PUTIN 5.0: Tea Leaves

by Gordon M. Hahn

Perhaps now, with the fourth presidential term for Vladimir Putin having begun, we can put aside all the empty talk of ‘imminent coups’, color revolutions, ‘fatal illnesses,’ and perhaps the American rusological community that foisted them upon our post-fact world and get down to some realistic forecasting about the tack Putin is likely to take in both Russian domestic and foreign policy in this new likely six-year run. One way we can do this is by looking at the tea leaves left at the bottom of the Kremlinological cup after the appointment of a government to begin the new term along with the reappointment of Dmitrii Medvedev.

In doing so, we should keep in mind that Putin is not the Hitler or Stalin of today, but rather a balancer trying to keep the Russian state and his own security intact after he decided to join the dark world of post-communist and Russian politics in December 1999. He is not trying to restore totalitarianism of any kind, nor is he trying to restore the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. He is trying to maximize his own power within a dangerous milieu of Russian politics and Russia’s power in a world in which an expanding West, an unstable and often revolutionary Islamic world, and a rising China of unclear intentions surround Russia.

There is nothing to suggest that he will move to change any of these basic parameters, with the exception of relations with the West, where accommodation can occur if NATO expansion ends. Domestically, some modest modernizations in the economy might be expected.

Medvedev’s Re-Appointment and its Implications

Dmitrii Medvedev’s re-appointment as Prime Minister is no surprise and has several advantages for the person who proposed it, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedev’s re-appointment was signaled when Putin issued orders to the presidential administration in line with the goals set out in his address to the Federal Assembly in March that to draft presidential decrees (ukazy) outlining the country’s national development goals. This will be a new set of ‘May decrees’ replacing those adopted in 2012 and left unfulfilled for the most part. The fact that Medvedev’s government failed to meet the May decrees’ goals could not affect his re-appointment, since those goals are routinely inflated to be high marks the largely corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy should try to attain. In this way, it may come close to meeting some acceptable parameters. The fact that the orders included tasks for Medvedev to undertake in the decree-drafting process signaled Medvedev’s likely return.

Medvedev’s reappointment maintains stability at home, as Putin attempts to resolve foreign policy issues, kickstart the economy into higher gear, and address the 2024 ‘succession’ problem, which could spark a major political crisis, depending on other circumstances at the time. First, it preserves the Putin-Medvedev ‘tandem’, if in less robust form than in the past, as a reserve position from which Putin has several options regarding both his fourth presidential term’s policy and the 2024 ‘succession’ problem. In terms of policy options, first, it helps Putin balance between the so-called liberal or moderate ‘civiliki’ and the hardline siloviki, while he seeks policy levers to generate greater momentum in the economy. The same is true of his appointment of civilik and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin as Chairman of the Auditing Chamber, which I discuss below. Second, it avoids – and Putin was probably signaling this internally inside the state bureaucracy earlier by not doing the things he would need to do to prepare a replacement for Medvedev (positioning in high posts and probing possible candidates) – making a choice between the civiliki and siloviki again, which risks alienating one or another faction or sub-faction in the run-up to the presidential election and the resolution of the succession problem.

In terms of the succession issue, Medvedev likely has the inside track to repeat the ‘castling’ move of 2008-2012, with Medvedev becoming president again and Putin becoming PM again, perhaps with some reshuffling of presidential powers to Putin’s cabinet, either officially through the adoption of a constitutional law or outright constitutional amendments or unofficially through an internal agreement. This would likely involve measures to strengthen Putin’s official and unofficial leverage over the siloviki and foreign ministry, given his preference for foreign policy and its importance as a pillar of Putin’s high personal ratings and thus of the entire system. One approach would be to give Prime Minister Putin the first deputy chairmanship of the Security Council.

Other approaches, as suggested by Kirill Rogov in a recent article, might include making Putin chairman of the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party, bringing other top state officials into the party’s leadership, and enhancing the party’s role through the Duma. Enhancing the party’s role could include giving it the power to approve any presidential dismissal of the Cabinet and the nomination of siloviki ministries, federal services like the FSB, the General Prosecutor, and the top courts’ chairpersons. In addition, the premier could take over appointments of directors for state corporations (https://carnegie.ru/commentary/76364).

Another, more simple, remedy is to repeat the ‘Yeltsin model’ that brought Putin to power; something Rogov discounts, arguing that the model proved ineffective in protecting Yeltsin’s political clients — the likes of Berezovskii, Gusinskii, etc. Therefore, naming a crown prince would make the elite nervous and presumably then risk a regime split or even coup. However, the 2008-2012 Putin-Medvedev ‘tandem castling’ model was a temporary version of the Yeltsin 2000 model. It worked once, so why not again? It produced few to no problems regarding the security of Putin’s political clients, because the relative unity of the tandem (despite the confab over Russia’s UN vote on the Libyan civil war and the tandem partners’ disagreement over the appropriateness of calling UN-sanctioned NATO actions a ‘crusade’) provided the necessary assurance to top patronage clans that they still had a ‘krisha’ (cover and protection). After all, Medvedev was and is Putin’s top political client and has had a long association with the same Putin clientele. The only glitch experienced in the 2008-2012 tandem castling came in 2011-2012 with the crushed hopes of regime and some moderate opposition liberals, who were inspired by Medvedev’s liberalizing thaw and hoped it could lead to a ‘perestroika 2.0’, and the resulting cognitive dissonance created by Putin’s decision to run in Medvedev’s place in 2012. But that is a 2030 problem, not a 2024 problem.

Cabinet Balancing

The new Cabinet does not include any major, even significant changes, despite the replacement of 8 ministers and the addition of another by virtue of one ministry’s division into two. The entire siloviki bloc (including the security and intelligence organs subordinated to the president not the Cabinet), with the exception of the Emergency Situations Ministry, remains the same: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, MVD Chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, and SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin (see http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57613). Putin continued to balance between systemic liberal civiliki and the hardline siloviki in the rest of the new Cabinet. The removal of civilik, first deputy prime minister in charge of economics and finance Igor Shuvalov, was balanced by the removal of hard-line nationalist Dmitrii Rogozin as deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex. Shuvalov was appointed head of the Foreign Economic Bank (VneshEkonomBank) and was replaced as first deputy prime minister (the only in the new Cabinet) by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. Rogozin was appointed to head Russia’s NASA, RosKosmos and replaced by a technocrat, Yurii Ivanovich Borisov. He has had a long career in the Soviet and Russian military and from 1998 in business and again in the military, including as deputy defense minister and state defense industry complex, but he has revealed no politico-ideological profile to date. However, the Shavalov-Rogozin tradeoff may not have been a draw for the civiliki-siloviki balance, since Siluanov is on record opposing the arrest and imprisonment of imprisoned former Economics Minister Aleksei Ulyukaev, who he said he still regarded “unconditionally” to be his “comrade,” refusing to believe in his guilt (https://zona.media/news/2018/03/29/siluanov). Ulyukaev was entrapped in an alleged bribe-taking affair by the leading silovik, RosNeft chief Igor Sechin.

The controversial and, especially among liberals, very unpopular traditionalist Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskii is being counterbalanced by two ministries instead of one, with the Science and Education Ministry being divided in the new government into two ministries: the Ministry of Enlightenment (Education) and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The former is headed by former head of the now divided ministry–another traditionalist, Olga Vasil’eva, who has a very robust politico-ideological profile, as a Russian Orthodox historian of Church-state relations. The latter is headed by Mikhail Kotyukov, who is a financist from Krasnoyarsk and former deputy finance minister transferred, indeed seemingly demoted by Medvedev in October 2013 being appointed head of the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations. Vasil-eva could be positioned to replace Medinskii, who has been plagued by numerous scandals, including a plagiarism controversy regarding his dissertation, in contrast to Vasil’eva’s status as a well-published scholar.

The most important new appointment was not made to the Cabinet per se, but rather with the regime liberal Kudrin’s appointment as chairman of the Auditing Chamber. In terms of policy, although Medvedev’s reappointment would seem to signal Putin’s continued toleration of massive corruption as long as political clients ‘pilyat po chinu‘ (skim off the budget, take kickbacks, etc. at a level commensurate with one’s rank), Kudrin’s appointment holds out some hope that corruption can be reduced, even drastically in some areas. Contradictions of this sort in Russia are not atypical. Thus, there is some evidence that, along with some of the other improvements, corruption was beginning to decline during the presidency of Medvedev (http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d18pkr11.pdf), who has since been famously outed as no slacker when it comes to corruption. In terms of the 2024 problem, Kudrin’s appointment to the Auditing Chamber positions the option of appointing him to a higher post, including prime minister, having prepared the ground within the elite for a Kudrin role. This option could be rolled out, if another successor besides Medvedev were needed and/ or economic and/or political instability were to emerge.

Domestic Policy Prospects

Domestically, Putin is pursuing relatively soft authoritarian policies in order to hold pro-Wester democrats and ultra-nationalists at bay and maintaining the state’s control of the majority of political, financial, economic, and informational resources in ding so. Domestic policy will be driven by Putin’s search for a solution to his 2024 problem, if he has not already settled on a variation of the 2008 castling with Medvedev. Main tasks include: final decision on a permanent or temporary successor or changing the political system to remain in power, preventing a regime split, maintaining at least a 3 percent growth rate (though his May decrees ordered a growth rate exceeding the global average), sparking growth or development in some sphere sufficient to call the ‘technological breakthrough’ he called for in his March speech to the Federal Assembly, preventing a sharp dip in oil prices, pension reform, a significant but not major uptick in the fight against corruption, and keeping the nationalist and democratic opposition divided between and among the themselves. The fight against corruption is likely to produce results perhaps close to those Putin achieved in improving Russia’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Ranking’ (see https://gordonhahn.com/2018/01/12/russias-quiet-revolution-update/).

Foreign Policy Prospects

Abroad, Putin will no longer be under any delusions regarding relations with the West. In his view and to some extent in reality, he feels he has been stabbed in the back by three consecutive presidents. Putin’s state of mind goes far beyond full disillusionment, it has reached nearly full distrust. Putin feels he has been stabbed in the back by the West repeatedly.He is punching back at the West for NATO and EU expansion at Russia’s expense, intervening with soft and hard power in the dangerous Muslim cauldron, and courting the rising Heavenly Kingdom. Therefore, the best Putin and the West can hope for is to avoid a further deterioration in bilateral relations and prevent the situation in Ukraine, in particular, from getting out of control.

The two most important foreign policy issues for Putin are Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, Putin’s policy is driven by traditional geostrategic considerations and by the fact that the U.S. and the West has known and perhaps at the time even knew that the Ukrainian ultranationalist element on the Maidan carried out the 20 February 2014 terrorist snipers’ massacre and nevertheless has supported the violation of the Yanukovich-opposition transition agreement concluded on the massacre’s eve and continues to whitewash the crime by, moreover, providing weapons to this illegtimate regime on Russia’s border [https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/ and Gordon M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2018)]. Therefore, what little progress in relations Washington, Brussels or Berlin might want will come at the highest price, meaning it will be unlikely to be realized at all. Putin will continue to hold the line, avoiding escalation, freezing the conflict, and maneuvering to find a resolution that meets Moscow’s three key goals: constitutional or at least legal autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions within Ukraine, a Ukraine that is neutral (i.e., not a member of any military bloc), and some normalization of relations with Kiev. Putin does not seek the incorporation of Ukraine or any part of it (except Crimea) or a full-blown proxy war with Kiev and NATO, no less a direct military confrontation with the West.

In Syria, Putin has defeated the West. Now he must restrain the Iranians and fully re-stabilize the Assad regime. This will likely be accomplished before Putin’s likely departure from the presidency in 2024, strengthening his authority and facilitating whatever maneuver, castling or otherwise, he attempts to resolve the 2024 problem. However, in order to restrain the theo-ideological regime in Teheran he will need to partner with Israel, something he is already doing, and more importantly with the West. This is more difficult, but possible. Deconfliction and Trump’s soft response to the alleged chemical attack in march demonstrate that Washington is not ready to re-engage in tensions with Moscow in the region. Given Washington’s interest in protecting Israel, any Putin plan to marginalize Iran in Syria will be supported in the West.

Postscript

Putin’s largely personalist regime could very well be reaching its endgame with the system arbiter’s fourth and last possible presidential term until at least 2030, after which he could run again under the present interpretation of the constitution as imposing a limit of two consecutive terms. The constitution is one institution, the ‘stickiness’ of which could prevent chaos, civil war and catastrophe. On the other hand, it may not hold, thereby ushering in chaos. A future article will weigh the likelihood of several respective outcomes of Putin’s fourth term and possible subsequent futures upon its constitutional conclusion in 2024.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn