Monthly Archives: Ноябрь 2016

Tatyana Stanovaya: «Why Did Sechin Need Ulyukayev’s Arrest? — Tatyana Stanovaya on Conflict Between Rosneft and Government» 17 Nov 16

Rosneft is one of the largest Russian companies and its head, Igor Sechin, is one of the most influential people in the country. Nevertheless, in recent years, many of the company’s decisions have encountered resistance from Russian ministers. The deal to purchase Bashneft, which took a year to go through, is just one examples of the manifestation of this conflict. Effectively, this is a clash between the weakest Russian Federation government in history, on the one hand, and a very influential corporation with siloviki sidekicks, on the other. Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya debates the reasons for and consequences of this clash on the Carnegie Moscow Center’s website.

Economic Development Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev extorted a bribe, with threats, from Rosneft for assisting in the privatization of Bashneft, and Rosneft complained to the FSB about the minister. That is how events were presented to us. The largest oil company in Russia as the victim of a corrupt minister changing his position, probably depending on the size of the bribes offered. The problem is that it is possible to believe in the existence of a corrupt minister, but it is much harder to believe in money being extorted from Rosneft. Why Sechin needed Ulyukayev’s head is the main intrigue of the affair.

Liberators against Managers

Throughout 2016, we have seen work being completed on the construction of the FSB own security administration [USB], on whose initiative high-profile cases have been started against governors and mayors, and investigations directly or indirectly affecting heavyweights such as Yevgeniy Murov and Andrey Belyaninov (both lost their posts). The media have actively written about the work of the mysterious sixth department of the FSB own security administration, whose head until July 2016 was Ivan Tkachev.

In May, the process of the Economic Security Service [SEB] being taken over by the heads of the USB started – subdivisions, with which the USB supposedly had a competitive relationship. Sergey Korolev, a former head of the USB, became the head of the SEB. And Tkachev himself, who is ascribed the role of a new demiurge – a fighter of the corrupt regardless of their rank and merits – became head of the SEB K administration (banks and finance).

However, something unexpected then happened: the influential Gen Oleg Feoktistov, the deputy head of the USB, was sacked although it is he who had been tipped for the post of head of the USB – the most influential structure, and one that is essentially accountable to no-one. It soon became known that Feoktistov had moved to work as vice-president for security at Rosneft. Both Feoktistov and Tkachev were called «Sechin’s special forces» – siloviki particularly close to the head of Rosneft. Feoktistov’s appointment indirectly confirmed this.

Novaya Gazeta, citing its own sources (and the Russian Investigation Committee confirms this), is now reporting that it was Rosneft that initiated the case against Ulyukayev. Feoktistov collected the data, the newspaper wrote. Moreover, Tkachev, as the overseer of finance and banking activity, conducted the investigation.

Thus, Ulyukayev was added to this group’s list of cases – from the point of view of the defendant’s status, this is the FSB’s largest case. What do the proceedings involving Aleksandr Khoroshavin, Vyacheslav Gayzer, Nikita Belykh, Sergey Mikhalchenko, and Andrey Belyaninov have in common? Only the fact that their cases are being conducted by the FSB and the initiator of the prosecution is Igor Tkachev.

It is possible that the reasons for Ulyukayev’s arrest should not be sought in his own actions but in the actions of those who brought about his arrest. A division can be seen in the power vertical between two sectors: security agency and civilian. The chekists [security agency officials], having offered their services to Putin and received the conditional go-ahead for a purge, have started to form a political superstructure, an unofficial oversight body over the civilian administrative structure.

The news agencies have reported, citing their sources, that the FSB started investigating Ulyukayev more than a year ago, and permission to tap his conversations was obtained in the summer. Reports have also emerged that the FSB was tapping the heads of the Investigation Committee and the heads of the Economic Security Service. This is quite sufficient to assume that not only Ulyukayev was being tapped but also the other ministers, heads of state corporations, siloviki competitors, and the heads of the Presidential Staff.

After the start of the wars in Ukraine and Syria, the «security agency elite» in Russia began to pick up the levers of administration in the security sphere. The military consolidated their hold in the sphere of foreign policy, squeezing the diplomats out. In domestic policy, the security function in its broadest sense is monopolized by FSB generals linked politically to Sechin: first intra-corporate competition was neutralized, then the Investigation Committee was crushed.

Sechin and the FSB can be compared to a cable and electric current: the chekists are the charge, the energy; Sechin is the conductor who also determines the direction in which the current moves. Wartime and siege logic feed the legitimacy of the topic of security and its beneficiaries, which systematically and almost uncontrollably increases the tension in the system, and those who succeed in directing it correctly, gain new dividends. The security superstructure as a kind of safety device guarding the regime against internal vulnerability and provocations has been legitimized at the highest level, and it is particularly in demand in a situation where Putin is not in a position to deal with domestic policy. The scale is wrong. What price is he willing to pay for the effectiveness of this safety device? The same as for the stability of his regime.

But Was it Putin?

And it is against this backdrop that cooperation is being built between the weakest government in modern Russia and the most powerful and politically influential corporation – the company Rosneft. And let us now contemplate something that is hard to imagine: what if Putin did not give his direct and unequivocal consent to the sale of Bashneft to Rosneft? It seems that this scenario has been ruled out a priori as impossible. The sale of Bashneft is a political decision, and political decisions in the country are taken by just one man – the president.

But the Bashneft sale is shaky precisely because the deal did not get a public guarantee from the head of state. Putin distanced himself from it in every way he could in the public arena. You may recall that the president’s position was that «on the one hand» (Rosneft does not have the right to take part in the privatization), and «on the other hand» (officially, it is not actually a state company). The president himself, reading between the lines, was inclined to allow Rosneft to take part in the sale but he left the matter for the consideration of the Cabinet of Ministers. The president’s deliberate and, it would seem, provocative detachment could have been a sort of test for ministers.

At the end of September, the government unexpectedly changed its position. After a month had passed since the abandonment of the privatization, preparations for the sale of Bashneft were deblocked and Rosneft was allowed to take part. Less than two weeks later, Igor Sechin’s company completed the deal. A deal that «somewhat surprises» Putin, who explicitly admitted this on the VTB Kapital forum on 12 October.

Let us suppose that the government did not get direct and unequivocal instructions from Putin at all to sell Bashneft to Rosneft, and it was forced to make do with abstract advice along the lines of «do what is best for the budget». And Medvedev’s cabinet did what it thought best. Such a decision entirely suited Putin, however, the subject of the experiment, it seems, was not Bashneft but the government, which was taken for a ride on a merry-go-round, allowed first to defend a «normal privatization», and then pushed into an effective nationalization of Bashneft in Rosneft’s interests, if the latter is actually considered a state company. The striking flexibility and weakness of ministers in the Bashneft case, their willingness to abandon their previous position in an instant – that is one of the main results of the deal, a mechanism for self-abasement.

Wind Resistance

What is Rosneft’s main problem today in its relationship with the government? The company seemed to have got what it wanted even before Ulyukayev’s arrest. Bashneft was bought through an effectively constructed special operation, and a decision is being prepared on Rosneft buying back its own shares from Rosneftegaz. There was resistance, but it was overcome.

But let us now look at the situation from the other side. Rosneft has spent almost a year on getting the deal done. Putin, who did not wish to lobby directly and hard for the interests of Rosneft in the government, left Sechin to deal on his own with ministers, who did not mince words. Belousov called the sale of Bashneft to Rosneft «stupidity», Ulyukayev said that Rosneft was «an inappropriate buyer».

And this is just one item in the strained relations between the government and the oil company. Before this, there were a lot of other problematical areas: allowing private oil companies to develop the shelf, the seizure of Rosneftegaz’s dividends, the tax reform, the handover of a stake in energy companies to Rosneftegaz, and so on. For four years, Sechin accumulated dissatisfaction with ministers, probably irritated not so much by their stubbornness as their weakness.

Rosneft, burdened with huge debts and at the same time with a special state mission, has regularly met with resistance from ministers. There is neither ideology nor a desire to gain something here. Rosneft’s motives are to reduce the wind resistance – an integral part of a habitat where the government is a club of dull-witted idlers.

It is he, Igor Ivanovich Sechin, who is saving the Russian budget by overpaying with a 50 percent premium for Bashneft. It is he who spent months trying to breach virtual walls erected by ministerial bureaucrats, debating the market and reforms. The constant minor and irritating resistance could not help but evince the desire to strike once, so that they would think twice next time. Now that a minister has been detained in a Rosneft office, the company has acquired special status.

As Rosneft sees it, Ulyukayev could turn out to be the personification of the annoying government officials who Sechin has got tired of brushing aside. Let us now link the security resources he has at his disposal to the desire to put an end to this resistance once and for all. Right now, when Bashneft has been sold, when there is no longer anyone much to get in the way. And then there is also the crisis, which is aggravating confrontation within the elite.

Ulyukayev’s arrest is a consequence and not an end in itself. Moreover, the result of the proceedings is far from as easily manageable as it may seem at first glance. The privileged security agency superstructure that is gaining power over the civilian vertical has accumulated too much energy, under the weight of which it might collapse like a roof under the weight of snow. The security agency awning is putting pressure on the civilian institutions of governance, and there will be local collapses in various places. It is just that the Kremlin must understand that without new supports, it may sooner or later cover everyone, and this means that in the medium-term a big reform of the security services can be expected.


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Tatyana Stanovaya, «An Organized Criminal Group Called ‘the Government’. What Kind of Signal Is Being Sent to Top Functionaires?» Republic 15 Nov 16

The arrest of Aleksey Ulyukayaev is a meaningful precedent for the opponents of Rosneft.

The report on the institution of criminal proceedings against Minister of Economic Development Aleksey Ulyukayev appeared at 02:33 hours on the night of 15 November. From this report, it also became known that the minister had been arrested. The arrest of a government minister is a precedent for Putin’s Russia, and the fact that practically no one had been prepared for this course of events proves yet again how little we know about the changing nature of the regime. On the other hand, it is obvious already now (and the Russian Investigation Committee has confirmed this) that the Rosneft company is behind the arrest.

On 12 October 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin, answering a question about the privatization of Bashneft, unexpectedly stated that he had been «somewhat surprised» by the government’s decision to sell the company to Rosneft. Many people thought that this was coquettishness; after all, the president had approved the deal personally, and it was only after this that the entire privatization mechanism was launched. Meanwhile, Putin had not queried the decision itself, devoting, on the contrary, a great deal of time to the merits of the sale of one state company to another.

Whether Putin knew at that moment in time that Ulyukayev would be arrested, we are unlikely ever to discover. But the minister himself, to all appearances, had been working according to a routine schedule only last week. The most recent news about Ulyukayev had appeared on 9 November, when he completed a visited to Austria and gave a series of interviews on the most diverse questions, from privatization to the influence of the U.S. election on the Russian economy. His participation in the APEC summit at the level of foreign and trade ministers in Peru was scheduled for 17-18 November.

From the Russian Investigation Committee’s official statement, it follows that Ulyukayev was arrested in the act of receiving a bribe on 14 November. According to investigators’ information, Ulyukayev had demanded $2 million from the Rosneft company for signing a positive conclusion on the deal to purchase Bashneft. «It is a question of the extortion of a bribe from representatives of Rosneft, accompanied by threats,» the Russian Investigation Committees’ official spokesperson, Svetlana Petrenko, stated.

The initiative behind the decision to investigate Ulyukayev belongs to Rosneft — it was representatives of this company who had applied to the law enforcement organs in timely fashion, pointing to violations in the minister’s work, the Investigation Committee has disclosed. The investigation was conducted with the direct participation of Oleg Feoktistov, chief of Rosneft’s security service. Until August 2016, he had occupied the post of first deputy chief of the FSB USB [Federal Security Service Internal Security Directorate]. But in July, his protege, Ivan Tkachev, former chief of the FSB USB’s 6th Service, became head of the Russian Federation FSB’s K Directorate (banks and finances). It was Feoktistov and Tkachev whom The New Times magazine named as the main organizers and overseers of the «Sechin Spetsnaz» in the FSB. The dismissal from the FSB of the first of these [Feoktistov] was assessed as a demotion. But what is happening now causes one to doubt this: It is possible that what is being observed is the banal legitimization of the real state of affairs, in which Sechin is building more direct and firmer relations with the Chekists.

It is unlikely that Ulyukayev suffered precisely on account of the Bashneft privatization deal. This is suggested by at least two facts. The first is that the decision to allow Rosneft to buy the controlling package of shares in Bashneft was approved by Vladimir Putin personally in September. It was also then that the government once again greenlighted the process of preparing for privatization. The president’s decision contradicted the positions of virtually the entire «economic vertical hierarchy»: The participation of Rosneft in the deal had been publicly opposed by Igor Shuvalov, Arkadiy Dvorkovich, and Andrey Belousov. And among the rest — by Aleksey Ulyukayev. After Putin’s personal approval, Rosneft bought Bashneft without a competitive battle. Could Ulyukayev have prevented this by not issuing a positive conclusion? The question is rhetorical.

The second [Tkachev], RBK’s sources have revealed, began to investigate Ulyukayev more than a year ago, and therefore the organs’ interest in the minister appeared before his department’s conclusion on the privatization of Bashneft was required. Thus the true reason for the beginning of the tailing of Ulyukayev and the collection of information on him must have been something else, possibly something not directly connected with Bashneft.

It would appear that Ulyukayev simply turned out to be the most vulnerable link in the Cabinet of Ministers, but through the ostentatious punishment of the minister, Rosneft will be revenged for all the spokes that government functionaries put in its wheels. Moreover, Ulyukayev was not the most «hardened» offender. Minister of Natural Resources Sergey Donskoy (Rosneft accused him of lobbying for the interests of Lukoil), Arkadiy Dvorkovich (Rosneft has old scores to settle with him anyway, beginning with the well-known conflict around Rusgidro at the end of 2012), and Anton Siluanov, who continually encroaches on the dividends of Rosneftegaz, can be classed as no less «problematic.» But among them all, Ulyukayev looks like the only one who is politically unprotected and who possibly proved to be the most vulnerable to «carrot and stick» pressure.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the decision to sell Bashneft to Rosneft was collective. The Ministry of Economic Development prepared the draft government directive in which the recommendation to sell shares in Bashneft to Rosneft was given. The draft was ready on 9 October and was to have been signed by Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev. This, however, was a mere formality in the deal on the sale of Bashneft: A directive to purchase shares in the oil company had been given even before this — on 6 October, and had been signed by Igor Shuvalov, first deputy head of government. From the point of view of the formal procedures, the promotion of the deal depended on Shuvalov to a far greater extent than on Ulyukayev, who performed a merely technical function here. But political responsibility for the procedure lies with Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev personally (so far, all that is known of his reaction is that the premier is au fait with the situation regarding Ulyukayev’s arrest and has already discussed what is happening with the president).

So what we have is nothing less than an organized criminal group headed by Medvedev and with the participation of Shuvalov (who said right from the beginning that the best buyer for Bashneft would be Lukoil), Dvorkovich, Belousov, and Ulyukayev. Rosneft’s interest in all of them changing their position on the subject of the privatization of Bashneft was very powerful, especially in view of the fact that, until September, Putin had been in no hurry to intervene in the conflict. In theory, in view of Sechin’s contacts in the FSB, more than one minister could been come under investigation by the siloviki. «Having entered into a criminal conspiracy and abusing its official powers, the criminal group began to exert pressure on the leadership of the Rosneft company with the aim of encouraging it to commit corrupt actions» — this could have been the Investigation Committee’s press release last night. And in theory, the investigation still has a broad scope in which to develop the «case.»

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Tatyana Stanovaya, «Five Intriguing Points About Russian Presidential Election. When, How, and Why Putin Will Be Reelected for Fourth Term» Republic in Russian 14 Nov 16

Never before has an upcoming Russian presidential election seemed so routine and insignificant — especially against the backdrop of such a dramatic campaign in the United States. It is expected that Putin will be nominated, competition for him will be provided by a pool of «system» politicians with a combined rating of 30 percent, the people will give their 70 percent, and Putin will again become head of state after the first round of voting. Boring, predictable. All the Kremlin has to do is ensure that everything works smoothly, the voters turn out, and the nonsystem opposition does not play any dirty tricks. But this attitude to the election is mistaken: Everything to do with the campaign will prove momentous for the Putin regime and for the country.

Intriguing Point No. 1. Cost of Victory

Vanquishing the vanquished is not the most interesting task for a political leader who has already gone down in history and far outstripped a political class in which he can see no equals. The task of choosing sparring partners for Putin will be far from the mere formality that it might seem.

The upcoming election at first sight most resembles the election in 2004: At that time the Kremlin also had the task of reelecting Putin in a predictable, moderated, and very comfortable campaign. The parliamentary parties chose not to nominate their leaders against the president, restricting themselves to politicians from the second rank. The CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] was represented by Nikolay Kharitonov (who received almost 14 percent), and the LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] by Oleg Malyshkin (2 percent). Gennadiy Zyuganov’s and Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s stand-ins had to help Putin maximize his result and at the same time protect their own party leaders against electoral defeat in a plebiscitary campaign. Only Sergey Mironov from the Party of Life ran himself, ending up with 0.75 percent. The only person who contributed any intrigue to the political game was Sergey Glazyev, who in effect foisted himself on the Kremlin as a legitimate candidate, and who even then was actively cultivating contacts with the security agencies (his support group included Sergey Pugachev, the now-persecuted «Orthodox oligarch»). It proved easier and more comfortable for the Kremlin to hang on to Glazyev than to let him «break away.» With his 4 percent, he was of little interest to anyone. Finally, the liberal nominee at that time was Irina Khakamada, who lost the support of the Union of Right-Wing Forces and Yabloko, which were entering an acute political crisis, but on the other hand did receive the support of Yukos and achieved a result of slightly less than 4 percent. In the context of a peak in the antioligarchic trend in Russia, she proved to be the best rival for Putin from the right wing.

Who Putin’s rival will be this time remains a mystery. Should the leaders of the CPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia run, or will they nominate stand-ins? Will there be a right-wing candidate? Will anyone from among the nonsystem liberals be admitted? So far the only person to have declared himself ready to run is Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, whose participation will probably be advantageous to the Kremlin: He will add legitimacy to the campaign and will not take much away. On the other hand, participation by stand-ins from the parliamentary parties seems unlikely. The only reason such a scheme was tried out in 2004 was that it was the first election in a newly established regime and the «national leader» had yet to prove himself, so it was suggested that the «old men» should not interfere. In 2012 there was a different problem — the problem of the legitimacy of Putin’s campaign in the midst of mass protests. The campaign seemed much less of a plebiscite than in 2004, and rejecting the services of stand-ins was essential for the victory to appear legitimate.

In 2018 the participation of Zyuganov and Zhirinovskiy again seems logical, but for different reasons: Replacing them with stand-ins would obviously turn the campaign into a puppet show. After Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, for Putin to compete in an election against stand-ins would seem to be beneath his dignity. Perhaps the coming presidential campaign will be built around the idea of an appeal by Putin to the «Russian nation» for a renewal of his mandate. It would be ideal if there were also participation by «sympathetic» rival candidates who would propose to work toward Putin’s objectives, with adjustments for their own ideological frameworks. In such a way as to ensure that Putin again stood out against the general background as the most sensible and competent candidate.

Intriguing Point No. 2. When

There is a serious debate under way about an early presidential election. There are two hypothetical options: moving the election to March 2017, and creating a single voting day for the regional and presidential elections, next October, for example. An early election is being talked about directly by Aleksey Kudrin, who regards this as an essential condition for a speedy start to structural reforms, the cost of which will be a probable fall in the head of state’s rating. The option of a March vote already seems unlikely for practical reasons — too little time remains. But a vote in the fall of 2017 should not be ruled out: In that case much will depend on how Russia gets through January and February, and whether there are any sudden blows to the economy or unforeseen cataclysms. But even this relatively likely scenario faces three obstacles. The first and most important one is that the regime is currently unprepared for any kind of structural reforms. The experience of the peaks of the crisis in November 2008 and late 2014, when feelings of panic really could be observed among the elite, showed that even a sharp surge in uncertainty and the expectation of probable economic collapse does not prompt Putin to make reforming decisions. Things have to be bad for a really long time before the political will for changes arises. And it is far from certain that these changes will be liberal reforms rather than a further tightening of the screws and strengthening of state regulation. So, if the election is shifted, it will not be for the sake of reforms but in order to guarantee victory in the first round. The reason for a shift, therefore, is less likely to be a crisis than social destabilization or a fall in the regime’s rating, for example.

Another difficult obstacle to shifting the election is the sluggishness of the decisionmaking system. Of course, Putin likes to make use of special operations, and everything could be presented to us at the last minute. But for this, too, things would have to be really «tight.» And that leads on to the third obstacle — Putin’s personal psychological resistance to the scenario of an early election: This option seems legally sly and politically weak. Moreover, for the time being there are no weighty grounds to say there are any real threats to the president’s victory in March 2018.

Nevertheless, the decision on the timing of the election will be a sort of test of the regime’s ability to adapt to a new political phase, the phase of maturity and finiteness. Holding the election at the appointed time will indicate that the regime is in a state of inertia, but bringing it forward would be a sign that the system was being prepared in advance for transformation.

Intriguing Point No. 3. Movement in Unknown Direction

Probably the worst headache for Kremlin functionaries is thinking up Putin’s election platform, formulating his agenda. The history of Putin’s regime teaches that the political leader and his agenda do not proceed together, but one behind the other, and it is Putin who leads the way. The nature of the president’s political leadership rules out any strategy. Strategy for him is what takes shape according to the circumstances (first a plane is shot down, then there is enmity with Turkey). So his agenda has to be devised by thinking up various attractive targets for achieving goals (such as, for example, creating 25 million «highly productive jobs» by 2020). And the target is an end in itself, which entirely deprives the president’s agenda of any conceptual policy content. It is always a collection of slogans that aim to achieve an electoral and sociological result but do not constitute elements of a state policy.

This gives rise to another intriguing aspect of the 2018 election — the desire by various elite groups to take part in formulating the campaign program, with a view to then occupying the posts of those who are going to implement it. The ambition of the elites is, in a political-administrative sense, to tie the election to the country’s future course. This indicates the start of the active phase of the contest for the post of premier. Many people have already prematurely consigned Dmitriy Medvedev to the scrap heap, assuming that the completion of Putin’s third term will mark the end of the government chairman’s career. It is supposed that his successor will be whoever does best in the competition to formulate a presidential campaign program. But there is just one important point here: So far, the leader in this race is none other than Medvedev, who has secured for himself the leadership of the specially created Council for Strategic Development and Priority Projects. This does not guarantee him anything, of course, but the main surprise of the 2018 campaign could be nothing less than Medvedev’s reappointment. This cannot be ruled out, at any rate. The zeal of the reformers may scare Putin more than the feebleness of a predictable premier.

Intriguing Point No. 4. Beginning of the End

Unless the rules of the game are changed, Vladimir Putin’s next presidential term will be his last. He will have a full six years, of course, but these will be six years (all other things being equal) of growing elite fears about post-Putin Russia. Whereas in 2004 the president clearly still had plenty of room for maneuver and a mass of options for retaining power, in 2018 everything looks more complicated. There is the additional factor of the gradual obsolescence of the regime, the finiteness of resources, and — pretty importantly — age. In 2018 Putin will be 66, in 2024 he will be 72. It is not critical. For example, Alain Juppe, the Republican favorite in the French primaries, is 71, he is full of energy and ready to spend five years in the Elysee Palace. But at 72 Putin will have to either change the Constitution and the structure of the regime and stay put, or appoint a successor. Both scenarios upset the established order of things and increase instability and risk, and that is extremely unpleasant for gerontocrats.

It is important to understand that 2014-2017 was a period when Putin’s regime was blossoming and working at full strength. This will be followed by degradation, the speed of which depends on the financial and economic situation, conditions in the world energy market, social factors and moods, the state of the elite, and the depth of a geopolitical crisis that is becoming ever more complex. Putin’s rating may remain high for a long time, but this will be more like the rating of Soviet leaders in the empire’s declining years, and the cost of preserving stability will grow. Uncertainty about the transformation of the regime will be an extremely strong source of pressure on the elites.

Intriguing Point No. 5. Successor and Amendment of Constitution

What makes the situation unique is that Putin will not be able to repeat the 2008 trick. The scenario of a «retractable successor» is totally ruled out. Not for reasons of age: It is possible to imagine that in 2022-2023 Putin takes early retirement, having chosen a «stand-in» who in turn will change the Constitution and enable Putin to return once again in 2028 (for a reduced presidential term of four years). Let us suppose that at 76 the president is full of energy and health. But this scenario is hampered by a totally different problem — the «Medvedev factor.» The 2008-2012 successor almost got knocked out of the game, having constructed an anti-Putin elite coalition and set his sights on a second term. It was an extremely difficult psychological moment when it seemed the country had almost slipped out of control. It will be incredibly hard for Putin to bring himself to repeat that.

So, toward the middle of the fourth term the question of how to transform the system will arise: by changing the Constitution to suit Putin, by choosing a successor, or by creating new institutions that enable the «national leader» to remain at the pinnacle of power, having ceded what is formally the top job to a nominal figure. This source of intrigue lies beyond the horizon of the 2018 election, but historically it is so close that all decisions now being made will be viewed, consciously or unconsciously, through the prism of the «final term.»

The coming presidential election is a prelude to the resolution of the strategic problem whereby the regime does not yet have an institutional foundation for extending its term of office. It is Putin personally who will have to resolve this, and in this context the «resources» of the 2018 campaign will play a significant role: The legitimacy of his victory, the quality of the campaign, the robustness of political leadership (including as displayed in the role of arbiter), managerial competence — Putin’s ability to accumulate capital in these areas will determine whether he succeeds in adjusting the system to suit himself, or whether the system itself dictates Putin’s future.

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‘Today You Are Putin’s Friend and Have Immunity, but Tomorrow You Could Find Yourself Under Arrest.’ The System Has Started Purging Itself, the Most ‘Untouchable Ones’ May Go Flying»

Interview with Tatyana Stanovaya by Aleksandr Zadorozhnyy and Yevgeniy Senshin

Yekaterinburg 01 Nov 16

What is going on with Putin and the groups in his entourage, with the elites, and with the public? What is on the horizon? We discussed these «big questions» on the basis of domestic political events in October with Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies.

‘A Certain Part of the Elite Has an Accumulation of Fear, an Expectation of Sudden Collapse’

[] Tatyana, October’s news stories included a dockers’ rally in Vladivostok protesting dismissals, and hunger strikes by utilities workers in Khakasiya and shift workers in Yamal about wage arrears, and by coal miners in Primorskiy Kray, also because of job cuts. In mid-October the Center for Economic and Political Reforms reported that in the preceding three months the number of labor conflicts and protests had doubled, and 65 regions were now affected. However, the subjective impression is that the protests are not particularly prominent. And Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has said that «we have achieved macroeconomic stability.» Are things really not going so badly for «Putinomics»?

[Stanovaya] From a macroeconomic viewpoint, things are not so bad. We are assured that the lowest point of the crisis has passed, inflation is falling, and economic growth will start in 2017, and the Finance Ministry delights us with the news that the Russian budget’s dependence on world oil prices is no longer so great. In fact, within the ruling elite a very noticeable feeling is taking shape that we have «made it.» It seems to them that we have been tested with sanctions, we are going through a low energy market period (although hopes that oil prices will return to $100 «tomorrow» have not disappeared), a «cold war,» and our own food restrictions, but despite all that we are still standing firm. At one point, this could even be seen to be causing euphoria. Meanwhile, what you call «labor conflicts» are, in the regime’s system of priorities, merely minor details in a big picture where all in all things are not going too badly.

At the same time, I would like to point out an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, there is the regime, which clearly underestimates the risks of a deterioration in the population’s financial and economic situation and by and large rules out the possibility of «corporate» protest spontaneously turning into political protest (unless, of course, there is help from «hostile forces»). On the other hand, there is a certain part of the public and of the elite (in the broadest sense), let’s call them «progressists» (by no means necessarily liberals and «anti-Putinites,» these are people who for the most part want, above all, greater effectiveness, and freedoms only after that). They do not always believe that the current «stability» is real. These people are firmly convinced that things cannot go on like this for long, and that unless there are changes the regime will fall swiftly and unexpectedly. For these audiences the question of whether everything is OK with «Putinomics» is not relevant. The only thing that matters to them is when it will collapse. There is an accumulation of fear and a growing sense of illusory controllability, an expectation of sudden collapse. I venture to suggest that both sides are wrong.

The current Russian economy may turn out to be far more robust that it seems. Moreover, the current political regime may be ineffective in all sorts of ways, but not when it comes to knowing how to curb political conflicts. Any protest that involves fewer than 20,000 people will be suppressed (neutralized) with stick and carrot. That is what happened with the medics’ protest in 2014, and with the truckers’ protests in 2015. The regime sees such protests as a manifestation not of political conflict but of tough corporate (sectoral) bargaining with the state, a sort of sectoral blackmail, which is firmly rejected in this form. So, in order for the regime to recognize a political problem in a mass protest situation, the protest has to be on a truly massive scale, involving at least 20,000 to 25,000 people. For the time being the Kremlin is trying to enhance its monitoring of the situation across the country and to adopt a hands-on approach in places where a problem is emerging. This is not always very effective, but the state cannot yet see any alternative to these mechanisms (and probably does not know how to do things differently).

[] Bloomberg, citing the Bank of Russia, reported that the economic crisis in our country has already caused a reduction in the size of the middle class by 14 million people. According to other media outlets, in the early spring there were already about 23 million poor, and the situation has not improved since then. What qualitative changes in society could such phenomena lead to in the future?

[Stanovaya] There is a popular notion about the stages through which people come to accept what is inevitable: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. With regard to the Russian population’s accumulated socioeconomic difficulties, it seems to me that attitudes to the regime will evolve in the opposite direction, beginning with the final stage.

Initially we were delighted with the sanctions as an opportunity for import substitution, to develop our agro-industrial complex, and so on. Now, almost two years later, depression is setting in. On the whole, confidence in the regime remains high, but there is a growing sense that the crisis is long-term and the future unpredictable. So far, no sociological survey has detected that social irritation is becoming political, and the level of protest activity remains extremely low. Plus, given the regime’s patent abuse of the «war footing» and «besieged fortress» theme, appeals to the state are currently possible, but only on issues of a parochial nature.

As the situation deteriorates (and it is highly probable that, notwithstanding a renewal of economic growth in 2017, the population’s sense of well-being will deteriorate), various social strata will try to bargain with the regime, and depression in the form of passive suffering will be replaced by attempts to make demands. We haven’t reached that stage yet. Then, bearing in mind the regime’s chronic and deep-seated reluctance to make concessions in response to «corporate blackmail,» bargaining will give way to anger, and then to denial of the current regime’s legitimacy. Whether it will be Putin, his successor, or someone else who is around at that time is probably something that nobody can say right now. But in my view, social dissatisfaction will be in the nature of a delayed reaction and will manifest itself even when the economic situation is beginning to improve.

To this I would add an emerging values crisis, which is closely bound up with anti-American rhetoric and generally with the concept of «America wants to destroy us.» «Traditional values,» «spiritual ligaments,» «Orthodoxy,» «conservatism» — there are lots of wild ideas here, amounting in effect to a quasi-national idea, very clear and primitive, very Russian, but not very attractive, and redolent of obscurantism. In the long term, the vision of the future offered by this concept will lose to the dream of living in European comfort.

[] Meanwhile, according to estimates by the Higher School of Economics, roughly one-third of households in Russia are unable to cope with all the necessary payments, about one-fourth cannot even pay for utilities and medicines, and 15 percent cannot pay for health services. And clearly this is not the limit, ahead lie not only an extension of the freeze on the fully funded part of the pension and on maternity capital, not only an increase in the retirement age, but also an increase in taxes on the population and on businesses. In confirmation of this, there is the Labor Ministry’s intention to subject all unemployed «parasites» to a levy of R20,000 per year. Yet the expectations of the majority are quite the opposite. The Nauman and Nemtsov Foundations discovered that 60 percent of Russians are in favor of state planning in the economy and redistribution, and 90 percent are in favor of state regulation of food prices. In your opinion, how strong an outburst of public dissatisfaction might be provoked by this contradiction?

[Stanovaya] This is probably where the risk of destabilization lies. As the Levada Center’s sociologists wrote not so long ago, Russians vote for United Russia not because they share its values, principles, or whatever. Russians vote for it because it seems to be the only force capable of stably distributing social benefits. While the state is increasing pensions and fulfilling its social obligations, the contract between the regime and society could continue to function for a long time yet. As soon as things start going wrong in this area, especially if there is a mismatch between promises and real actions, as soon as gigantic wage and pension arrears start accumulating (the Russian people are very patient), mass closures of enterprises will begin, and social discontent will start to become noticeably politicized.

Incidentally, it is often said that there are no protests in Russia because there are no capable leaders of a real opposition, the anti-Putin forces are regularly accused of being in a moral and political crisis — with no ideas or policies. But it can be said with total, 100-percent confidence that as soon as the state runs into difficulties, a crisis of management and of finances, we will immediately witness the emergence of both leaders and idols who for a long time have been in the shadows and seemed «incapable.» Unfortunately, for the current opposition it’s simply not time yet. And although voters who sympathize (in abstract terms) with the opposition currently vote for the party of power because they are afraid of destabilization and of a repeat of the 1990s, if those 1990s were to return, a search would begin for forces capable of getting out of them again, and those forces would not be the current regime but its opponents.

As for the eternal Russian social demand for state paternalism, only one thing will cure it — the formation of a relatively broad property-owning middle class that is prepared to defend its assets. The very fact of owning one’s own assets will demand both an increase in the level of legal culture and civil self-awareness. I fear that at present this is not even a long-term prospect, so ideological voting for the liberals is possible only if they prove to be the only people prepared to take charge when the ruling power is incapable.

‘We Have Only One «Enemy» — the State Department; All the Others Are Its Servants’

[] Budget expenditure is increasing on the security agencies — the Russian Guard, the investigation service, and the Prosecutor’s Office. Does this mean the Kremlin envisages the possibility of a scenario involving an intensification of socioeconomic or even political protest and the use of violence in response?

[Stanovaya] I believe expenditure is increasing (but not everywhere, in fact) not so much because the Kremlin is preparing for sociopolitical protests and destabilization, but because of an increase in the political influence of certain security groups, special services, and military. In certain areas, meanwhile, cuts are being made. The situation is not as clear-cut as it seems, but for the time being it is possible to talk only about a transformation of the general system of state priorities from issues of internal development to issues of security (and there are many different aspects to this, certainly not just social ones). There is a general increase in state vulnerability, and this is reflected in a redistribution of resources.

[] In Orel they have erected a sculpture of Ivan the Terrible, there are plans to inaugurate a monument to him in Vladimir. Although even the famous Millennium of Russia monument in Novgorod contains no sculpture of Ivan the Terrible, so reviled a figure is he. What’s going on — the formation of a habit of violence? Or of an attitude that violence is justified?

[Stanovaya] The monument to Ivan the Terrible reminds me of a book by Anton Vayno, our new chief of Presidential Staff, The Image of Victory. When everyone began discussing this idea about a nooscope (an instrument for measuring changes in the noosphere, an invention attributed to Anton Vayno, the current chief of Presidential Staff — editor’s note), few people really knew what they were talking about. But the book contains some very engaging ideas based on the notion that a regime which enjoys an exceptionally high level of trust among the population acquires a sort of carte blanche to promote new rules of the game in the global system of relations. In general, exaggerating grossly, the main idea is that might is right, and right makes might. The book analyzes various crisis periods in Russian history, and concludes that crises have occurred when trust in the elite has been falling. This is relevant to the question of the legitimacy of the regime.

So, the monument to Ivan the Terrible answers the question about legitimacy by establishing the exclusive precedence of «affairs of state» over the individual, society, and even the ruler himself, who in this system of coordinates is merely a feeble agent of the people’s (and God’s) will. The book’s authors tell us that a crisis of governance was overcome by the year 1367, after which began the growth of «Rus’s potential to govern, » a sign of this being Ivan the Terrible’s capture of Kazan’. And then a fresh crisis began with the Time of Troubles.

In other words, a certain elite demand for expansion at any cost emerged, and this shapes the existence of the elite, shapes its demand for both power and resources. The monument to Ivan the Terrible is a demand to legitimize illegitimate violence, if you will forgive the tautology. At the same time, this is also a demand for centralization, simplification of governance, tightening of the vertical power structure. After all, in a crisis the elites also do not know what to expect from tomorrow. It could be reforms, and a return of the liberals, or protests could flare up, or the economy could get shaky. And there is a desire to keep an iron grip on all this, to keep it still. All under the guise of preserving the state, of course.

[] As conflict increases, someone will have to be appointed as a «Chubays, who is to blame for everything.» The West, the liberals, the Fifth Column — perhaps people are already sick of all these things, as is indirectly indicated both by Strelkov’s admission that Novorossiya movement has no funding, and by Peskov’s proposal that Zaldastanov apologize to Konstantin Raykin [Zaldastanov, aka the Surgeon, leader of the Night Wolves biker club, had made derogatory remarks about theater director Raykin]. In other words, new «enemies of the people» are needed. Who has the best chance of falling into that category?

[Stanovaya] I am not very fond of the idea that the regime is consciously looking for «enemies» in order to maintain the stability of the regime and to artificially mobilize people. There is only one designated enemy — the State Department — and all the others are its servants, beginning with Berlin-Paris and ending with Navalnyy and the human rights activists. The entire system of confrontation in which the Kremlin exists is psychologically constructed around fear of US plans to overthrow Putin’s regime (as the oppositionists would say) or to destroy the country (as the «patriots» would say). In that case, both the Fifth Column and «foreign agents» are part of the same confrontational scheme.

The regime’s flexible attitude to its own «patriots,» who became such not in accordance with a special edict but because of a political demand — this is a different matter. Strelkov parted company with the regime a long time ago, and the funding problems are linked not to Kremlin reluctance to allot money (it is a long time since Strelkov received anything from that source), but to the general crisis of Russian policy regarding the Novorossiya project. Patriotic charity used to be fashionable, but now it is far harder to find support. As for the Surgeon [Zaldastanov], it seems to me that here the liberal audience saw more than was really there. Yes, the Kremlin distanced itself from the harsh words uttered by the leader of the Night Wolves, the Kremlin does not want to associate itself with radical obscurantism. But this certainly does not mean that he is being delegitimized. Furthermore, Raykin and his theater is part of the pro-Putin systemic consensus.

[] Rumor has it that the Kremlin has advised functionaries to bring home any children of theirs who are being educated at schools abroad. October saw the arrest of Development Corporation Director Sergey Maslov, who is accused of embezzling R1 billion. Meanwhile, Shuvalov complained at the Valday Club that when Medvedev was president he focused excessive attention on the topic of corruption. All this looks like the next victims to be placed at the mercy of public indignation will be functionaries, and Shuvalov is defending himself. What is your opinion about this?

[Stanovaya] Indeed, there are signs of a reformatting of the elite. There is a demand from Putin (this demand probably even has personal significance for him) to increase the effectiveness of governance, to reduce corruption, to seek new technical managers who will behave at least more modestly. Where there is demand, there is supply: Throughout 2016 we observed the active expansion of the FSB’s [Federal Security Service] personal security service, which is becoming a personal security service for the president (while the Federal Protection Service simultaneously grows weaker). Those members of the bureaucracy who do not have political immunity find themselves in a high-risk zone: We will see more high-profile arrests, exposes, and shoeboxes stuffed with banknotes.

On the other hand, political immunity as a special privilege will become less widespread, more mobile and unstable. Today you are Putin’s friend and have immunity, tomorrow you could find yourself under arrest. And my personal impression is that those particularly at risk will be either people who really have lost all sense of proportion (and here even the most «untouchable» ones could go flying), or people who have simply behaved incautiously. In any case, the system has already started purging itself.

As for Shuvalov, what is striking here is another problem — total loss of a sense of sociopolitical appropriateness. There are things that must not be said, that are provocative. I don’t think this is a consequence of fear of «repression.» It is rather a question of bureaucracy’s alienation from the public.

[] How long do you think Medvedev as premier and all his government will last?

[Stanovaya] My feeling is until Putin’s reelection. After that there could be a new government and a new premier, unless something extraordinary happens. But I would not even rule out a situation in which Medvedev retains his post after 2018. Over the past year he has become somewhat stronger politically and «grown into» his post. But there is also fierce scheming against him on many different levels. Right now it is pointless to speculate about precise time frames.

[] Having become a State Duma deputy, Natalya Poklonskaya described the sentence in the «Gelaendewagen race» case [involving dangerous driving by the son of the vice president of Lukoil] as too lenient. Is this a signal that the top entrepreneurial stratum will also be in the «firing line»?

[Stanovaya] I don’t quite understand what you mean by «firing line.» So far we are seeing no large-scale purge of the business community, no dekulakization, apart from certain local episodes linked for the most part either with corporate interests (the case against AFK Sistema in the context of the fight against Bashneft) or with regional ones («the power generators case»). At present there is no marked interest «from above» in mass imprisonments.

There is another point, which is linked to the rise and expansion of the reactionary, ideologically charged section of the elite, for whom the point of existence (self-preservation and expansion) is to pursue «enemies.» Not on instructions from above, but because of these people’s own genesis. Poklonskaya, Mizulina, Yarovaya, Milonov, Vladimir Markov [as published], Kiselev…. These are the «spiritual ligaments» of the Putin regime. Sometimes the regime can distance itself from them, dismiss them, criticize them, but they are now a part of this regime (as a phenomenon). Markin’s dismissal from the Russian Investigation Committee will in no way lead to a weakening of hardline ideology within the regime. Putin’s criticism of Kiselev and his «nuclear ash» by no means reduces the desire of the military to thump America. The paradox is precisely that initially there was a demand for people with ideas, but then the ideas acquired an existence of their own separate from those political figures. The latter can change, fall, or rise, but the ideology remains within the regime as one of its props.

‘»Hands-On Management» Has Been Replaced by a Lack of Any Management at All’

[] Putin said recently: «Providing maximum freedom for business is the best response to sanctions.» At the same time, according to the Antimonopoly Service, whereas in 2005 the state’s stake in the economy was no more than 35 percent, 10 years later it has doubled. Do Putin’s words express a real intention, or are they, as before, ritual rhetoric?

[Stanovaya] I reckon Putin sincerely believes that conditions for the normal conduct of private business have been created in Russia. Yes, there is the influence of the crisis, there is the factor of the world economy (unfavorable market conditions), but overall, from the institutional and administrative viewpoint, things are not so bad in Russia — Putin has said this repeatedly. I would point out that he frequently uses liberal economic rhetoric, on the basis that the strategically key goals of supporting business in Russia have already been achieved, and it is a question merely of cosmetic adjustments, evolution, and enhancement. That is why I do not believe at all in the possibility of real structural reforms in the Russian economy in the current political situation. Even if the president agrees conceptually with a proposal from the «system liberals,» it will stall at the implementation stage.

Russia’s current problem is that «hands-on management» has been replaced by a lack of any management at all. It takes a very long time for decisions to be made, and often they are made only after Putin has intervened. In this regard I agree with those people who say that Putin’s goal is not to increase state control of the economy but the absence of any goal and a fear of doing harm. Therefore, decisions are often made when not making them becomes more dangerous than doing nothing, as we can see in the situation around the privatization of Bashneft and the sale of Rosneft to itself.

[] The most prominent personnel decisions have been Vyacheslav Volodin’s move to State Duma speaker, and Sergey Kiriyenko’s to deputy chief of Presidential Staff. Do you think these moves will be followed by any changes in domestic policy?

[Stanovaya] It always seems to me that both Surkov and Volodin were more like designers of the «mechanism» of the system of domestic public politics. They changed the fundamental rules, determined the content of domestic political process and their technical implementation. Kiriyenko in the same situation will be a «driver,» someone who manages the system, who maneuvers but who does not interfere with the mechanisms that have already been devised. Overall, the field of domestic politics is getting narrower, it is becoming a matter of routine. In the Kremlin’s understanding, everything has been perfected and fine-tuned. All that remains is to ensure there are no glitches. Kiriyenko will not be a revolutionary in this sense, he will not be an ideologue or reformer, neither should we expect any «thaw.»

But the main challenge for him will not be establishing relations with his predecessor but the «sharing out» of spheres of influence with the siloviki, who are ever more actively interfering in domestic political matters. Who is to be deemed «foreign agents,» should oppositionists be put in jail, which criminal cases should be opened, should the persecution of governors be continued — all this takes domestic political decisions away from the Domestic Politics Administration. I reckon there will be a gradual change in the role of the All-Russia People’s Front, which will become a more technocratic and less politicized structure. Kiriyenko will need to decrease tension in certain areas, including relations with governors. It was that wrote the other day that Kiriyenko is beginning to review relations with the expert community, the ideological function of proregime experts will decrease somewhat, and the rhetoric will become calmer. Although it is important to realize that Russia’s information space is managed polycentrically and, despite Putin’s recent conciliatory words, there will continue to be a place for «nuclear ash» in the future.

As for Volodin’s departure, I don’t really believe in the theory that Putin wants to strengthen the State Duma. At the same time, I would not rule out the possibility that the complexion of the lower chamber of parliament will change in the direction of greater politicization, but that’s not the real reason. Volodin was the «architect,» he created the institutions and rules of the game, and within the system this is now perceived as a potential risk of an upset of the balance, of a loss of control over the situation. It is simpler not to change anything. A multitude of factors may have played a role here — the ambition (antagonism) of the All-Russia People’s Front, difficult relations with the governors, and the siloviki’s occasional disagreement with the policy of the Domestic Political Administration, or rather their different understanding of the priorities. In general, what the regime needs now is executors, and creative individuals are being pushed down a bit. Let’s see how this works.

[] Why do you think Putin has just expressed approval for the idea of a law on the «Russian nation,» what might this lead to?

[Stanovaya] Note that the main priority of national policy was defined by Igor Barinov, head of the relevant agency, as «the development of a system of public-state partnership»: The regime is keen to minimize the risks of uncontrollable conflicts developing in interethnic relations, and to strengthen control in this sphere. Incidentally, all this looks like a modification of attempts to seek an eternal Russian national idea, some sort of universal system of values of a patriotic nature.

But evidently the catalyst for the desire to «tackle the problem» was provided by external geopolitical factors: Ukraine (Ukrainian refugees, the problem of the Crimean Tatars), the migrant crisis in Europe (let’s give Brussels a lesson), and Syria (the problem of Sunni radicals). All this comes on top of the regime’s constant search for an opportunity to mobilize the public, it is no coincidence that at a meeting of the council (for interethnic relations, held in Astrakhan on 30 October — editor’s note) it was stated directly that patriotism itself is the national idea, in other words: Love the state first, and yourselves second. Almost a prewar mobilization of the Russian people — this seems to be the essence of all this searching, and it meets with the full understanding of Putin, who operates according to the logic of a «besieged fortress.»

[] The Finance Ministry proposed cutting Chechnya’s budget, and Kadyrov sharply opposed this. «Geopolitics» is being weighed in the scales against money. What will Putin choose?

[Stanovaya] The Finance Ministry is currently proposing cutting expenditure for everyone and everything, it’s a trend, and Chechnya is no exception. On the other hand, Kadyrov is trying to appeal to Putin, counting on his privileged position as a notional «guardian of Russian sovereignty,» which in his view is more valuable than the functions of any other Russian component head. But they will come to an agreement with Chechnya, they will find a compromise, at the moment I see no grounds for the emergence of a conflict situation of a political nature. (After the interview with Tatyana Stanovaya it became known that Putin had given instructions for funding for the North Caucasus to be increased — editor.) So far this is just bargaining, which, if it does grow into a crisis in relations, will only do so in different financial and economic circumstances.

[] According to calculations by the Civil lnitiatives Committee, about 18 million people have left Russia since the late 1980s. You yourself live in Paris. Would you advise those who remain in Russia to leave the country if they have the opportunity?

[Stanovaya] My choice to leave the country was not an end in itself, it was linked exclusively to my personal circumstances. It just happened that I had to leave. I have no right to advise others, everyone is free to decide for themselves. All I would like is to see Russia as an open country, and Russians with the opportunity to choose how to live, where to live, and what to do.


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Tatyana Stanovaya, «Russia and the West: Pecularities of the New ‘Cold War’”, in Russian 31 Oct 16

Over the past week the Western media have been energetically discussing the first publication of an image of the Sarmat intercontinental missile (in the West it has been dubbed the Satan 2), which is due to enter the armory of the Strategic Missile Troops in 2018. Practically all the media pointed to the new missile’s capability for destroying within a few seconds a country the size of France or the eastern part of the United States, as well as reaching any point in the world by an unpredictable route. This was the background against which the Valday Club forum was held in Sochi, addressed, in accordance with tradition, by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

While the speech was in preparation a source told Bloomberg about the Russian president’s sharp interruption of tough anti-American remarks by the military at a conference. Experts started talking about a new kind of Cold War between Russia and the West and the elites’ fear of an uncontrollable increase in escalation up to and including a hot war scenario.

On 25 October the British newspapers published reports of the unveiling in Russia of the first image of the new Sarmat intercontinental missile (Satan 2), which is supposed to replace the obsolete Satan (Voyevoda in the Russian classification). «Putin’s ‘Satan’ would wipe out America’s East Coast in minutes should World War III break out, experts warn,» the British newspaper The Sun reported. On the following day similarly alarmist items appeared in the French press. «The Russian authorities have presented the new Satan 2 missile, capable of wiping out an entire country the size of France in seconds,» the French TV channel BFMTV reported. This is the first time for many years that such a pronounced information wave has swept through the Western media, emphasizing Russia’s exclusive capability of, to put it crudely, «wiping out half the world.» It is also one of the first pronounced indications of the growing fear among Western elites in the face of Russia’s unpredictability.

Recently people have been talking increasingly frequently about a «Cold War» by analogy with the period of the second half of last year [as published; context suggests «last century»]. However, experts simultaneously point out that the present situation is much more dangerous and uncontrollable. During the Cold War period there were generally understood rules of the game and «red lines» based on the principle of mutual assured destruction. However, a peculiarity of the present situation is the new mentality of the opposing sides. The Kremlin admits the existence of the threat of a preventive US strike within the framework of the concept of a «Prompt Global Strike» by precision nonnuclear weapons against Russia’s nuclear facilities (even though experts say that this possibility will emerge only hypothetically and no sooner than in 15-20 years’ time). Furthermore Russia has long made no secret of the fact that the secession of the United States from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and the country’s long term plans for the realization of a «nuclear umbrella» constitute a direct threat to Russia’s security.

However, whereas in Russia admissions and fears of this kind have been present throughout recent decades (in Putin’s time they have become mainstream), in the United States the «Russia problem» has become acute only now, in the context of the geopolitical crisis of 2014-2016, and particularly following the breakdown of the agreements on Syria. For the first time in many years commentators have started talking about the possibility of the «Cold War» developing into a «hot» war, and not so much through the intentions of the sides as through the loss of control over the situation. «Russian and foreign experts have expressed serious concern that the two nuclear superpowers could inadvertently reach the point of a ‘hot’ conflict,» Vedomosti newspaper wrote. The key word here is «inadvertently» — testifying to the total failure of both the elites and the expert communities to understand the paths of development of a possible conflict and acknowledge its impossibility, on the one hand, but the irrational possibility of its emerging out of nowhere, on the other.

What lies at the basis of this is the West’s evident lack of understanding of Russia. Whereas Moscow’s position was always more or less transparent (in relation to missile defense, NATO expansion, and so forth), the West has always left Russia’s role on the periphery, recognizing only its regional significance in individual conflicts and not regarding the Kremlin’s military strategy as a factor in the disruption of the strategic balance. But now the very fact of the unpredictability and lack of understanding of Putin’s «limits» (what else might he be capable of?) is generating a largely irrational fear of some kind of hypothetical moves that the Kremlin might resort to if it feels cornered.

Perhaps that is why the publication of the first photograph of the Sarmat intercontinental missile led to an extremely emotional reaction by the Western media. Even though no substantive news corresponding to that level of alarmism had emerged. The instruction to begin the development of the new Sarmat missile was issued in 2010 (although sketches of the missile were actually published in the 2000s, but only at a theoretical level). At that time it was planned that the first tests would begin in 2016. In August this year there were firing tests of the first-stage engine; flight-engineering tests will take place no earlier than the first quarter of 2017. In this context information about the development of the missile has been appearing in the media throughout the past five years, and this has never been a reason for heightened fears.

Furthermore the new missile is supposed to replace the obsolete Voyevoda (Satan) intercontinental ballistic missile, whose life span has been extended over many years. Moreover, that missile was manufactured in Ukraine (and technical servicing of Voyevoda missiles by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhmashzavod was terminated in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea), and therefore the development of a more up-to-date Russian equivalent was understandable. The new missile, compared with its predecessor, is more accurate, faster, and holds 15 warheads instead of 10, the news agencies reported. Since the device, in the final section of its trajectory, does not fly on a ballistic trajectory (via the South or North Pole), its interception is practically impossible at the current stage of development of missile defense systems, the Russian military say. However, previously the Voyevoda was also dubbed the West’s «nightmare,» a missile capable of overcoming the missile defense system. So no conceptual change in the situation in the nuclear balance is taking place, and Russia is only trying to modernize its forces in case of the need to carry out a launch on warning and in the light of Washington’s further implementation of its plans for the deployment of the missile defense system.

In this context the emergence of the new missile is perceived not as a routine update but as an indication of the country’s preparation for war. Meanwhile Moscow is losing the information war in the Western media, and its invective aimed at the West, which it blames for the Ukrainian revolution and the activation of terrorism in the Middle East, appears unconvincing to Western audiences.

This was the atmosphere in which Putin’s speech at the Valday forum took place. Meanwhile the discussions are becoming both more routine and more moderated: According to Vedomosti‘s source, this year the communication did not look like a dialogue so much as a press conference by the president. The entire speech and the questions and answers were devoted exclusively to foreign policy issues. In this context a significant reduction in the level of expertise in Putin’s remarks and the preponderance of rigidly designated positions that have been repeated throughout recent years were notable. This reduces the interest in the Russian leader’s remarks and encourages the perception of his words as extremely rigid and not open to debate.

In this connection the main news from the forum was not Putin’s remarks but a Bloomberg report: Citing its own sources, the agency reported that a high-ranking Russian official, on condition of anonymity, told the club about a government session at which president Vladimir Putin mentioned an extremely risky incident when Russian military aircraft flew alongside a US Navy ship in the Black Sea. When some of the participants in the session allowed themselves to express satisfaction, speaking in the spirit of «serves them right,» Putin interrupted them with the question: «Have you gone crazy, or what?»

It followed from this that the Russian leader is distancing himself from his own «hawks,» condemning the escalation of the situation and the game of nerves, and seeking a relaxation of the situation in relations with the West. However, the very fact that this story appeared was perceived with distrust: as an attempt by the Kremlin to adjust Putin’s image in the eyes of the West by demonstrating the existence of different viewpoints within the system of governance of Russia as well as Putin’s moderation compared with some of his military entourage. Some people were inclined to interpret this as a positive signal indicating the Kremlin’s concern at the demonization of the president’s image. Other commentators reacted rather negatively, taking the view that artificial «leaks» like this are only part of the information manipulation process and do nothing to confirm greater or lesser «moderation» on Putin’s part, since practically nothing is done in the country without the personal involvement of the president, particularly on foreign policy issues.

At the same time, immediately after Vladimir Putin’s speech a wave swept through the media and the social networks concerning the possible onset of a «thaw.» Commentators lumped together several significant statements that had appeared at the same time. Apart from the leaks about Putin’s comment to the military, another such «signal» was perceived in the clear distancing of the president from the well-known remarks by Vesti anchor Dmitriy Kiselev, who in 2014 reminded the United States of Russia’s capability to turn the country into «radioactive ash.» «Rattling nuclear weapons is the very last thing. I do not welcome this,» Putin responded.

The president’s Press Secretary Dmitriy Peskov also stated that Putin regards the resumption of airstrikes by the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces in Aleppo as not expedient despite the General Staff’s request for permission to do this. Strategic decisions on the course of the operation in Syria will be made by Putin, while operational leadership lies with the General Staff. The Kremlin spokesman noted that «decisions on further operations will be made depending on the state of affairs.» According to him, whether they will be announced beforehand or not will depend on the expediency of such a preliminary announcement. Asked how long the president of the Russian Federation is prepared to wait before starting bombing the terrorists in the Aleppo region again, Peskov admitted: «I cannot give you a precise answer to that question.»

The peaceable background was objectively reinforced by domestic political signals. In particular, by Dmitriy Peskov’s words calling on the Surgeon [Khirurg; Aleksandr Zaldostanov, leader of biker activist group the Night Wolves] to apologize to Konstantin Raykin, artistic director of the Satirikon theater [Zaldostanov had made remarks attacking Raykin after the latter complained of «censorship»]. Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko spoke about the danger of «tightening the screws» and the need to conduct dialogue with all groups within society: not only the opposition within the system, but also «small groups.» She also mentioned the Yarovaya Law [on counterterrorism measures], expressing regret that its adoption took place without the necessary level of expert debate. Sberbank chief German Gref described as pseudo-patriots those who say that everything is fine in Russia already and there is no need to change anything: «Real patriots are those people who are trying all the time to work very hard on themselves, on their business, on their institutions, in order to be in line with and even somewhat ahead of the times.»

At the same time, the domestic political signals were accompanied by actions demonstrating the absence of consensus within the power elite over the possibility of even verbal liberalization. Thus, the Surgeon refused to apologize (this is an unprecedented response by a loyalist to a statement by the president’s press secretary) and Ramzan Kadyrov came out in support of him, sharply condemning Raykin’s work.

The «peaceable» and «liberalizational» signals can hardly be an integrated Kremlin «plan» for softening attitudes toward Russia. However, the collection of statements that have been uttered may indicate two important points. First, the authorities’ understanding of the danger of endlessly stepping up the «nuclear rhetoric» and «saber rattling.» Second, the elites’ tiredness with aggression emanating not so much from the authorities themselves as from their narrow corporate representatives (the military, the special services) or pro-regime groups of «conservatives.» This is not a factor promoting a «thaw,» but rather a factor restraining the further toughening of the regime. At the same time, there is no sign of any special optimism with regard to possible liberalization (first and foremost of the economy, which is difficult without political relaxation), as was demonstrated by the attitude toward Aleksey Kudrin’s speech at the Valday forum: Despite Kudrin’s active involvement in formulating the economic strategy he continues to be perceived as an expert and not as an ideologist of the new economic course who is part and parcel of the regime. In this case the audience was interested not so much in the reformist potential of the liberal section of the elite (which has basically become technical) as in the limits to the expansion of the «conservatives.»

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has begun to be perceived to a certain extent as a country that possesses sufficient ambition and potential to constitute a threat, however hypothetical, to the West. Whereas hitherto on questions of the management of global risks Russia has been treated as a limited partner, albeit one capable of unpredictable but relatively harmless steps, now Russia’s unpredictability and its «militarized» nature are presenting a different perspective on the question of whether it is a local or global threat. And even calls for cooperation not infrequently, though not always, fit into the format of restraining it (if you do not hold out a hand to Russia, the aggression will grow). The fear of global conflict is ceasing to be exclusively Russian, and that is the main peculiarity of the current period.

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Tatyana Stanovaya,»Satan 2 and ‘Radioactive Ash.’ How Russia Has Finally Managed To Scare the West”, Slon 27 Oct 16

«The Russian authorities have introduced a new missile, ‘Satan 2,’ which is capable of destroying a whole country the size of France within a few seconds,» the French television channel BFMTV warns, along with many other world mass media outlets. It seems that the attempt to intimidate the West with the «radioactive ash» into which Dmitriy Kiselev threatened to turn the United States in 2014 has finally worked: They have become afraid of Russia.

While Moscow continued, day after day, to talk about the most up-to-date missiles with no counterparts in the world that were capable of overcoming any missile defense system, the world scoffed at this. Not because such missiles cannot exist, but because, first, Russia continued to be perceived as a technologically backward country for which moving from words to action would take an extremely lengthy and expensive period of time.

Second, Russia was regarded as a country that had lost in the bloc confrontation of the second half of the 20th century and was retreating to the periphery of history, a vulnerable, deeply corrupt country with unjustified ambitions, a country that had to be listened to only occasionally, and even then, only mostly because of the acute discrepancy between Russia’s geopolitical role and its nuclear capabilities. It was customary to keep a watch over Russia as over a dying bonfire, so that the smoldering embers, which occasionally burst into flames, should not accidentally inflict damage on the environment.

Today, this situation has radically changed. We have to do with a new geopolitical reality about which only one thing is known — it only resembles the Cold War of the last century, but is actually something completely different. Russia, it seems, has begun to believe in the possibility of a preventive strike by the United States with non-nuclear, high-precision weapons capable of significantly weakening Russia’s nuclear potential. The Russian power elite, and indeed, the president himself, are convinced that the American missile defense project is, in the long-term, aimed at defending precisely against Russian intercontinental nuclear missiles, which upsets the balance and allows one of the sides to obtain an advantage in a theoretical nuclear war. Any nuclear security expert will tell you that nuclear parity has not gone anywhere, and that the principle of mutually assured destruction remains topical. But as soon as this parity ceases to exist in people’s heads, a new era arrives — an era of preparing for the worst possible scenarios, ones that had hitherto seemed incredible.

Irrational Fears

Until very recently, it was mostly the military and the special services — who, in Putin’s eyes, remain the only «sovereign» part of the elite that is difficult to suspect of sympathies for the West, but which can always be relied on — who believed in the «worst scenario» (and earned a little money from this). Now, judging by the Western press, even those who recently scoffed at Russia are beginning to believe in the «worst scenario»: Nowadays, British, French, and American publications are writing about what «Putin’s missiles» could wipe off the face of the earth, and how quickly.

These fears, like Kiselev’s «radioactive ash,» are just as irrational as Russia’s belief in America’s preparation for winning a nuclear war. Suffice it to look at the way that a small announcement on the official website of the Makeyev State Missile Center stating that, back in 2011, the enterprise had begun developing the Sarmat research and development project, which the West has dubbed «Satan 2,» became the cause of an information explosion. The news was accompanied by a photograph, which was indeed the cause of the sensational headlines — for the first time, Moscow had published the external form of the missile, which is already undergoing testing. For someone who is not informed about what is really happening, the Western mass media are creating an absolutely unambiguous impression: Putin is preparing for a war with the West, and his new weapon renders the world defenseless.

The missile is due to enter service in 2018; tests began in 2016 (the test firing of the first stage engine actually began in August) and flight development tests are due to begin no earlier than the first quarter of 2017. If the information being received is correct, the Strategic Missile Troops are going to receive the missile ahead of schedule (this was initially planned for 2020, but then development was accelerated). In the words of Deputy Defense Minister Yuriy Borisov, the new missile has no restrictions in the direction of combat use; it can destroy targets in trajectories passing through both poles of the planet, whereas NATO’s protective systems are not designed for this.

The West does not understand what to expect from a head of state who has «lost contact with reality» (a well-known phrase ascribed to Angela Merkel). Failure to understand always gives rise to irrational behavior and emotions that hinder a sober assessment of the situation. Sociopolitical fears, which to a certain degree reflect the dead-end nature of what is happening and the shortage of instruments for controlling the situation, bring to the fore the military, who, unlike the politicians, are always ready with recipes for «retaliatory actions.» The military began to exert a very powerful influence on state administration in Russia from 2014, when it was they who played the key role in the annexation of Crimea. The West is also beginning to increasingly listen to the military.


In NATO, the topic of Russia is becoming almost the main fuel for discussion. The Warsaw summit in July is seen as the alliance’s Renaissance: Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, it has begun to acquire a new raison d’etre — to contain Russia. At the summit at that time, a decision was adopted to station rapid deployment forces in Poland and the Baltic countries — four battalions with up to 1,000 servicemen in each. A British battalion will be based in Estonia, a Canadian battalion will be based in Latvia, a German battalion will be based in Lithuania, and an American battalion will be based in Poland. A whole division of foreign military personnel in the shape of the 5,000 servicemen of the high-readiness Spearhead Forces — 1,000 declared servicemen in a battalion under the command of the United States and another 4,000 soldiers in a separate American brigade — could appear in Poland. At that same time, Elissa Slotkin, a current adviser to the U.S. defense secretary on international security questions, said that the United States would deploy forces and resources equal to a division in Europe by the end of 2017. Finally, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg announced the transition of all elements of the missile defense system in Europe — these are the U.S. Navy ships based in Spain, the radars based in Turkey, and the intercept systems based in Romania — to the command of NATO. They agreed to discuss strengthening the alliance’s presence in the Black Sea. All this is also being discussed right now at a more detailed level in Brussels, at the level of defense ministers of the member countries of the alliance.

While NATO beefs up its presence in Europe, Moscow is sending Iskanders to Kaliningradskaya Oblast and [Russian Defense Minister] Sergey Shoygu is attempting to mobilize Russia’s post-Soviet military influence. How far are the two sides prepared to go? NATO declares that the alliance’s tactics are defense and dialog with Russia. But no dialog is even foreseen, and in the hierarchy of threats at the practical level, Russia is seen as more dangerous than Islamic radicalism. This is probably why, under the pressure of NATO, Spain is making the decision to refuse to refuel the Russian aircraft carrier group heading for the shores of Syria.

Herein lies one of the peculiarities of the current crisis of relations: The West is attempting at the very least to formulate its position, which appears relatively transparent and predictable, whereas Moscow has «gone to ground» and is choosing reactive tactics that depend not on its own vision of what is happening, but on the actions of the «competitor,» and, which is even more terrible — on interpretations of that competitor’s actions. NATO has an institutionalized and bureaucratized the adoption of decisions, but in Russia, a great deal depends on a single person, whose favorite tactics remain special operations and unexpected provocative sorties. The role of Putin’s inner circle is also changing: The adoption of decisions is becoming an even more closed process, and their discussion is becoming less and less argumentative. Diplomats are giving way to military persons.

While the military in Russia prepare to accept into service the most powerful nuclear missile in the world, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson, Mariya Zakharova, complains that NATO «instead of combining efforts with all the responsible international players to oppose real threats, combats contrived challenges and concentrates efforts on ‘the threat from the East,’ which does not exist.»

So, does a threat from the East exist for the West? For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this question had a topical interest mainly for «strategists,» the military, and «hawks.» Politicians and peoples moved the «Russian topic» to the distant periphery. But now the problem is ceasing to be «militaristic»; it is returning to the sociopolitical space. Ostentatious «saber rattling» as a form of intimidation has had its effect. And the following phenomenon should not be underestimated: When the topic of Russia’s ambitions spreads far beyond the cabinet rooms of general staffs and the intelligence organs, and begins to be heard «in heavy rotation,» and the issue of «Vladimir’s missiles» begins to be discussed over morning coffee in Paris and London cafes, a new sociopolitical demand is formed. It is possible to blame the Western mass media for exacerbating the situation, but it was, after all, Moscow that began to scare the living daylights out of the ordinary man in the street by so strenuously attempting to convince the world of its ability to turn whole countries into «radioactive ash.» Putin’s new image — with missiles instead of pupils in his eyes — symbolizes the new Russia, in which the image of a strong leader is being transformed into a crazed dictator. Russian hysterics have reduced the West to hysterics as well, which makes the world today far less safe than it was yesterday.

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