” the July 16 talks. But was the Helsinki summit really all that successful for the Russian leader?
Each country has demonstrated a distinct emotional reaction to Putin’s supposed victory: anger in America, euphoria in Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the meeting as “better than super.” Meanwhile, in the West, the hashtag #TreasonSummit began trending in reaction to Trump’s submissive behavior and rhetoric.
Vladimir Putin did indeed look like the winner: at the closing press conference he outlined broad possibilities for future cooperation and recited several Russian proposals, from setting up a council of experts to cooperating on Syria. Meanwhile, Trump looked like a follower. He cast doubts on U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings and demonstrated an eagerness to resolve the crisis in bilateral relations. This made the summit a clear success for Russia.
But now that some time has passed, it is becoming clear that the initial assessments were dominated by emotions, and that Vladimir Putin’s success was more psychological than geopolitical.
Russia’s main objective in the run-up to the Helsinki meeting was not to reach specific agreements, but rather to institutionalize and legitimize dialogue. Putin offered Trump an assortment of potential initiatives, from broad and international to sensitive and local. For each issue, Moscow prepared a road map with just one goal in mind: to draw the White House back to the negotiating table to discuss all the issues.
Vladimir Putin proposed four new formats for cooperation. The first was the establishment of a council of experts well versed in the history of the two countries. Their mission would be to seek “points of contact between the two countries”—or, in other words, to work on a positive strategic agenda in U.S.-Russian relations. The United States has yet to respond to this initiative.
The second was the creation of a Russian-American business forum. This is a very ambitious idea, given the sanctions regime and the extreme toxicity of Russian money in the United States. It was cautiously accepted by the U.S. side, as confirmed recently by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. However, there are reasons to believe the two sides won’t be able to agree on the participants and aims of such a forum.
The third proposal, also acknowledged by Pompeo, was “to reestablish a working group on anti-terrorism” at the level of the deputy foreign ministers. The other option discussed was establishing dialogue between the national security secretaries—presumably U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. This could raise the stakes in unfinished personnel changes in Russia’s security and foreign policy blocs. A meeting between Bolton and Patrushev is reportedly already under works for August.
Finally, the fourth proposal was a cybersecurity working group. Its prospects remain unclear. Putin pitched this idea to Trump at their first meeting in Hamburg in July 2017. Back then, the White House immediately rejected the idea. The U.S. political establishment perceived it as flagrant trolling by the Russian president, who had been accused of overseeing cyberattacks against U.S. democracy.
On Syria, the conversation was provisionally divided between two goals. First, Trump was attempting to essentially create an anti-Iran coalition with Russia. That did not yield anything new. Second, Moscow proposed a humanitarian project envisaging refugees returning to Syria and efforts to develop infrastructure to deliver humanitarian cargo. Ultimately, the idea that Russia would give up Iran and receive something from the U.S. in return, widely discussed before the summit, turned out to be too unrealistic.
Finally, on Ukraine, Putin invited Trump to support the idea of a referendum on special status for the breakaway Donbas region. This was supposed to be an alternative to Moscow’s attempts to achieve legal recognition of the region’s autonomy with a special law or amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution. The White House categorically declined this offer and soon reinforced its position with the Crimea Declaration, which rejected Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
But are any of these proposals practicable? The breadth of the Russian initiatives is overshadowed by their low likelihood of implementation. Furthermore, the more proactive Putin is, the more vulnerable Trump appears and, thus, the lower the chances are of progress on Putin’s initiatives.
All this explains why the summit looked like a victory for Putin: we can make a list of the Russian president’s objectives and proposals, but it is virtually impossible to say what Trump offered Russia. The intensity and relative transparency of Moscow’s intentions and Putin’s traditional directness stood in stark contrast to Trump’s frequently contradictory rhetoric. The only thing Trump said in his initial remarks at the summit’s closing press conference was that the United States needs to conduct constructive dialogue with Russia. The U.S. president also made abstract references to possible subjects of this dialogue (interference in the U.S. elections, the denuclearization of North Korea, the fight against terrorism, pressure on Iran), but he did not make U.S. national priorities at all clear.
The mismatch of Putin and Trump’s agendas in Helsinki created the impression that Trump had no counteroffers to openly make to Putin, that he was losing the initiative and just following Russia’s lead. In this sense, Putin really did outmaneuver Trump. However, this was largely the result of Russia’s acute need to normalize relations and its eagerness to cooperate on the full range of issues. Meanwhile, other than an abstract desire to “get along,” Trump had no plan of action.
As a result, Helsinki quickly lost its significance. It was eclipsed by the “post-summit”—the escalation of domestic pressure on Trump and the revision of the meeting’s results. The summit “continued”—without the presidents—as a chaotic information war between the United States and Russia’s respective establishments, a war that could have no winners.
Right after Helsinki, Trump reversed his denial of Russian election interference, invited Putin to visit DC in the fall, and then rescinded the invitation. He also accused Moscow of trying to help Democrats in the midterm elections.
Meanwhile, U.S. legislators began discussing a new sanctions bill that would target investors in Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline and strengthen restrictions on Russia. The United States also arrested Russian citizen Maria Butina, published the harshly worded Crimea Declaration, and accused Russian hackers of attacking the U.S. power grid. All of this is the result of the Helsinki summit and the price that Russia will have to pay for its tête-à-tête with Trump.
If Vladimir Putin’s main objective in Helsinki was to restore dialogue with the United States, as many suggest, Russia now appears to have some new doubts: should it view Trump as the ultimate objective, or only as an instrument for promoting Russian foreign policy priorities? These are essentially two different approaches to building relations with Washington. Moscow is torn, trying to make headway on both, but actually creating obstacles to progress.
Under the first approach, where Trump is the objective, the U.S. president can and should be an active player in normalizing bilateral relations. The supporters of this approach, particularly in the diplomatic community, feel that the U.S. president needs time to overcome the anti-Russia sentiment at home and strengthen his standing in the U.S. administration.
They are counting on the Republicans to maintain their majority in Congress after the midterm elections, hoping that—together with economic growth—this will stabilize Trump’s position in the U.S. establishment. If that occurs, Russia could negotiate with Trump on extending the New START Treaty, divide up Syria, and discuss Ukraine.
Under the second approach, where Trump is the instrument, the U.S. president is seen not as a practitioner of U.S. foreign policy but as a mechanism for disrupting it. Part of the Russian elite, particularly its members from the security services, views Trump as a political outsider who is rejected by the U.S. establishment. He is a convenient instrument for sowing chaos in U.S. politics, testing the strength of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, and splintering the West’s traditional common geopolitical front.
These conservative players trust neither Trump nor any forums created with his involvement. Their skepticism is based on their deep conviction that the entire U.S. system seeks to destroy Russia and subvert the Putin regime. For them, the summit was a serious victory if only because it prompted a wave of panic in the United States about Trump’s potential treason.
This political camp has no intention of reaching agreements with Trump or the United States. Furthermore, it will be opposed to any hint of normalizing bilateral relations, because that would stand in the way of the policy of fueling chaos and disarray in the United States. One cannot simultaneously invest in Trump as a partner and attack the U.S. system, because, in the latter scenario, the system will always seek to destroy Trump.
The results of the “post-summit” show that the concept of “Trump as the instrument” is more accessible and achievable for Russia, while the concept of “Trump as the ultimate objective” leaves fewer hopes for real results.
Yes, Putin was able to come off as the stronger and more mature leader, and it looked like Trump was afraid to say to Putin’s face what the U.S. elite wanted him to say. But if the Kremlin wants to invest in Trump, it will need greater flexibility and a better understanding of the significance of the “Russia problem” for the U.S. establishment. So far, Russia’s elite appears distinctly unprepared for that.
‘Better Than Super’: Russia Reacts To Trump-Putin Summit In Helsinki
“They’re not cracking open the champagne in the Kremlin but are getting ready for long, hard work,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst. “They didn’t plan to close any deals or move ahead on any issues. They wanted to legitimize dialogue — to bring it back.”
There is relief in the Kremlin that Trump didn’t do anything unpredictable, make any demands on which further cooperation would depend or just appear ambivalent, according to Stanovaya. But despite the friendly atmosphere, she said, the Kremlin is aware Trump could still end up taking them by surprise.
La politologue Tatiana Stanovaya explique que Poutine n’attend pas de Trump qu’il soit prorusse, mais que grâce à ses sorties il divise le front occidental uni contre son pays.
Vladimir Poutine est sorti par le haut de sa première rencontre bilatérale avec Donald Trump. Pour la politologue Tatiana Stanovaya, fondatrice de la revue R.Politik, l’objectif – rétablir le dialogue avec Washington – a été atteint.
Qu’est-ce que la Russie a obtenu à l’issue de la rencontre entre Trump et Poutine ?
Poutine mise sur le long terme. Personne au Kremlin n’attendait d’avancées concrètes. Les deux objectifs du pouvoir russe, et de Poutine personnellement, étaient de débloquer le dialogue et de définir des directions pour commencer à discuter sérieusement. La Russie peut se targuer d’avoir réussi, mais ce succès est fragile et réversible. On ne se fait pas d’illusions sur le fait que le président américain, une fois rentré à Washington, peut faire volte-face. Comme l’an dernier, par exemple, quand les Russes et les Américains avaient annoncé à Hambourg [en marge du G20, ndlr] la création d’une unité de cybersécurité. Dès son retour, Trump a changé d’avis. Pour le Kremlin, le président américain n’est donc pas un interlocuteur fiable avec lequel on peut trouver des accords stables sur les questions stratégiques, mais il faut néanmoins que le dialogue se renoue au niveau des chefs d’Etat, c’est ce qui compte le plus. Les contacts qui existent, notamment sur le plan militaire, sont trop locaux et ne touchent pas aux questions importantes des sphères d’influence, de processus de paix ou encore de la destinée de Bachar al-Assad, etc.
Si le Kremlin ne se fait pas d’illusions sur Trump, est-ce qu’il y a des tentatives de le contourner pour établir d’autres canaux diplomatiques ?
Trump reste le principal atout pour les Russes aux Etats-Unis. La question n’est pas de savoir s’il est prorusse. Ce qui compte, c’est qu’il soit antisystème. Ça casse une position occidentale unifiée et toutes les logiques traditionnelles. Poutine sait qu’il ne peut pas discuter avec un Occident qui lui oppose une résistance unie et dure. Son principal objectif est donc d’affaiblir la pression des Occidentaux, leur politique d’endiguement qui nuit aux affaires russes, aussi bien intérieures qu’extérieures.
Dans ce cas, au-delà de l’image d’un dialogue qui repart, quelles avancées concrètes peut espérer Moscou dans la coopération avec Washington ?
Concrètement, sur les grands dossiers comme l’Ukraine, la Crimée, la Syrie, les sanctions, la Russie n’a pas de plan sur la manière d’obtenir ce qu’elle veut de Trump.
La colère provoquée aux Etats-Unis par les propos du président américain, que l’on accuse de trahison, peut-elle être une bonne chose pour le Kremlin ?
J’ai l’impression que personne, à Moscou, ne s’attendait à une telle réaction. Qui plus est, les accusations contre les douze agents du GRU [le renseignement militaire russe] ont été perçues en Russie comme un coup de poignard dans le dos. Au Kremlin, on ne se dit pas «Poutine va discuter avec Trump», mais «deux superpuissances vont enfin s’occuper de l’ordre mondial». Et là, une partie des élites américaines – qui, pour Moscou, ne représentent pas l’Amérique – frappe Trump dans le dos et l’empêche de régler des questions d’une importance cruciale. Je pense que le Kremlin a sous-estimé la portée possible des paroles de Trump sur les Américains. Les Russes auraient peut-être pu prendre des précautions, faire en sorte qu’il ne se retrouve pas dans une position aussi vulnérable. En même temps, le Kremlin considère que ce n’est pas son affaire de sauver la peau du président américain. Et est convaincu que la vague de soupçons sur l’ingérence russe va finir par retomber. Notamment après les élections de mi-mandat de novembre, dont la Russie se tiendra ostensiblement à l’écart et tout le monde le verra. Poutine a dû promettre des choses dans ce sens.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently re-elected for a fourth term, finalised the lineup of his new government and presidential administration in June. Many people expected that Putin would use the start of his new term to significantly refresh his staff, but no personnel revolution took place, and even officials whose fate had seemed sealed kept their jobs.
This lack of change in staffing is often explained as proof that the president has once again opted for stability, fearing radical change in his entourage. Yet falling back on the stability card could turn out to be a false premise that doesn’t explain the logic of the president’s actions and wrongly describes the nature of what is going on. There are reasons to believe that the Putin regime today is, on the contrary, more prepared than ever before for change, including within its staff.
The events of the last four years show that Russia’s fabled stability and lack of change have stopped being the top political value. Proof of this is the staff reshuffles of 2016, which significantly renewed the ruling elite and strengthened the trend of replacing Putin’s old associates with young technocrats who have nothing to do with Putin’s past. That process began after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when the role of the siloviki in making state decisions increased dramatically, while that of civil institutions fell accordingly. At the same time, conflicts among the elites grew deeper, because Putin was distracted from internal affairs, which gave more autonomy to various factions. All of these were factors in the decision to revamp Putin’s entourage in 2016, and remained relevant in March at the time of his re-election.
A crucial development that demonstrates that the regime is prepared for personnel reshuffles and is generally less attached to stability is the unfreezing of banned topics and the move toward implementing reforms that Putin has been putting off for years. The domestic economic agenda has taken on political significance, and the state has begun slaughtering sacred cows with its proposals to raise the retirement age and reassess tax policy.
Let’s suppose that, despite the importance of carrying out pension reform today, Putin had the political choice not to raise the retirement age. In the media, there is an active discussion over the difference between the president’s current position and his position 13 years ago: in 2005, he dismissed the idea, saying, “I am against increasing the pension age, and while I am president, no such decision will be made.” His spokesman points out that the situation in the country has changed since then. But is that the only issue here?
One of the reasons for pension system reform is the president’s growing political confidence: his dependency on the mood of the electorate is decreasing, his fear of falling ratings is receding, and his feeling of control over the political situation is cementing. In a sense, Putin is being nationalized, and transforming from a political leader into an institution that belongs to the entire state mechanism.
In this situation, the president himself is beginning to reason not as a political leader running the state, but as the embodiment of that state, disregarding passing threats to concentrate on state priorities. This transformation, which has been underway since 2014, makes the regime capable of changes that it would not previously have undertaken.
It is also worth noting that for several years now, the topic of color revolutions has disappeared from Kremlin discourse, having lost its status as chief bogeyman. The point is not that the Kremlin has stopped believing that the West is prepared to attempt regime change in Russia, but that the regime itself feels less vulnerable.
An interesting trend has appeared: after six years of the government failing to make significant decisions, the state has suddenly started to become increasingly dynamic. This concerns not only pension and tax reforms, but also the new presidential decrees issued in May, which appear to be far better thought through than those signed in May 2012, at the beginning of Putin’s third term.
Putin’s changed role has led to the gradual unfreezing of key administrative institutions. If before, any decisions had to be approved by the president and were made at a snail’s pace because Putin had no time, now it’s the other way around: decisions are made precisely because Putin has no time.
The president is increasingly inclined to delegate responsibility, and that means that the system’s overall volatility and dynamism will grow. When Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeats that Putin is not involved in the pension reform, he isn’t just saving his boss from a hit to his popularity; he’s indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. The head of state doesn’t want to deal with raising the pension age, or getting bogged down in dull accounting calculations about pensioners. Putin has the luxury of being able to distance himself from making an unpopular decision, having chucked this hot potato over to the politically accountable government.
Delegating responsibility for untangling administrative knots is no longer the exception, but is becoming routine, which is impacting staffing policy. Another example of this is the revised approach to the informal system of running the North Caucasus: a region of critical importance for the stability of the Putin regime. A bold experiment with personnel is underway in Dagestan (the system of having quotas for different Dagestani ethnicities within the regional authorities has been scrapped, and the region now has its first non-Dagestani acting head, Vladimir Vasilyev), while federal siloviki are gaining influence there and powerful clans are being routed (as evidenced by the arrest of the wealthy Magomedov brothers). Such experiments are hard to describe as part of a stable staffing policy or fear of change.
The reappointment of people to Putin’s entourage who were widely expected to lose their posts is far from a refusal to make changes to staff, and certainly doesn’t come from a fear of change. The Russian regime today is readier than ever before for changes, and it needs them. Decisions concerning personnel are coming to a head in many areas, above all in the security forces and foreign policy blocs, both of which carry out the president’s basic administrative requirements.
The fact that Putin did not undertake the large-scale reshuffle that was expected immediately after his re-election does not mean he has no intention of doing so. The dynamic of decision-making in picking his lieutenants depends too much on the geopolitical context, and as far as Putin is concerned, there are different cycles in place here that have nothing to do with elections — or at least, with the Russian elections.
Tatiana Stanovaya for Riddle
There were two key reasons in favour of Surkov’s dismissal. The first has to do with management and strategic understanding of the Ukraine crisis and the ‘Donbas project.’ Apart from other tasks, the FSB’s fifth service — i.e. its intelligence and international relations service — deals with Ukraine. Colonel-General Sergey Beseda has been heading this service since 2009. He is one of the most influential leaders in charge of foreign policy at the FSB. He represented the special services in Ukraine in the days of the 2014 revolution trying to ensure the security of the Russian embassy and establish rapport with the Ukrainian secret services. In the autumn of last year, Beseda officially supported Leonid Pasyechnik, the Minister of State Security of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, who conducted a coup and ousted Igor Plotnitsky. Plotnitsky had closely followed Surkov’s instructions on the ground, although the latter had different plans as regards developments in the separatist republic. Besides, the siloviki have traditionally had little trust in spin doctors like Surkov, who are often suspected of showing excessive admiration of the West.
Secondly, Surkov’s position is undermined by a lack of visible progress on implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreements, as well as by the stalling of Russian–American dialogue with Kurt Volker. In addition, Russia’s uniformed services are not interested in compromises with the West and would rather opt for radical solutions (such as awaiting Ukraine’s collapse and a degradation of the unity of the West). That stubborn and radical standpoint complicates Surkov’s work.
So why the delay? In short, there’s a backlog of postponed decisions, and a wish to sit tight and wait for the geopolitical weather to change. A breakthrough in the geopolitical situation would give Putin the chance he needs for restructuring. That window could open unexpectedly: Trump’s volatility may bring surprising new developments, that Putin will do his best to spin as positive, and open the door to needed staff reshuffles.
By Tatiana Stanovaya. Translated by Nicholas Trickett. This piece originally appeared in Republic.
Last week Vladimir Putin signed decrees mandating personnel and structural reshuffles within the presidential administration. Observers had waited impatiently for these changes: unlike the government, which mainly deals with the “Russian economy”, the presidential administration is the center of political and state management and the heart of Russia’s “big politics”. Intrigues have added regular rumors of the resignation of this or that key figure from Putin’s team: Yuri Ushakov, Vladislav Surkov, Larisa Brychevaya, and even, it seemed, the unsinkable Alexei Gromov. But the large reshuffles proved to be much ado about nothing: practically the entire administration kept their previous roles with certain pointed exceptions. In reality, important political processes motivated the decision to limit changes.
Enjoying the Spoils
The fact that Vladimir Putin didn’t carry out large reshuffles does not at all suggest that they aren’t planned or won’t be realized in a relatively short time (within 1-3 years). The president faced a dilemma: to postpone decisions for a couple of months until the whole package of new personnel configurations was ready – a number of anonymous Telegram channels have even written they could be set aside till the fall – or to limit changes to only the most necessary ones. There’s a good reason why the latter option was chosen – those handling domestic politics were in a hurry to “preserve their gains” and enjoy the spoils of an election campaign deemed successful from the president’s point of view.
Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign (more precisely, the work of domestic policy handlers) was heavily criticized by the opposition, groups near power and political technologists. The Kremlin was criticized for the lack of campaign platform, for its bloated and twisted missive to the Federal assembly (Putin’s presidential bid was announced very late, almost at the last possible moment), for its functional emptiness and the lack of an “image for the future” so intensely sought by pro-Kremlin experts since 2016. The campaign was also criticized for its minimal political competition, poorly conceived work with the systemic political opposition, and the case of Pavel Grudinin (who was built up into a convincing candidate before they tried to find every excuse to get him out of the race).
The fact that elections were held with competing managerial power centers . On the one hand, Sergei Kirienko – [Putin’s first deputy chief of staff] – and his team played an important decision-making role [as Kirienko was tasked with running the campaign]. This was made difficult due to Kirienko’s uneasy relationship with the head of the domestic policy shop, Andrei Yarin. On the other hand, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin – a former handler for domestic policy – and his agenda remained a strong influence on party politicking. In these conditions, Vladimir Putin’s reelection wasn’t an electoral task, but a fight over his political apparatus. Since Putin liked the campaign, winning the fight strengthened Kirienko’s team.
The competition between managers gives rise to intrigues: clearly Kirienko and his subordinates didn’t just claim a moral victory. They tried to make maximal use of the planned personnel and structural changes within the political cycle to their favor: this was their time to shine. And the longer Putin dragged it out, the less they could get since time dulls the emotional aspect of decision-making. Perhaps after six months, the president wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about the merits of his administration.
That’s why domestic policy handlers were, in fact, the main driver behind current personnel changes, which could have been made somewhat later by Putin’s logic. And that’s why these decisions were made in large part in favor of the domestic policy bloc. Sergei Kirienko was given administrative control over the State Council’s procurement office and the development of communication technologies and infrastructure in addition to the domestic policy office and office of public projects. At the same time, administrative authority over local governance was moved to the domestic policy office as well as youth policy, patriotic upbringing, and the development of internet projects.
A number of media outlets have indicated that Anton Vaino’s powers as the head of the presidential administration have expanded. However, first deputy Kirienko was given two additional responsibilities to balance out Vaino’s influence. The issue isn’t competition, but more Putin’s attempt to provide a more natural order of things. The head of the presidential administration – Vaino – shouldn’t lose face because [Putin] provided excessive resources to a subordinate. Vaino therefore was formally handed three policy portfolios for which he was actually already responsible: protocol, interregional and cultural relations with foreign countries, and anti-corruption initiatives.
Kirienko failed to grab the head of the domestic policy shop Andrei Yarin’s [influence]. But this is probably just temporary: the battle’s been lost, but not the war (although, of course, nobody in the Kremlin thinks in these terms or that there’s a real confrontation). For Kirienko as well as anyone handling domestic policy, a situation in which a manager doesn’t run a structure that’s “his own” is not only uncomfortable, but ineffective from a managerial perspective. For Kirienko, this means that either the office of public projects will continue to be given a greater role (led by Kirienko’s right-hand man Sergei Novikov) and the domestic policy office will be weakened, or Yarin will have to leave.
It’s not yet time
Keeping personnel changes in the presidential administration minimal is also an attempt by the president to delay key decisions that in the short or medium term could affect two important figures – Vladislav Surkov and Yuri Ushakov. Both are included in the provisional foreign policy bloc, which includes Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov was also predicted to resign, but his departure was postponed.
It’s important to note here that personnel decisions concerning figures like Lavrov or Surkov have less of personal and administrative logic for Vladimir Putin. Foreign policy is a special currency that can be traded for some purpose or other according to emerging market conditions. Wasting such a resource for nothing is clearly not desirable. Today, there’s no basis to expect positive outcomes for key strategic foreign policy questions. You can fire Surkov and Lavrov, but their places have to be filled with figures whose appointment could be read as a signal, a gesture, a certain message to an international society for which Putin has nothing to meaningfully offer. Therefore, there’s been no decision about Lavrov, and that means the others – Surkov and Ushakov – are left hanging. It’s not correct to say that Putin kept Surkov and Ushakov in their places. Putin has delayed replacing them for now.
In this case, the fate of the “Ukraine file”, currently stuck in permanent stalemate, will be especially significant. Any future successor to Surkov will be forced to do work that’s actually doomed to fail. Russian dialogue with the world community about the Donbas is increasingly moving from one that discusses the fate of the troubled region to a communication battle in which acting like Russia’s defense attorney is more important than reaching a compromise. Now that Surkov is being crowded out, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plays a more active role. Finally, the security services are also pressing Surkov too since they’re actively engaged with affairs in the Donbas. A gradual disengagement from Surkov’s function in foreign policy is taking place (he has to compete with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the provisional domestic policy, intra-Donbas bloc (where the General Staff and FSB have their own policy mechanisms and priorities).
Putin’s choice isn’t simple: either find Surkov’s replacement among diplomats (or even politicians) who are focused on the Minsk process, or among the “Chekists” who are interested in preventing humanitarian crises and coups in the LPR-DPR. The necessary conditions to make a confident choice aren’t yet clear. If Surkov leaves, it would be for personal reasons rather than Putin’s desire to give the resolution of the Ukraine crisis a push (of course, there won’t suddenly be a plan [for a resolution to the conflict]).
Filling a vacuum
Two new figures have joined the presidential administration, but only because there were vacancies. Konstantin Chuichenko was sent to the cabinet to be closer to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev and was replaced by FSB hand Dmitry Shalkov, formerly the head of the [Putin’s] “control center”.[i] Since 2015, Shalkov was responsible for intergovernmental affairs at the FSB, largely unpleasant work: for example, he pushed forward the “Chekist” laws. Prior to that, he led the main Military Investigation Department of the State Investigative Committee. Shalkov wasn’t too influential a player within the FSB and was more likely an outsider. For that reason, his departure can be seen as strengthening FSB director Alexander Bortnikov.
This becomes even more obvious considering the departure of another deputy from the FSB – Evgeniy Zinichev. Zinichev was expected to take Bortnikov’s place, but instead became the Minister of Emergency Situations. Thus, the FSB director who’d been actively “fired” during the last two years managed to get rid of two figures he was lumped with who weren’t members of his team. It’s important to note that the post of head of the “control center” is a largely technical role. Its main task is to maneuver between the interests of much more influential players who often have direct access to Putin.
Another newcomer, Anatoly Seryshev, joined the administration, in large part, thanks to the weakness of his predecessor – Yegveniy Shkolov, the now former aide to the president who oversaw the fight against corruption and personnel. Seryshev was deputy director of the Federal Customs Service and his promotion is linked to National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the head of Rostekh Sergei Chemezov. [Both have interests in the Federal Customs Service, which has been the object of clan fights within the FSB for years.]
Both Chuichenko and Shkolov, despite their significant formal status, were political outsiders to the presidential administration. The former was too pro-Medvedev and many issues were resolved with his exit. The latter was burned by the Denis Surgobov affair[ii] – games with the FSB in Russia usually end badly. Shkolov has turned from a legendarily powerful figure into a technical player from whom Putin has significantly distanced himself. Their cohorts are also likely to be invisible players, although their gain, undoubtedly, will consist of being left alone politically. In this sense, the technocratization of power is proving true.
Current personnel decisions are just a prelude to large reshuffles that have been postponed. Vladimir Putin will have to deal with the foreign policy bloc, where Sergei Lavrov and Yuri Ushakov are clearly on their way out and Vladislav Surkov has exhausted all of his political possibilities. The president will also have to optimize the makeup of the domestic policy bloc where unresolved issues remain. The current array [of personnel] will contribute to the accumulation of internal contradictions, the erosion of political heavyweights, and the arrival of younger technocrats. But Putin himself remains the main driver behind reshuffles. He clearly doesn’t want to act according to the dictated logic of pre-election cycles and makes decisions with geopolitical context most strongly in mind. That means the biggest intrigues are still to come.
[i] The “??????????? ??????????” could be literally translated as “control department”, but basically connotes a body and network of oversight powers within the presidential administration meant to serve as a sort of “lobby” before one ascends to talk to Putin. The office juggles competing interests in a technical, middle-management sense. Chuichenko’s new role is analogous to chief of staff for Medvedev’s cabinet. Shalkov’s role is difficult to precisely define given that he’s not actually Putin’s chief of staff and needs time to settle in. Chuichenko had served in the role for a decade.
[ii] Denis Surgobov was a former head of the Main Department of Economic Security and Anti-Corruption Activities within the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. He was arrested and sentenced after admitting to being part of a criminal organization and sentenced to 22 years in a labor colony. The sentence was lightened to 12 years by the Supreme Court.