R.Politik CEO and founder, Tatiana Stanovaya, is regularly quoted by major Russian and international media outlets. She is available for commentary in Russian and English.
The Illusion of Control: The Kremlin Prepares for Falling Ratings
Declining support for the government is gradually becoming one of the main problems for President Vladimir Putin’s regime, since the popularity rating of any state institution and the legitimacy of the entire system stem directly from the level of support for the president.
The Kremlin’s recent losses—its candidates were effectively defeated in four gubernatorial elections—have prompted the question of how the presidential administration and the president himself intend to adapt to the new conditions. Is Russia in for yet another wave of political reform, or will the Russian authorities make a different, unexpected move that could help them recapture past levels of popular support, as they did previously with the annexation of Crimea?
Before making any predictions about the Kremlin’s next moves, it must be acknowledged that the federal authorities don’t see the current decline in ratings and the gubernatorial election defeats as anything exceptional. They put these things down to simple miscalculations in the selection of candidates, rather than to changes in the public mood.
Only one of the four gubernatorial election losses—that in the Primorsky region—is seen by the Kremlin as serious, but even there the authorities link their problems to regional specifics, not complex nationwide issues such as increasing the retirement age or the fall in real incomes. As for the other regions, the Kremlin ascribes the losses to the longevity of the incumbent governors, who have apparently forgotten how to talk to people and have gotten too accustomed to automatic victories guaranteed by presidential support and the absence of real competition.
This interpretation allows the government to shift the focus from the decline in Putin’s popularity, which the system refuses to accept as a threat, to the problem of personnel rotation. Hence, government decisions in which appointing new figures takes precedence over using political instruments like parties, elections, and competition.
We saw a confirmation of these tactics right after the elections, when the federal center removed governors who appeared to have been in power for too long and who could have had problems getting reelected later. Their replacements were selected according to the principles of the corporate vertical: they are technocratic managers with little political experience, let alone political ambition. The center intends to elect them with the help of a populist agenda and political strategies. In this context, the governor becomes part of an impersonal corporate management mechanism, rather than an individual actor in a political process.
This reaction indicates that the Kremlin doesn’t believe that Putin and the Russian regime as a whole might become unpopular, so it treats the current decline in their ratings as a natural and manageable outcome of the unpopular recent move to raise the retirement age. The overall mood in the presidential administration is that there is no catastrophe, nothing to panic about. Everyone there is convinced that there is no alternative to Putin, so his rating can’t seriously decline.
This attitude also reflects the fact that Putin’s entourage is increasingly oriented toward the president’s own expectations and perception of his personal historical exceptionality that firmly protects him from any competition. Only Putin’s hand-picked successor could be an alternative to Putin: that’s the logic that has underpinned all the political decisions of the past few years. And if the president’s popularity continues to fall, there’s no doubt that the Kremlin will see it as anything but the president’s political weakness.
This is why we should not expect direct gubernatorial elections to be scrapped: a possibility that some have recently started to talk about. The Russian regime isn’t prepared to make that decision, and the president’s recent speeches are evidence of that. At a meeting with members of the Central Election Commission, he praised the electoral system and stressed the importance of elections for the people.
In reality, Putin’s reverential treatment of elections has little to do with any democratic propensities he might still have. He is simply convinced that the fairness of the regime’s agenda and the infallibility of its course make electoral losses impossible.
Putting an end to direct elections would mean that the president was acknowledging his unpopularity and the legitimacy of protest sentiment. In any case, Putin made it clear that the authorities will preserve the municipal filter—which requires those running for office to collect endorsements from local council members—by describing it recently as “democratic.” The president’s logic is simple: if the municipal filter didn’t prevent opposition candidates from being elected, it is not as harsh as it was made out to be.
At this time, the Kremlin is not remotely inclined to allow cardinal changes to the political system. Any changes that may occur will have to do with the transit of power rather than adjustments made due to falling ratings.
It’s not incompetence or lack of political foresight that makes the Kremlin underestimate the impending political risks. Rather, Kremlin officials are overly fixated on Putin’s moods. Unlike their predecessors, who mostly focused on the political system, the current political strategists cater to the president’s personal political needs, ensuring his comfort. The creative freedom and intrigues enjoyed by former deputy chiefs of staff Vladislav Surkov and Vyacheslav Volodin are absent, and there is no prospect of their return. This is probably why “administrators” have turned out to be more in demand today than political strategists.
However resilient the Putin regime might look to an outsider, it isn’t ready and isn’t preparing itself for a possible decline in its ratings, which may unleash consequences beyond the fall of individual governors and the ruling United Russia party. We already saw what that sort of decline can lead to back in late 2011, when even some members of the in-system opposition parties like the Communist Party and A Just Russia, as well as prominent establishment figures like former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and businessman and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov joined protesters on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square.
To maintain stability, the Kremlin is currently left with two potentially effective mechanisms. The first is to artificially inflate its ratings with the help of information campaigns and the institutional toughening up of the regime, eliminating the vestiges of real competition.
That option looks far more realistic than the alternative: regime liberalization, which terrifies the Kremlin and is seen as capitulation to the West by a significant part of the Russian elite, especially among the siloviki.
The regime is opting to create a corporatist state, which automatically equates corporate interests with the interests of the people, stripping the latter of their last remaining political rights. Only a lack of resolve among the “administrators” and the absence of an order from above to tighten the screws leave any hope for pluralization, which will only come from below.
‘Legendary’ GRU military intelligence agency should have historical name restored, says Putin
“This was a psychological and political show of support by Putin,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik. “He was telling them that he would support them to the end regardless of the failures and their poor fortunes.”
For Mr Putin, those failures are secondary to a much larger struggle with the West, says Ms Stanovaya.
“He believes the GRU are the victims of this story and has made it very clear that you shouldn’t expect any radical changes in the service,” she says. “Even personnel changes, which may yet happen, will not take place immediately.”
“It’s clear Putin has given the order for the leaks to stop,” says Ms Stanovaya. “That’s where he sees the vulnerability. Far from dismantling the GRU, he wants them to end up stronger.”
The unmasking of GRU agents will intensify inter-agency battles between Russian intelligence services, and may stoke yet more conflict with foreign states
Western and independent journalists’ exposing of Russian agents present in Salisbury was a shock for the Russian government, even in a period of renewed international scrutiny of its intelligence services. The biggest lapse on the part of Russia’s services since the end of the cold war will change how the Kremlin organises them. The key question now is how it will: set about improving the effectiveness of the military intelligence service – the “GRU”; protect its serving operatives; and avert future failures. Speculation about the government disbanding the GRU, meting out severe punishment, or sacking its top brass is misguided: instead, it is likely to take steps to actually strengthen military intelligence.
In the first instance, some personnel changes are indeed likely. Rumours have raced around Telegram that GRU chief Igor Korobov may be replaced, potentially by his first deputy Igor Kostukov. But, whatever happens, the GRU itself will still benefit from Vladimir Putin’s firm support. (Incidentally, the GRU no longer exists as such, although Western media remain prone to use the term.)
More importantly, the GRU’s troubles have provoked new struggles within and between the Russian intelligence agencies. Each is seeking to gain advantage from the situation and to ensure the blame falls on other services. The SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service – has pointed to the lack of professionalism at the GRU and sought to regain responsibility for political intelligence. KGB successor, the FSB, meanwhile, may revisit its old dream of merging the SVR into itself. Indeed, some Western media have suggested thatt an SVR agent could have leaked the details of the Salisbury operation to Britain. The FSB may use this to reinforce its own version of this story: that the unmasking of Russian agents represents betrayal of one service by another. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper recently published leaked information claiming to show that SVR chief Sergey Naryshkin’s family possess Hungarian residence permits and property there. This instantly weakened Naryshkin’s position, giving reason to suspect that the GRU’s desire for revenge lay behind the disclosure. Even if untrue, the situation is surely highly fraught.
The Russian government will not now become more cautious or oblige the intelligence services to be less indiscriminate in their activity
The Kremlin considered merging the SVR and the FSB in 2016, but put the idea aside once Putin appointed Naryshkin – then speaker of the Duma – as head of the SVR. It resurfaced, however, at the beginning of 2018, when the expectation began to grow again that deep structural changes to Russia’s state apparatus were imminent. The FSB tried once more to advance its idea of enlarging itself by swallowing up others. The eventual lack of change is likely due to former Presidential Administration chief Sergey Ivanov, who is still a key figure in Putin’s inner circle. In any case, the trials and tribulations of other services have given the FSB new arguments in the furtherance of its own interest.
In Putin’s eyes the chemical attack on Sergei Skripal is an example of “the fuss between security services” which “did not start yesterday”, as he said during a controversial and emotional speech at Russian Energy Forum. But The Economist has shared the Western security services view over the case, namely that Salisbury was “a step too far”. “Russia has broken an unwritten rule of the spying game by using intelligence for offensive purposes”, the newspaper quotes Sergei Boeke of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs as saying.
The Kremlin thinks differently: it is the West that has been breaking the rules by its overreaction to what was a routine operation, even if the operation happened to get out of control. A principal claim levelled against Russia is that it is not only engaged in spying but is also out to weaken Western democracy and political legitimacy – in contrast to how American, French, or even Chinese secret services behave. But to the Kremlin the world looks completely different: Putin believes that after the collapse of the USSR the United States continued to try to undermine Russia, and indeed redoubled its efforts in this direction after his regime emerged. Western actions led to conflict in the post-Soviet space, including in Georgia and in the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin also strongly believes that Washington directs all other Western countries in its anti-Russian efforts, laying the ground to destroy Putin’s regime and the country itself. The Russian president has, on countless occasions, accused the West of attempting to interfere with Russia’s political system and elections in general through building a network of Western influence inside Russia. Oligarchs, pro-Western opposition, and NGOs form key links in this network.
As a result, whatever the misdeeds or mishaps of the GRU, Moscow views the post-Salisbury fallout as something the West has whipped up as part of its ongoing war against Russia. State media share messages which give an indicate of the Kremlin’s thinking in this direction, referring to “Western hysterics”.
So what will this mean for Russia’s intelligence agencies and their activities both at home and overseas? For one thing, the result will not be a Russian government that becomes more cautious or obliges the intelligence services to be less indiscriminate in their actions. Nor indeed will the services dial down their cyber-espionage or information warfare; the ‘à la guerre comme à la guerre’ approach to the West remains intact.
Instead, the government may adapt the tools it already has in order to deal with the challenge it believes it faces. The firm bond between political civil authorities and secret services is one such tool, and this relationship will now only strengthen, not weaken. The Security Council in turn will play a key role in this hardening: the conservative and anti-Western secret services influence on the council will make itself felt through the council’s role in both day-to-day and strategic political decision-making. Services’ desire to retaliate see them carry out some unmasking of their own, potentially of Western agents working in Russia, with a view to reminding the world that imperfections exist among services of all countries.
Russia may also now try to play the ongoing information wars more openly, establishing media more clearly directly linked to Russia itself, including new internet outlets and information agencies. It may also seek to work more intensively with social and political forces opposed to traditional elites and lacking faith in political institutions. The Kremlin will become less reticent about involving itself in information battles and using freedom of speech – a key achievement of democracy – as way in which to carry out “hybrid” intrusion.
Unfortunately, the information warfare already playing out across the globe now has a rocket-booster under it: confrontation between Russian secret services. For Russia it is counter-offensive time, no matter who broke the rules first.
Espionage scandals show Russian army’s growing clout
Asked on Monday if there would be a shake-up at the defense ministry, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the low quality of the allegations leveled at GRU did not justify such changes.
“Russia believes there’s no point in reducing the GRU’s activities because that would be a unilateral concession that would not yield anything and probably be seen as a sign of weakness,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, who is well connected to the political elite and runs political analysis firm R.Politik.
“I think that malicious operations could even be conducted more often than in the past,” she said.
The Kremlin is dismayed by fraying informal communications channels between Western and Russian intelligence agencies, she said, and sees the espionage world as a realm without rules.
“The army’s influence will rise,” said R.Politik’s Stanovaya. “Putin believes Russia is in a state of war.”
Elections de mi-mandat: personne ne doute aux Etats-Unis de nouvelles interférences russes
Ayant « goûté » à la puissance qu’apporte la cybernétique, la Russie n’entend pas y renoncer, selon la politologue Tatyana Stanovaya
Selon la politologue russe Tatiana Stanovaya, créatrice du site R.Politik, la question de savoir si Vladimir Poutine devait s’engager auprès de Donald Trump de ne pas influencer le scrutin à venir s’est posée au Kremlin avant le sommet d’Helsinki. Elle a été vite tranchée, raconte-t-elle, dès lors que l’entourage du Président s’est entendu sur le fait que, dans le très fort sentiment anti-russe ambiant à l’Ouest, Moscou serait de toutes les façons pointé du doigt qu’il interfère ou non lors de ces élections.
Si elle se garde bien d’évaluer la réalité et l’ampleur que pourraient prendre d’éventuelles interventions russes lors des « midterm », Tatiana Stanovaya explique qu’après avoir « goûté à la puissance du pouvoir cybernétique, la Russie n’entend pas en tout cas y renoncer ». Elle a d’autant moins « l’intention d’abandonner le champ de bataille volontairement » que d’autres pays dans le monde ont commencé à investir le monde cybernétique et que le régime de Poutine craint de se trouver un jour à son tour l’objet de cyberattaques. « On a eu tort de prendre à la légère l’offre que Poutine a faite à Trump de créer un groupe de travail sur la cybersécurité », estime d’ailleurs la politologue.
The west has declared war on the GRU – but don’t expect Russia to tame its spies
For long periods of Mr Putin’s rule, the GRU was almost absent from the big intelligence table, with no obvious role in a shrinking empire. But its fortunes turned in 2008, after the war in Georgia, when the army realised it needed better intelligence for delicate operations. Another turning point came four years later, with the appointment of Valery Gerasimov as chief of the General Staff.
“Their horizon widened, and with supply came demand,” says Tatyana Stanovaya, CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik. “They settled into this new role just as Putin began to reject his own idea that Russia needed to be friends with the west.”
According to Ms Stanovaya, inter-agency conflicts have certainly grown since the Skripal scandal. Many officers have complained that the GRU had not been professional enough and were putting their president on the line. At the same time, she notes, systemic loyalty to the president guards against any major excesses, including leaks and hostile briefing. The first rule in Russia’s secret world is allegiance to Putin.
“For Putin, these guys are still heroes, living modestly, and risking their own lives to protect the motherland,” says Ms Stanovaya. “How can he criticise them? No, he’ll give them more muscle. Any step back would be seen as a recognition of defeat.”
‘They committed political suicide today’ – Kremlin problems grow as Russian pension reform passes second reading
The Kremlin understood it would take a hit, said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder and CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik, but it might have overestimated its reserves. And its tactics have contributed to a sense of the president being detached from his people.
“There is still a huge problem of dialogue,” she told The Independent. “People are expressing anger at three things. First, they see international politics being handled with far greater urgency than internal economic problems. Second, they don’t see any positive agenda, only warnings that if you don’t support them, things will get worse. And third, they recoil at the language of ultimatum, the absence of discussion.”
According to Ms Stanovaya, the Kremlin plans to manage the growing public discontent by renewing the regional elite with new faces. By evening, the president had already moved to replace two governors. But this “corporate” approach did nothing to solve the fundamental problems of “distrust in the system and in a president who has lost his magic wand”.
Sooner or later, the Kremlin will be left with a choice, she said.
“They can either turn the screws further and risk creating a pressure-cooker environment. Or they can introduce moderate liberalisation, and risk things getting out of control.”
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.