Putin's pals: Who is helping steer the Kremlin now?

Russia’s leader keeps his relationships in the Kremlin's halls of power private. But military and security types seem to be gaining favor over once-prominent oligarchs and ideologues.

President Vladimir Putin (l.) chatted with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in December 2014. Mr. Shoigu is a popular public figure in Russia.

The West’s response to Russia’s alleged military aid to Ukraine’s rebels has been based on the idea that the biggest influence in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle are the so-called oligarchs. Hurt the business elite that stand beside Mr. Putin, goes the theory, and you pressure the Russian president himself.

And the oligarchs are reportedly hurting, as Western sanctions – given extra bite by plummeting oil prices – have eaten away at their fortunes. Financial analysts put the damage in the billions of dollars, with no respite in the offing.

So why have the Ukrainian rebels been pushing their offensive and talking of building a 100,000-strong reserve army to bring the fight to Kiev?

The reason, according to some accounts, is that it is not the oligarchs who hold Putin’s ear now. Rather, it is Russia’s military-security establishment, collectively known as the siloviki, who are shaping the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

“The role of what we call the defense-industrial complex is rising rapidly in Russian society,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “It’s not just the armed forces, but also the [80,000-strong] interior troops, the Federal Security Service [FSB], police, and other security organizations. The key narrative of the siloviki, that Russia is surrounded by enemies and must defend itself from external aggression and internal subversion, has become the main theme on nightly TV broadcasts.”

And that changing of the guard must shape how Western decisionmakers respond as Ukraine teeters on the edge of war, the Middle East seethes amid fighting in Syria and Iraq, and Europe frets over how much to sanction the Kremlin.

The inner circle

For most Russia-watchers, understanding what Putin is thinking – and who is shaping it – is a matter of rumor, guesswork, and the arcane art of reading Kremlin tea leaves.

Alexander Dugin, a prominent right-wing scholar and founder of the anti-Western “Eurasian” school of political philosophy, would seem an appropriate person to ask to explain Moscow’s worldview. He has often been named by Western Russia-watchers as the main intellectual influence behind Putin’s worldview. After Russia annexed Crimea last year, amid a tidal wave of patriotism, Foreign Affairs magazine went so far as to label Mr. Dugin “Putin’s Brain.” If anyone knows how the inner-Kremlin circuits are wired, he should.

But Dugin says he never enjoyed special access, and whatever input he had was shut down last summer when he and other “patriots” were fired from their jobs and pushed aside. “Anything anyone tells you about how Putin decides things is either disinformation, or error,” Dugin says.

Yet knowledge of who gets Putin’s attention these days has serious implications for Western policy as relations with Moscow spiral to depths not plumbed for a generation. Consider the stir created recently by former Putin adviser Sergei Markov, who told journalists that the composition of Putin’s inner circle has shifted radically over the past year, with wealthy pro-Kremlin oligarchs – whose financial well-being depends on good relations with the West – being shunted aside and replaced by siloviki.

If true, that could mean that Western sanctions policy, which sought to pressure Putin into changing course in Ukraine by squeezing his rich cronies, may have actually accelerated the militarization of Russian society and stiffened the Kremlin’s resistance to making any compromises over Ukraine.
“At the moment, the sanctions regime helps those who stand for a strong state sector,” says Igor Yurgens, a longtime advocate for private business. “When you do not have a flow of capital from outside, it hands the advantage to state corporations and those who stand for a strong state. It’s that simple.”

Day of the siloviki

Experts have been pointing out for some time that the influence and share of national wealth enjoyed by Russia’s Army and security forces have been expanding for much of the Putin era, and may be spiking as Russia slides into an increasingly ugly confrontation with the West over Ukraine.

Russia’s post-cold-war rearmament program began nearly a decade ago, but went into high gear after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 for an unprecedented third term as president. This year Russia’s military budget is $80 billion, a 30 percent increase over last year. By order of Putin, military spending is exempted from the across-the-board 10 percent cut in government spending mandated amid the current economic crisis.

Now, leading Russian hawks, including members of Putin’s inner circle, regularly express views in the mainstream media that might have been considered marginal just a few years ago. For example Nikolai Patrushev, former chief of the FSB and current secretary of the Kremlin Security Council, recently gave an extended interview to the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, in which he claimed that the West had “dusted off” its old blueprint for destroying the USSR and was actively applying it against Putin’s Russia.

The group’s ranks include current FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov, a career KGB officer, and the head of the powerful Interior Ministry, Vladimir Kolokoltsev. Perhaps the best-known silovik is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who, aside from Putin himself, is one of Russia’s few genuinely popular public officials. Mr. Shoigu is well regarded largely for his competent management of the Ministry of Emergency Situations – Russia’s version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – which he headed from the early 1990s until 2012.

And the rise of the siloviki isn’t just about a handful of generals and intelligence apparatchiks, says Mr. Golts.”With their families, they number about 10 million people, strategically placed,” he says. “Taking care of them is probably more important than the stated goals of rearmament and modernizing the military, which are probably largely unattainable anyway. This definitely plays a role in skewing Russian politics” toward more militaristic and nationalist viewpoints.

Political survival at stake

“Putin these days surrounds himself with the commanders of state structures, and they bring this mentality of a beleaguered nation that must defend itself at any cost,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. “This is not so much about the money as it is about politics.”

Though Putin’s approval rating still exceeds 80 percent among the Russian public, the Kremlin knows that won’t last forever, says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “Our government is worried. Putin knows that internal troubles can blow up in Russia very quickly,” Mr. Mukhin says. “A lot of attention is being given to police reform, strengthening security systems, with the goal of nipping revolution in the bud.”

Most analysts say Putin probably believes that the West is out to overthrow him, perhaps with a “colored revolution” like the one that unseated Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a year ago, and that he is ramping up internal security forces and granting them broader powers to track down and squelch subversion.

But even so, the siloviki are not a monolith, says political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. “You should remember that the siloviki are not united; there is no siloviki union that represents them. In practice, they compete with each other for influence with the Kremlin, and this gives Putin a lot of scope to play them off against each other.”

Others argue that focusing primarily on the role of the siloviki in shaping Kremlin policy ignores the still-important role of the oligarchs, who will now be tasked with rebuilding Russia’s economy to sidestep sanctions and tap new sources of investment and growth. “Putin is known to be a good manager,” says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “He will move to restore the balance between the different groups that are close to him. He needs them to help formulate new policies to minimize the economic losses and neutralize the political trends that could threaten his power.

“He’s a rational player, and he’s very interested in his own political survival.”

[Editor's note: This article includes material published last month by The Christian Science Monitor.]

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