Mark Galeotti of New York University -
Russia is not Mordor. Let me explain. We love to understand and explain by analogy. This can be a powerful tool, but it always carries with it the risk of caricature, oversimplification and downright misdirection. With a powerful meme that risk only grows. For a variety of reasons, today’s Russia is especially prone to analysis–by-analogy, and it’s a problem.
Sometimes we stick to history: Putin as the stern tsar holding his boyar aristocrats in his grasp. Sometimes it’s other countries’ histories. I feel there are some striking parallels between Putin’s Russia and Mussolini’s Italy, but to call the Kremlin “fascist” is a dangerous step, not least as “fascism” today means Auschwitz and the SS, not populist modernism.
Whether they know it or not, many of Putin’s most rabid critics are actually channeling nothing less than the great British fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, whose epic “Lord of the Rings” strikes all the right notes for them: a Western alliance of ‘Good’ (admittedly made up largely of monarchs and elitists, committed to preservation of a status quo that suits them, but we won’t go there for now); and the threat of fifth columnists and traitors, not least those who with silver-tongues advocate non-intervention or warn that they enemy is too powerful to challenge.
And then there is a rabid, inhuman and destructive enemy, the festering eastern land of Mordor. Its legions, stunted, ignorant and twisted, are little more than the hapless instruments of Sauron, its dark lord, who is driven by dreams of conquest and a hatred for everything his enemies hold dear. Indeed, his most terrible agents, the Ringwraiths, are literally manifestations of his will, shrieking into nothingness when Sauron perishes.
This is fanciful, of course. But nonetheless in many quarters there does seem to be a genuine belief that today’s Russian state is essentially a brutal monolith, motivated by contempt for the West and its values, and rigidly controlled by a single will. This is to say the least unfortunate, as it willfully ignores the complexities to be found in Russia, and helps explain why policy has so often been flawed or truly counterproductive.
A particular issue of dispute is over just how far Putin personally runs Russia, and thus by extension orders or authorizes everything that happens. This is a complex issue, which was especially salient when people made their decisions as to how to interpret the murder of dissident politician Boris Nemtsov.
Certainly Putin remains the “decider” at the heart of the system, whose role is to resolve disputes within the elite and set broad policy. Sometimes he will also engage with detail, but to a considerable extent he appears a hands-off manager, relying on his underlings to show initiative, rewarding them when they predict his intentions and perform as desired, punishing them when they don’t.
That does mean that there is considerable scope for initiative, even autonomy within the elite. As a result, modern Russian politics is best explained precisely by its diversities and pluralities.
Consider, for example, the so-called siloviki, members, veterans and fellow travelers of the security apparatus. In the 1990s, a time when institutions were dangerously weak and collectives necessary to exploit the extraordinary opportunities available, it made sense for such coalitions of interest to form. But today? There seems no evidence of any unity. Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, is often described as the leading siloviki, not least because of his presumed (and probable) background in the GRU. However, he now seems wholly invested in his role as a hydrocarbons baron, rarely speaking on issues outside that realm, and few siloviki with whom I've spoken to ever seem to have any great regard for him.
Likewise, although these people share some broad values, from Russian nationalism to mistrust of the West (and my experience of British and US siloviki is that they too tend towards a certain commonality of values and beliefs), their practical interests often clash or else drive them into alliances with people in other, notionally rival groups. The armed forces get shafted by the military-industrial complex, forced to buy tanks they don't need. The Federal Security Service leans on the Ministry of Internal Affairs, even while elements within each do business together.
So there are all kinds of factions, fractions and friendships slicing and dicing the Russian elite, cutting across as well as along institutional and functional divides. This is visible in the long-running, if largely behind-the-scenes, competition for the prime ministerial chair. Dmitry Medvedev wants to hold on to it. Others want it, including three contenders generally considered all to be on the liberal marketeer/moderate reformist wing: Sberbank’s president German Gref, First Vice President Igor Shuvalov, and probably also former finance minister Alexei Kudrin.
Two things emerge from their ponderous maneuvers. The first is that their power bases are often disparate. Shuvalov, for example, has been wooing the nationalists. At Davos, he turned to unusually hardline rhetoric, saying that Russians would “survive any hardship in the country – eat less food, use less electricity” rather than give in to Western pressure. Coming from one of Russia’s richest men, this aroused some scorn on social media, but earned him points even with hawks such as Deputy Premier Dmitry Rogozin.
Likewise, Gref has won plaudits from within the intelligence and security community with his claim that the December 2014 ruble crash – and the record-breaking run on Sberbank that saw $6bn withdrawn in one day – was a deliberate act of economic warfare coordinated from abroad, whose “target was to destabilize the country's largest bank and the financial situation in the country”. Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov liked that take on events.
The thing is that these are not simply contests driven by self-interest, factional politics or social ties. They also reflect genuine differences of opinion. The policy debate in Russia is certainly less raucous and inclusive than in the democratic West, and aimed at influencing Putin the “decider”, but it nonetheless exists.
There are disagreements over economic policy, of course. Kudrin, for example, is not just confining himself to grumbling about the squandering of past opportunities (though he does enough of that). Warning that Russia faces “a full-blown crisis under any existing criteria”, he is not only setting himself against populist policies that impede growth, he advocates greater institutional reform and, implicitly, more emphasis on anti-corruption measures.
However, Gref is also quietly articulating a modernizing political-economic policy platform of his own. Advocating “serious reforms of all relations in the economy”, Gref is trying to stake out a Kudrin-lite position: “We can start with the system of executive power. There is no need to touch the constitutional foundations – there is more than enough scope for activity in the sphere of reforming the executive hierarchy.” To this end, he wants to see some kind of strategic agency to ensure performance and delivery across the government.
Beyond that, though, there are disagreements across the elites in every sphere. Disagreements over legal policy often splash into disagreements over history, especially the place of Stalin. In April, for example, moves to rehabilitate Genrikh Yagoda, one of Stalin’s secret police chiefs, were struck down in the Supreme Court. Legal issues also cut to the heart of the relationship between Moscow and the regions. For example, disagreements over Chechnya’s de facto legalization of polygamy really are coded ways to discuss how far Chechen warlord-President Ramzan Kadyrov should be given free rein. This is one of those policy issues in which the liberals and the security apparatus are in ironic alliance, the former horrified by Kadyrov’s arbitrary brutality, the latter smarting at the way he took over all local security agencies.
There are debates over the social and economic implications of relying on Central Asian migrant labourers, over cultural policy, over health reform, over education. There are even, albeit much more cautiously and quietly, disagreements over Russia's current geopolitical strategy of tension.
In other words, while obviously Russia is no representative democracy, and there are no meaningful constitutional constraints on Putin’s authority, that does not mean that this is totalitarianism. Sometimes behind closed doors, sometimes in Aesopian metaphor, and sometimes openly, the elites – and even in some limited ways civil society and public – opinion continue to engage, debate and shape the political environment. That is, after all, how humans are. Only in fantasy can politics be simplified to the will of a single dark lord.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.
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