“The court of Tsar Vladimir is one of people, not structures”: An interview with Mark Galeotti

Mark-GaleottiSuffice it to say that the Kremlin is not the most transparent place in the world. And yet,  with Igor Sechin on a seeming power trip, an upcoming presidential election, and questions about Vladimir Putin’s future only growing in intensity, understanding what’s happening there has grown all the more important. To shed some light on the above, and more broadly on the mood in Moscow, Bear Market Brief spoke to Mark Galeotti, Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and an expert on Russia’s security services.

Interview conducted in writing by Aaron Schwartzbaum.

To start us off, could you walk us through the various Kremlin interest groups vying for power these days? Who are they and what do they want policy-wise? 

It’s natural that we look for clear, distinct interest groups – clans, factions, whatever we want to call them – not least as it makes our effect to understand the forces at work seemingly easier. I’m not sure, though, if ultimately this is that helpful or accurate. Rather, Russian politics is made up on the one hand of myriad individual political entrepreneurs and some small, close knots of them, and on the other of some broad affiliations, philosophical approaches and practical policy goals. The latter are often overlapping or even complementary, and individuals accumulate and often negotiate, acquire and shed multiple relationships and allegiances. It is, to be frank, a mess, but a very Russian, very human one.

In this context, there is clearly a distinction between those closest to Putin on the one hand, his friends and confidants, not simply his allies and underlings, and on the other, everyone else. There are those genuinely engaged by Putin’s ideological struggle to “make Russia great again” and the majority who pay it lip service, but who are more concerned with their practical wellbeing. There are those who see the future in a modernisation that is market-, law- and entrepreneurship-driven, and those who see the state as the engine of prosperity. There are regional interests that resent Moscow’s vampiric parasitism on the rest of the country. There are those who align with the Orthodox Church and those of more secular bent. Amidst all these different identities and affiliations, it is hard to talk meaningfully of hard and fast factions: there are Orthodox liberals, legalist nationalists, free-market Tatar Putinists, authoritarian federalist, and everything in between. Let no one claim that there are no politics in today’s Russia, there is simply no open forum in which these differences can be discussed and resolved.

At present, there is something of an unstable, fractious equilibrium, not least because to challenge the status quo too clearly is also to challenge Putin. In very broad terms, this is a division between quantity and quality. A larger proportion in some way or another want a less confrontational foreign policy, a renewed focus on improving the economy (largely because the more money there is, the more they can steal), a focus on kleptocracy rather than empire and geopolitical assertiveness. They have the numbers, but the smaller group has the nuclear weapon, Putin himself. So long as he remains in power – directly or indirectly – then the others are largely confined to pitching ideas in terms that appeal to him, and minor initiatives in the margins of the system.

To say the very least, the guilty verdict against former finance minister Alexei Ulyukayev has attracted a lot of attention of late. First off, what is your understanding of what actually happened with the case? What was Igor Sechin trying to achieve? 

Sechin’s Rosneft is, in some ways, a hydrocarbon pyramid scheme, notoriously badly-run, and prone to make good shortfalls by using political and economic muscle to take over more productive enterprises to provide a temporary respite. This is where Bashneft fit in my opinion, and that was how the whole Ulyukaev case started. From the first, the notion that a second-rank minster would try and extort a bribe from Sechin looked implausible, and nothing we have seen in the court case made this any more credible. It is not that it is so incredible that Ulyukaev might have expected a cut from the deal. This is, alas, almost the operational etiquette of the Putinist system, where public office and private gain are virtually indistinguishable. But that is very different from demanding money.

In part, I think this was personal: there is bad blood between the two, and Sechin is not a man to let grudges slip. More important, though, is political positioning. It is not enough to be powerful, it is crucial to display power, to perform power. Economic circumstances had forced Sechin to be more overtly predatory than in the past and in the process he knew that his enemies (and both his business model and his nature ensures a steady supply of them) had been whispering against him. A brutal demonstration of his capacity to take down even a sitting minister – the first time this had happened since Stalin’s Times – would be an unmistakable sign of his will and his continued support from the top.

Former Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, now behind bars. (Photo: Sergei Bobylev / TASS)

On the topic of Igor Sechin, we’ve seen what might be described as pushback against him in the past couple of weeks. Sberbank CIB released an absolutely scathing report about Rosneft and audio of Sechin and Ulyuakyev’s conversation was leaked as well. Just a coincidence? Or is he perhaps viewed as too big for his britches? 

Three things are coming together. There is a real, practical critique of Rosneft’s practices and business model. There is the political campaign which helped drive Sechin into his latest act of orchestrated spite. And then there is also the reaction to that, a widespread sense that Sechin has overstepped the bounds of intra-elite competition. In such a thoroughly deinstitutionalised system, it is what one could call ‘etiquette’ rather than law that keeps peoples’ hands off each others’ throats.

Interestingly, Putin is doing nothing to signal that Sechin is off limits, so this too emboldens his enemies. Sadly, I suspect that he will not let Sechin be destroyed, but he too has a tendency to want to ensure that his boyars learn that they are but mortal, so I imagine he will let people take potshots at Sechin a while longer before he calls an end to hunting season.

In an interview we did with Tatiana Stanovaya earlier this fall, she talked about a certain malaise or unease among the Moscow elite these days, surrounding the dawning realization that sooner or later, Putin’s going to go. Have you noticed that? What’s the feeling on the ground in the run-up to the election? Are people generally open about the issue? And are there any anecdotes/comments you might be able to share?

I absolutely do recognise it, although I’m not sure if I would call it malaise, and for most I am not even sure if it is unease. Frankly, I think most of the elite are uneasy about the current policy direction, and sense that Putin would be willing to see their interests sacrificed in the name of his grand design – with a very traditional sense of quite what national greatness entails.

The irony is that while none seriously doubted that he would stand for re-election, in some ways they were already looking beyond that. There is a view that he is tired, bored, disconnected, looking for some kind of escape from the gilded prisons of Novo-Ogarevo, Gelendzhik and the Kremlin, so long as he can ensure himself of a secure and relevant semi-retirement. In that context, in many ways the belief that we are in the twilight of Putinism, whether that means six years or (more likely in my opinion) fewer, also becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Again, this is especially because of the stripping down of the system: power and belief are that much closer together, unmediated by institutions.

You recently wrote about a seeming contradiction surrounding Putin’s choice of prime minister after the election: the position itself is relatively weak, but the selection itself will be highly indicative. What would different choices (not necessarily specific people) tell us about Putin’s thinking? Or, if Medvedev is left in place?

Whatever Putin may intend, people will read much into his decision. If he picks someone who looks like a plausible successor, then whether intended or not, this is what that person will be considered by everyone else (and maybe by the individual in question). If he picks a managerial technocrat, then that will bring to the fore the tension between Putin’s geopolitical agenda (and its disastrous implications, from sanctions to continue unaffordably high defense spending) and the long-term needs of the economy. If he picks a hardline mini-me, then one of the key advantages of the role, the ability to bring something different to the system, counterpointing the president’s role and character, will be wasted.

Medvedev is at the very least a safe choice: he is loyal, he is unthreatening, he is not grossly incompetent. Keeping him in place would be in some ways ducking any hard decisions, but also leaves Putin able to swap him out if, as, and when he ever does find this elusive successor whom he feels he can trust with his legacy and his personal security. I feel sorry for Medvedev in many ways: when he dies, surely “the least worst option” will be his enduring epitaph.

Last question: you’ve described the Russian government as a sort of informal, deinstitutionalized “adhocracy.” You’ve talked about that in the context of the infamous Trump tower meeting, but how does that approach to governance play out domestically? Are there any areas or issues in which it’s been particularly evident?

Heavens, it’s visible in pretty much every aspect of the state’s work, from the way different figures have been essentially charged with responsibility for certain issues and regions, regardless of their formal roles – Surkov for Ukraine, for example, Defence Minister Shoigu for Syria, Security Council Secretary Patrushev for the Balkans – to the personalisation of so much of government. The banking system is being cleaned up not because of the Central Bank, but because of Elvira Nabiullina, and because she has Putin’s personal mandate. The defence-industrial complex is feather-bedded to a large degree (though not exclusively) because Deputy PM Rogozin has its back, and Putin has an unexpected soft spot for him, and so it goes. This whole system is a twisted mix of the intensely personal, from the degree to which policy is driven by personal greed and ambition to the very way in which it works. The court of Tsar Vladimir is one of people, not structures.

Many thanks for joining us!

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