Mark Galeotti of New York University -
In a hold over from Soviet days, the mighty Kutuzovsky Prospect highway leading into Moscow’s city centre still has a special middle lane reserved for emergency vehicles or, more often, the motorcades of senior government officials. Not for them the misery of the capital’s notorious traffic jams. They whisk past, in a wholly separate world of smooth, fast and easy transit, protected by wailing-sirened police cars, incognito behind tinted windows. Russian politics likewise appears to be devolving into two distinct realms, as Vladimir Putin and his closest cohorts retreat from the increasingly problematic realities of the real world, into their privileged and secure haven, apart from the people who actually have to administer Russia for them.
It is hardly unusual for there to be disconnects between the rulers and the ruled, but not only are these are times which require some tough and far-sighted policies, but even within the broad category of the “rulers” there is a distinct gulf. Two of the prevailing themes that emerged from a range of meetings and conversations I’ve had in Moscow these past two weeks are a sense of drift and a lack of connection between even senior figures within business, politics and government, and the small circle who actually define policy. As one unusually forthcoming middle-ranking official put it, albeit wisely off the record: “Government has retreated from view, orders come from a secret court, and we don’t know who is making them, how and why.”
Even those who are still confident in their president and claim optimism about the country’s future become coy when pressed about how far they feel that the channels to transmit their views up the power vertical are working well, and to what extent they feel their individual and collective interests are being represented within that “secret court”.
This is perhaps especially visible when it comes to the economy. An economist who in his day consulted frequently for the government threw up his hands and said: “nothing’s happening, we have no meaningful policy.” The people whose job it is to manage Russian macroeconomics do seem strangely uncertain, perhaps because they often don’t get to do their jobs. Multiple sources claimed that the governor of the central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, tried for over a week to schedule a meeting with Putin before last year’s ruble collapse, and Kremlin aides seem to have had at least as much influence over interest rates.
Meanwhile, there is an on-and-off war being waged in Ukraine, but neither the generals nor the diplomats seem either to know the intended end result – or be consulted about strategy. Both within the military and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, their role seems to be simply to await instructions. These often come through Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which generals grumble now seems to be defining policy.
Although there is something of a cult of Foreign Minister Lavrov these days – you can buy We-Heart-Lavrov t-shirts in the Evropeisky shopping mall – even he does not seem to be playing much of a role in advising on policy, merely executing it. Consider, for example, Russia’s recent attempts to play the “nuclear card”, using a forum of generals to threaten a response up to and including atomic weapons should Nato deploy more troops into its own eastern member states. Apart from the fact that this is a hollow threat, it served only to harden resolve in the Nordic regions. Five nations – the very kind of states Moscow presumably hoped to dismay and deter – came together explicitly to characterize Russia as the foremost threat they faced. As one recently retired diplomat sniffed: “Lavrov would not have made that mistake.”
It is, of course, a disturbing development when not only the foot soldiers of the Russian state, but also its noncoms and field officers feel that their own commanders are out of touch and unwilling to listen to them.
Beyond that, though, this also speaks to a second, even more problematic issue. If the people making the final decisions seem detached from the processes of daily governance, this is not just a problem for the executive: that same distance makes it harder for the executive to really know what is happening, as a basis for effective policy. In other words: we do not know what Putin knows.
I tend to discount the kind of over-heated claims that he is irrational and erratic. However, a rational actor makes decisions based on the evidence and assessments with which he is presented. We have very little hard information about just how well Putin is being briefed, but another leitmotif of conversations in Moscow was scepticism from specialists of every stripe that he was being kept well informed about their particular area. The economists might accept that he is on top of geopolitics, but were anxious that he did not appreciate the real depth of the financial challenges ahead. The cops assumed everything was going to plan in the Donbas, but felt that the president did not understand the practical challenges they were facing – especially in light of the 10% personnel budget cut being imposed on them – and listened too much to the FSB. And so it went.
Sometimes, the problem seems to be that no one wants to be the one to bring Putin bad news. Within the intelligence community, for example, each agency briefs separately and has learned that getting his ear and favor tends to mean telling him what he wants to hear. Likewise, the Presidential Administration, according to some people I spoke to, can be more interested in keeping everyone happy than ensuring the most accurate perspectives get to Putin’s desk. And a president who prides himself on not using the internet, who has housetrained the media, and who rarely now interacts with his people in anything other than carefully-scripted media events, is unlikely to get an independent take on the state of the nation.
Why should Russia’s rulers address traffic jams so long as they have their own lane? Indeed, do they even know how much time ordinary Muscovites waste in traffic, the frustrations and angers generated as a result? Is anyone telling them? When policy is being determined by a small circle of people increasingly detached from the realities of the country’s situation, and whose own advisers appear determined to protect their isolation, then even the smartest and most rational leaders are unlikely to generate smart and rational policies.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/)
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