Forgotten Russia: Is Putin’s Foreign Policy Focus a Fatal Obsession?

by Gordon M. Hahn

For any chief executive, time and focus are limited. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to prefer foreign policy to domestic policy. Can this be a fatal flaw – Putin’s “Achilles’ Heel” – that will end in a meltdown of what Russian analysts like to call Putin’s ‘sistema’?   

Whether it be of a governmental, corporate, or other institutional form – there is limited time and specific intellectual interests for any chief executive. These affect the amount of time and energy any such executive will devote to one or another sphere of responsibility that he/she has. The pitfall is that a chief exec may devote so much time to one or several spheres that he/she neglects others. The performance in the neglected spheres could become so abysmal that they undermine the executive’s authority, leading to his/her removal from office one way or another. This no less true for national leaders, whether it be US President Donald Trump, constantly being threatened by the opposition with electoral defeat, impeachment and investigations, or Russia’s Putin, free from electoral defeat but vulnerable, at least theoretically, to illegal forms of removal from office, such as a coup or revolution.

Many Russian analysts agree that Putin devotes most of his time and energy on foreign policy and has lost almost all interest in domestic policy, delegating it key figures in the Presidential Administration, such as Sergei Kirienko in political system management and Andrei Belousov in economic and social policy. The now anti-Putinist political scientist Gleb Pavlovskii, who worked in Putin’s administration during his first two terms and maintains contacts there, notes that Putin has created a system that gives him limited direct control and therefore maximum personal deniability and which is prone to de facto delegation–a kind of accidental decentralization of decision-making. After returning to the Kremlin after Medvedev’s thaw, Putin built what Pavlovskii calls a “new layer of authority,” where he is alone and unattainable and plays the role of “dispatcher.” Putin often gives verbal orders which are very general in nature. This creates confusion as well as room for improvisations by officials and bureaucrats, which can lead to overzealous actions, of which Putin may not intend and come to regret. Pavlovskii notes: “Nemtsov’s murder became a serious crisis of the Team. Vladimir Vladimirovich understood that he is not the boss in his own backyard, but rather people of his power vertical (hierarchy) are.” [Gleb Pavlovskii, Sistema RF: Istochniki rossiiskogo strategicheskogo povedeniya (Moscow: Yevropa, 2015), p. 43].

Yet Putin’s system and Russian bureaucratic and political culture actually dictate attentive hands-on management for effectiveness, as Russian bureaucrats like Soviet bureaucrats before them and Tsarist bureaucrats before Soviet apparatchiks, possess little if any self-initiative. Putin’s preference for foreign policy activity persists. It was on full display in his annual ‘state of the federation address’ in March in which he delivered a fairly lackluster performance and hardly innovative remedies for solving Russia’s lackadaisical economic growth but was quite animate and bold during the famous ‘missile’ portion fo his speech in which he castigated the West for ignoring Russia’s national interests ever since the Cold War’s ends. Similarly, Putin’s interviews are almost always focused on foreign policy issues. Only in his annual marathon press conferences does he delve into domestic economic and political issues in any duration and with any energy.

To be sure, any national leader’s prime responsibilities are foreign and national security policy—that is, any national leader of a democratic, free capitalist state. However, Russia is a soft authoritarian regime, with a large state sector in the economy and a heavy-handed, often repressive role in domestic political battles. Russia has an enormous domestic security apparatus. All this must be kept close tabs on by Putin. He can not afford to over-emphasize foreign policy to the detriment of these spheres, allowing them to proceed without his ‘ruchnoe upravlenie’ (manual management). Putin’s ‘sistema’ requires a great deal of political management and ‘balancing’ (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/14/putin-the-balancer-containing-and-balancing-russias-multifarious-forces-through-soft-authoritarianism/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2017/10/30/explaining-the-unmet-western-expectations-of-imminent-russian-regime-change-parts-1-3/) as well as domestic emergency and economic intervention from above in order to operate at a level of effectiveness that keeps its meta-stability relatively stable.

Domestic events – the fire tragedy in Kemerovo and the garbage poisoning scandal in Volokalamsk – that in Western democratic or ‘Eastern’ but more authoritarian countries than Russia, like China or Saudi Arabia, could have been gotten through without the kind of detailed attention from the chief executive required of Putin. He needed to drop foreign policy issues – including emergencies such as the Skrypal contamination scandal, to make technical decisions as well as political decisions about removing officials and the potential larger political implications. In the case of Kemerovo, he had to travel to the site of the tragedy to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial created by the locals, with the additional security and very sensitive political issues of whether to meet with the crowd near the memorial that had gathered spontaneously and included grieving parents of the tens of children killed in the fire. Moreover, Putin is getting older and has been in his high-stress job for nearly two decades. In such circumstances, any leader – no matter how energetic and capable – can drop the ball, even if he/she is not overly drawn into foreign policy activity. The pension reform debacle and recent losses for his ruling party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) in gubernatorial elections are two signs of something gone awry. 

Moreover still, Putin has based his personal authority to a large extent on his foreign policy performance. But he is playing a weak hand, given the surfeit of Russian military (aside from nuclear forces), economic, financial, and human-capital resources. Over the long-term, he could very well suffer a foreign policy defeat that undoes his rule. Indeed, Putin’s intervention in Crimea was an effort in good part to avoid just that kind of threat from emerging with ‘losing Ukraine.’ Taking Crimea covered for that strategic defeat.

However, given the proportions in Putin’s division of labor in favor of foreign policy, the ball dropped is most likely to be the domestic one. The appointment of a new government after his inauguration in May could provide hints as to how much time and energy Putin intends to devote to domestic policy in his constitutionally final presidential term (at least until 2030).

In future, a defeat abroad combined with declining stability at home could push his ‘sistema’ over the edge. The origins of Putin’s demise in such a scenario most likely would occur inside the elite, leading to either an internal coup or a defection of liberal and/or nationalist figures to their respective oppositional camps. The consequences of such key and/or large-scale defections would be potentially debilitating for the regime’s ability to deter the rise of a powerful opposition camp.

In the latter’s environment, given historical and comparative precedents, the danger lies not in removal by defeat in an election – unless Putin decides to take the path of Mexico out of a single-party dominant system – but rather by illegal removal from above by way of a coup or a revolution from above or from below by way of a revolution from below. Other less dangerous forms of change of regime or ruler are possible, in particular by a legal and negotiated process of ‘pacted transition’.

Indeed, faced with the choice between cracking down or negotiating with the opposition, Putin is probably inclined to negotiate if signals are that a ‘reasonable deal’ can be had: his departure from power with protection of his freedom and some of his personal wealth.

In order to avoid such a crisis point, Putin must find new sources of energy and time or begin to focus more on Russia’s stagnating economy, increasingly-sanctioned and beleaguered business elite, brain drain, and a growing popular malaise—outside of increasing popular antagonism towards the West, which raises the stakes of his foreign policy gambits. Moreover, he must find a successor or re-constitute the system’s two consecutive term-limit for the presidency rather soon, because as the end of his now fourth term nears, the system is likely to see more officials improvising within the general framework, avoiding initiative to fix problems, and increasingly subject to confusion and dropping the ball. Failures can provoke defections from the regime to disgruntled elements inside and/or outside the state. In that case, Putin’s sistema will become more unstable than meta-stable.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Forgotten Russia: Is Putin’s Foreign Policy Focus a Fatal Obsession?

  1. “Many Russian analysts agree that Putin devotes most of his time and energy on foreign policy and has lost almost all interest in domestic policy”

    Numberless “many” nameless “Russian analysts” agree on something – well, in that case let’s trust blindly this claim, without trying to find out on our own whether they are right or wrong! That’s how one approaches Russia Watching – right, Mr. Hahn? After all, you will trust sore loser Pavlovskii, whom you believe to still “maintains contacts” in Kremlin. Royt, suuuure…

    “Similarly, Putin’s interviews are almost always focused on foreign policy issues”

    Have thought that most of Putin’s interviews (there is a limited amount of them) are by and for the foreign journos, who are not interested in Russia’s internal politics? At the very least you, Mr. Hah, are making a claim here. Good, solid scholarship would require you to actually analyze a sufficient number of such interviews and then based on this research (verifiable by anyone) posit a point.

    Instead you in this particular blogpost devolve into a sermon from the pulpit even more than your usual. Mr. Hahn – do you take the readers of your blog for a… “flock”?

    “Russia has an enormous domestic security apparatus”

    Again – compared to whom? Why are you finding a refuge in the “scary big words/numbers” instead of the hard data?

    “In the case of Kemerovo, he had to travel to the site of the tragedy to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial created by the locals”

    “Had to travel”? Are you suggesting that in the Free West this would be wrong and any world leader would just ignore it with no consequences?

    “The pension reform debacle and recent losses for his ruling party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) in gubernatorial elections are two signs of something gone awry.”

    What, they lost every single one of them? Why are you not telling the whole story, Mr. Hahn?

    “Moreover still, Putin has based his personal authority to a large extent on his foreign policy performance.”

    Prove it. I tell you, Mr. Hahn – prove this claim. Can you?

    “The appointment of a new government after his inauguration in May could provide hints as to how much time and energy Putin intends to devote to domestic policy in his constitutionally final presidential term (at least until 2030).”

    Why 2030 and not 2024?

    “Indeed, faced with the choice between cracking down or negotiating with the opposition, Putin is probably inclined to negotiate if signals are that a ‘reasonable deal’ can be had: his departure from power with protection of his freedom and some of his personal wealth.”

    Wow, Mr. Hahn! You already “defeated” Putin! Attaboy! It only requires to find this mythical “Russian opposition” with which to talk about transfer.

    “In order to avoid such a crisis point, Putin must find new sources of energy and time or begin to focus more on Russia’s stagnating economy”

    Define “stagnating economy”. Why is economy now in 2018 more stagnating than in 2015?

    “Failures can provoke defections from the regime to disgruntled elements inside and/or outside the state. In that case, Putin’s sistema will become more unstable than meta-stable.”

    Mr. Hahn, you spent last year praising Navalny (this neo-Gapon) and insinuating that Medvedev will be “resigned” from his post. I mean, are you not tired of passing your ignorant fantasies for the reality?

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  2. This just in:

    302, actually. The dispersal clearly went beyond the pale of propriety in police conduct. Some women, young adults and POC were roughly handled and detained, and a few demonstrators were beaten by the police. For shame, for shame – gan’ba!

    Mr. Hahn! Do you condomen this crackdown on these demonstrations? Would you urge your own students to go on and break the law of your own country, US of A, in order to “Resist” ™ this kind of state repression? Are, in your official capacity as the thinker and academician, increased toughness of the US’s security organs? Would you, yourself, join such an outburst of unsanctioned popular will?

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  3. It gets better in the Beacon of Democracy:

    “The repeat offenders will be booked and jailed without the opportunity to be released…” – gee, scary stuff! Sounds exactly like… Russia!

    Again, Mr. Hahn – where is your otrage? Why are you, such consitent and faithful liberal, are not dissing and cussing your own Regime as you do Russia’s? When will you be openly siding with the criminals in America – like you do when discussing Russia?.

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About Gordon M. Hahn