July 26, 2019

The Kremlin's Men: Nowhere to Retreat-  Moscow' Is Behind Them

Victor Hvozd

Who and how influences the Russian leadership's decision making

The current electoral cycle in Ukraine being over, to the fore is coming the problem of resolving the conflict in the Donbas. It is argued that this can only be done through the Normandy format negotiations, which are considered the only real opportunity to ensure the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. At this, the effectiveness of the Normandy group will largely depend on the position of Russia, which bears the biggest responsibility for the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine.

There are many other problems in Russian-Ukrainian relations. For one- coordination of the strategic issue of the transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, which is very important for addressing energy needs of both, Ukraine itself and Europe. And here a lot depends on the current ruling elite of Russia, namely, those who are close to V. Putin, who make recommendations for making appropriate decisions. Despite the lack of radical changes in the top leadership of the RF, Putin's inner circle is rather dynamic and largely depends on the situation in and around the country.

Thus, in the opinion of Russian experts, because of the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West, V. Putin is forced to turn to a “mobilization scenario,” according to which all available resources are to be used for opposing the USA, NATO and the EU, supporting the Russian economy, and for controlling the situation in the country. In its turn, this requires strengthening the rigidity of the Russian government's vertical, centralizing the country's economic system and strengthening its force structures. All this leads to changes in V. Putin's environment, such as the bringing closer to him the so-called “Siloviki” (persons who control the country's force structures or are responsible for their activity), as well as heads of leading state and semi-state companies. At the same time, the positions of representatives of large private business are getting weaker.

Under such circumstances, today the first circle of Vladimir Putin's environment includes:

The head of the Russian government D. Medvedev, who ispersonally responsible for the work of the Russian economy and implementation of majority of national projects. At the same time, D. Medvedev's role in V. Putin's environment is rather complicated, as the Russian government cannot cope with the country's economic problems and the consequences of Western sanctions. In this regard, D. Medvedev serves as a kind of “lightning conductor”, who draws the Russian society's critical moods regarding the leadership of Russia;

Secretary of the Security Council of the RF N. Patrushev - a key participant in the talks with the USA. He has a significant influence on Russia's force structures, economic processes and foreign policy;

Mayor of Moscow S. Sobyanin - responsible for the development of the largest metropolitan agglomeration and serves as the overseer of a number of important regions. Under the leadership of S. Sobyanin, the Russian capital appears to be the center of “testing” new technologies that are widely used in the Russian economy;

Minister of Defense of the RF S. Shoigu - controls the whole security bloc of Russia and is personally responsible for strengthening the country's armed forces. The above-mentioned tasks are becoming especially relevant for Russia in the face of aggravation of its relations with the West and degradation of diplomatic instruments for realization of Russian interests in the international arena. Besides, S. Shoigu is an informal overseer of a number of regions and is considered one of the country's most popular politicians. In the opinion of political scientists, it is S. Shoigu who can become V. Putin's successor as president of Russia in 2024;

politician and entrepreneur V. Chemezov - together with S. Shoigu is engaged in the defense sphere and defence industry. He is the head of the state-owned corporation Rostech – a leader in the production of helicopters, engines and other aviation equipment, tactical missile systems, short-range air defense equipment, small arms and automobiles. He holds strong positions in leading sectors of the Russian economy, in particular, in the digital sphere;

businessman and financier Yu. Kovalchuk - controls the implementation of projects for the development of the North-Western region of Russia and the Arctic. Besides, he is in charge of the country's scientific and educational policy;

entrepreneur A. Rottenberg – a privileged contractor for major infrastructure projects, in particular, was engaged in the construction of the Crimean bridge. Has influence on the Ministry of Transport of Russia and the company Russian Railways;

businessman I. Sechin is in charge of the development of the country's fuel and energy complex. Has been appointed the Head of the board of directors of the state company Rosneftegaz, is an informal overseer of the electric power industry. Also has influence on the country's force structures;

entrepreneur G. Timchenko - controls a number of branches of the Russian economy, associated with the extraction of gas and coal and with the construction and development of transport infrastructure. In particular, he promotes a strategically important project for the development of the Northern Sea Route infrastructure. The owner of the private investment group Volga Group. G. Timchenko is one of the richest people in the world.

The aforementioned persons hold in the sphere of their influence ministers of the Russian government in relevant spheres of work, have close ties with leading Russian oligarchs. Due to this, the official structure of power in Russia is complemented by the informal system that enhances Putin's ability to control all spheres of the country's life. However, there are also informal channels of influence on him and his decisions.

Russian experts also define the second circle of V.Putin's environment, which includes high-ranking civil servants who are in charge of different spheres of practical work. There are four such groups or blocs:

technical bloc: the Head of the Presidential Administration O. Vaino, Head of the Central Bank of Russia E. Nabiullina; Assistant to the President of the RF (former Minister of Economic Development) A. Belousov; First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia A. Siluanov; Deputy Prime Minister of the RF, Minister of Regional Development and plenipotentiary representative of the country's President in the Southern Federal District D. Kozak; Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, plenipotentiary representative of the President in the Far East Federal District Yu. Trutnev;

ideological bloc: First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration S. Kirienko; Speaker of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of Russia V. Volodin; Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration - Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov; Minister of Foreign Affairs of the RF S. Lavrov; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kiril and Metropolitan Tikhon;

legal and security blocs: Director of the FSB of the RF O. Bortnikov; Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia S. Naryshkin; Minister of Internal Affairs V. Kolokoltsev, Prosecutor General of the RF Y. Chaika; Chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia I. Bastrykin; Director of the Federal Service of the Armed Forces of the National Guard of Russia - Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the National Guard of the RF (Rosgvardiya) V. Zolotov; leader of the Chechen Republic R. Kadyrov;

bloc of state capitalization: Chairman and CEO of Sberbank G. Gref; Chairman of the State Development Corporation “VEB.RF” I. Shuvalov; President and Chairman of VTB Bank A. Kostin; Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors and the Chairman of the Management Committee (CEO) of the Russian energy company Gazprom A. Miller; President of the Russian oipe line company Transneft N.Tokarev.

The above-mentioned statesmen are not considered to be independent players in Russia's politics. Their task is to follow President Putin's instructions. However, they can influence his position on a number of issues. The very decisions on implementing the “mobilization scenario”, as well as the changes in Putin's environment, do affect the situation in Russia. In particular, with the assistance of the top state leadership of the RF, state and semi-state companies become part of sectors new for them, and resources and markets (that were previously controlled by private business and local elites) now are redistributed to them. These state and semi-state companies are also involved in the implementation of national projects. This allows V. Putin and his environment not only to strengthen control over the Russian economy, but also to embezzle a a great share of its revenues.

In its turn, political management focuses on the selection and training of new leaders, and not on their career advancement on the basis of healthy competition. At this, the leaders prepared in this way, usually go to those regions where they do not have links with local elites. At the same time, representatives of the FSB of Russia are delegated to central and local authorities, as well as to leading business structures. This improves the control over central and local authorities, over large and small businesses.

Besides, there is a redistribution of importance ​​and powers of the Russian security forces, first of all of those responsible for internal security. Recently, on V. Putin's initiative, additional measures were taken to strengthen the positions of the Russian State Guard, which has a major role in the power protection of the authorities. In particular, it now has a number of new functions which used to be those of  the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Since force structures of Russia are quite closed in their nature, the true purpose of such changes is not easy to be found out. However, the Kremlin seems to be trying to balance their influence in the country, and to oppose each of them to others and thus to avoid any conspiracy aimed at seizing power.

In general, what V. Putin resorts to, allows him to strengthen the Russian power vertical and implement a “mobilization scenario” of confronting the West. At the same time, such actions objectively aggravate the struggle between different individuals and groups in the top establishment of the RF for both, influence on President Putin, and for access to most profitable sectors of the economy and financial flows of the country. This struggle is evidenced by the removal from power of  different officials in Russian state authorities, redistribution of their businesses, carried out under the slogan of the fight against corruption. The same is taking place in state force structures, as evidenced by the large resonant scandals in the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the RF, which have been observed lately about the illegal (including criminal) activities of their employees.

But it is also evident that protests in the Russian society are growing and may undermine V. Putin's positions. The reason is the growing socio-economic problems in the country as a result of Western sanctions, and the unpopular methods that authorities use for getting rid of the problems (in particular, raising the retirement age and increasing taxes). This automatically resulted in a significant fall in V.Putin's rating (less than 30%, the lowest figure for all his term in the post of  President), the ruling United Russia party's losing local elections in a number of regions, and in the population's not perceiving the policy of the Russian government.

At this, the prohibition of meetings and demonstrations, arrests of their participants and the removal of opposition from local elections (in Moscow and St. Petersburg included) keep complicating the situation. Let's pay attention: sociological researches show that today 27% of active Russians are ready to take to the street in order to defend their civil rights. And this is, by the way, at least 30 million people.

So, some Russian experts do not exclude that in the future in Russia there will be something like “color revolutions” that occurred at one time in the countries of the former USSR, or something similar to the “Arab Spring” (mass riots in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa in early 2010s). The leadership of the RF actually recognizes the possibility of such a threat. And to “ensure the rule of law in the country” hopes to involve even armed forces, because “muscles” of Rosgvardia may not be enough for this.

Such circumstances make the situation in Russia rather contradictory, and raise the level of unpredictability of its development. After all, on the one hand, we observe how the totalitarian power of the country is intensifying, and on the other hand, it faces more and more extrenal and internal challenges. Their danger makes Moscow more actively seek compromises with Ukraine as the main condition for lifting of Western sanctions imposed on Russia and, accordingly, somehow resolve the problems of the Russian economy. Despite the fact that Moscow can go to any compromises exclusively on the basis of its own interests, this broadens the possibilities for dialogue between Ukraine and Russia. And it can take place both, at the highest state level and at the level of the aforementioned V. Putin's environment.

Despite Moscow's considering any compromises only from the point of view of its own interests, on the one hand, this broadens the possibilities for dialogue between Ukraine and Russia, and on the other hand, determines the “red lines” which the Kremlin cannot cross. So there is an open field for work here, but this is another story. And that work must be done by the person who has not only received the authority from the Ukrainian people, but whose duty is to ensure the right results.