In September, it was mooted that most of the security services were going to be gathered into a new super-agency with the sinister title Ministry of State Security. All kinds of authoritative commentators treated this as a done deal. Yet as of writing, nothing has come of it. Likewise, Investigations Committee (SK) head Alexander Bastrykin was pervasively rumoured to be on the way out. So far, no definitive statement whether he is staying or going. But then the month before, without any foreshadowing, Presidential Administration chief Sergei Ivanov, arguably the second most powerful man in the country, was abruptly fired. This, after all, is the way of high politics under Putin: you either drift in limbo or are struck by the implacable and unpredictable lightning bolt from the heavens.
Putin’s limbo dancers
Uncertainty is a crucial instrument of Putin’s personal and institutional politics. It allows him to admonish and alarm those whom he feels have overstepped the mark. When Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov (almost certainly) had opposition leader Boris Nemtsov murdered in 2015, Putin left him hanging. Ultimately, he felt he had no alternative to his over-mighty and under-controlled subject – a Russian security official succinctly captured the prevailing belief as “we get rid of Ramzan, and we have a third Chechen war on our hands” – but at least he could give him a scare. Unable to get to speak to Putin, Kadyrov was left with composing increasingly obsequious Instagram posts protesting extravagant loyalty.
It may prove that Bastrykin’s time on the hook is simply a warning to him not to get too overweening. Or it could represent a prelude to dismissal. After all, limbo is also a substitute for open politics. One of the problems of a closed and autocratic system like late Putinism is that there are few meaningful channels to gauge the mood of the elite. Very few dare to challenge Kremlin policy openly, and indeed those who do need to be chastised in the name of maintaining the secular tsar’s numinous aura of infallibility.
Limbo opens up a space for key stakeholders to respond without appearing to challenge the Kremlin. Precisely because it is informal, unacknowledged (yet universally recognised) and involves no open statement of policy, people can express their views through statements, quiet leaks, ‘ordered’ newspaper articles or any of the other approved outlets of intra-elite discourse. The Kremlin can assess the balance of opinion and the arguments raised and eventually make its decision without any overt admission that a consultation process took place.
Interestingly enough, elite discussion of the Ministry of State Security has been strikingly blasé, even as liberal observers react with shocked dismay. There has not even been the kind of special pleading from the agencies likely to be swallowed up by a ministry dominated by the Federal Security Service (FSB) we have seen in the past. The odds of some kind of substantial security reform sooner than later are looking depressingly good. And as for Bastrykin, the distinct absence of voices raised in his defence must also be a chastening experience.
Lightning strikes the tower
Then there are those decisions that come seemingly from nowhere, from the seizure of Crimea to Ivanov’s dismissal – sorry, his ‘retirement’. In the past this reflects the nature of the system. The small circles of people whom Putin consults – circles that change in composition and expand or contract depending on the nature of the decision and his mood of the moment – are not the kind of people who gossip openly or leak. Although one cannot define Putin solely by his KGB background, operational security and organisational loyalty are key virtues in his eyes.
This is not a regime which needs to foreshadow its moves. The state media can pivot on the proverbial dime and loudly proclaim today’s line without concern about yesterday’s orthodox. The legislature could not be any more compliant. The elite may be willing to express their views when implicitly invited, but know better than to intrude: the lesson of this presidential term in particular is that politics come from above, not below.
When do the lightning bolts hit? When Putin is determined about something; when it is the kind of decision that precisely might be debilitating if allowed to stretch over time; when they would open up the kind of struggles for resources or precedence that would be dangerous.
Crimea obviously had to be a secret decision, to allow the quick and decisive use of the “little green men”. The deployment to Syria likewise. Ivanov’s pivotal position meant there could be no ‘lame duck’ period: his departure and replacement needed to be announced near enough simultaneously.
Indeed, avoiding potentially inflammatory intra-elite disputes is one of the key reasons for lightning strikes. The creation of a National Guard and abolition of the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) earlier this year were contentious topics that would have generated considerable friction within the security community had they been allowed to be discussed. As it was, FSKN chief Viktor Ivanov (no relation), well-known for his outspoken style, could only fulminate after the event, as he had already receded from the public stage. Likewise, freeing Alexei Navalny from prison in 2013 went down badly with many within the SK and FSB, but making it a fait accompli left them no safe and acceptable public avenues to express this.
These tactics work, after their own fashion. Any regime, even the most personalised of dictatorships – and while Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian regime, it is not a dictatorship – needs some channels for communication and consultation. These ad hoc ways of opening and controlling elite participation are at best partial and dysfunctional responses to the ossification of late Putinism. The more Putin’s leadership persona depends on his imperturbable infallibility, the less experts and stakeholders have reliable ways to impact policy, the more unwieldy and arbitrary the decision-making system becomes. How many successes, after all, does it have to its credit? Crimea was tactically brilliant but strategically disastrous. Russia is mired in wars in Ukraine and Syria. Its economy is surviving, but in many ways will for years still be paying for past mistakes. Late Putinism isn’t working, but who will brave the lightning bolts to tell him?
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.