Friday, June 21, 2024

Putin loses his halo as a tamer of the Russian elite

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Russia’s war in the Ukraine has also caused a tremor among Russian elites. The worst defeats of the Russian forces in Ukraine triggered a wave of unprecedented messages against the leadership of the Armed Forces and the officials responsible for logistics in the battle. The flood of criticism in the Kremlin orbit media against the military leadership preceded the verbal punches of analysts and propagandists of the war against Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. An absolutely unthinkable scenario just a year ago and that symbolizes the internal wars, the fissures in the upper echelons of the pyramidal structure of power, and the concern about the future in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country governed by the security apparatus,

At another time, no one would have dared to raise their voices against the head of the Army, star minister and leader in public popularity polls. Shoigu, the man who has accompanied Putin for years on his choreographed holiday photo shoots in Siberia, in which the Russian leader went from posing as the strong man, on horseback with a bare chest, to grandfather drinking tea at a table picnic with glass salt and pepper shakers.

The fights, stomps, stab wounds and rivalries in the lower echelons of the pyramid of power have existed for decades, but now they are spread openly, with great fanfare, on Telegram channels and even in traditional propaganda media. The antagonism, for example, between their spy agencies—the military, the GRU, and the general, the FSB—has been legendary. In fact, Putin was using these quarrels for his own benefit. The Russian leader had kept the waters calm in the upper echelons of power, as well as among the economic and political elites that make up the fabric of Putinism, who have fulfilled their part of the bargain on account of not criticizing the Kremlin and following the patterns of the system. in order to conserve a portion of the pie sufficient to enrich themselves in a country with capital inequalities.

But just like the Russian president, by launching the military mobilization, he has broken the social contract with the citizenry, to whom he promised stability or at least a moderately predictable life; The war in Ukraine has blown up the status quo among the political-military elites, especially in some of the most visible -although not for that reason the most powerful-, where public criticism of strategic decisions that have been taken in the invasion.

At the top of the Russian pyramid, however, the continuity of the leader is not in question. “There is no challenge to Putin,” says an official linked to Western intelligence, who has closely studied the environment of the Russian leader for years. “Putin’s inner circle is made up of men like him, people who also come from the KGB and whose absolute power is based on this system, which would collapse without the leader. Immediately below them they fear what might come next. And, above all, how much could they lose and what consequences would they face? “There is a very big unease and symptoms have started to emerge that if the losses are kept up front, without any kind of game changer, infighting could break out,” he says.

The criticism and internal friction known in recent months do not seem to be part of a campaign against the Kremlin, but are, rather, visible symptoms of an elite that feels in crisis and that Putin is not doing the job he is supposed to. expects of him: “To be the man who controls the disputes from the inside”, says Mark Galeotti. The analyst, writer of several essays on Russia, such as Brief history of Russia or We have to talk about Putin, both edited in Spanish by Capitan Swing, remarks by phone that the circles of Russian power are “concerned” about lack of control and open fissures in a system that has revolved around a single figure for two decades. “This means that Putin will be less responsive when some kind of external crisis occurs; such as a disease, a popular protest, the collapse of the Armed Forces at the front or an attack by Ukraine in Crimea”, says Galeotti. “There is no direct threat against Putin, but when he does exist he will be much more vulnerable [than before],” he adds.

The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and the disgraceful losses of the Kremlin forces provoked a wave of cries and pressure for the Kremlin to take the invasion to a larger scale. Putin gave the ultranationalist sector part of what it was looking for by decreeing the mobilization —which has fueled citizen discontent, has shaken homes and caused the flight of tens of thousands of men from the country— and ordering a campaign of indiscriminate bombings against infrastructure Ukrainian civilian in an alleged reaction to the sabotage of its bridge to Crimea.

Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, from the RealPolitik consultancy, describes the system of Putinism with a simile: “Each player has his own test zone and within it, he almost has carte blanche. It is almost impossible to go further. Those zones are different in size and scale of tasks,” she says. With the war, some players hitherto marginal, frozen, or even considered pariahs by general elites have stepped into the space of others and have been gaining ground in the system still picture.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nation day ceremony in Moscow in 2017. Sergei Karpukhin (REUTERS)

This is the case of the controversial and obscure Yevgeni Prigozhin. After years denying any connection with the Wagner mercenary company —and even taking to court those who linked him to it—, the man known as Putin’s chef (because he has a catering company) has come forward as the chief recruiter of private contractors for the war in Ukraine — including in Russian prisons — and he’s grabbed a bigger slice of the pie than he had. All while he was wielding harsh criticism of the Russian military leadership through its propagandists and the media he runs. This is also the case of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadirov, recently promoted to general in Putin’s Army, after furiously swearing at senior commanders of the Armed Forces for losing the battle of Liman.

These attacks on the military leadership reveal a struggle for power now that the Army is worn out and weaker, says Russian military analyst Pavel Luzin, emphasizing that those who are involved in the war, but who are not part of the regular Army , like Prigozhin and Kadyrov, are trying to blame the Armed Forces for defeats and profit at the same time.

Putin’s chef, for example, who gets to kill Minister Shoigu, whom he blames for the loss of some tenders for the Army, is now in a better position with Wagner. Meanwhile, Kadyrov is looking for more funding now that budgets are shaky and Chechnya, which receives more than 80% of its funds directly from Moscow, may be hit. “He’s saying, ‘I can be a real pain in the rear and that’s why you should pay me.’ Moscow is terrified that Kadyrov and Chechnya will explode again,” adds Galeotti.

For analyst Nikolaus von Twickel, director of the Zentrum Liberale Moderne and former adviser to the OSCE in the 2014 Donbas war, the latest appointments of the high command — Sergei Surovikin, known for his bombing of civilian infrastructure in Syria — do not reflect a struggle for power, but “desperate” attempts by the political-military leadership (Putin and Shoigu) to improve what they have. “I don’t see that the elites are going to try anything against Putin right now. Putin’s system has been built on factional tensions, which ensures that factions do not unite against the president himself,” says Von Twickel. The expert gives Kadyrov and Prigozhin as an example, who “owe everything to Putin” and “can openly criticize as long as they are controlled by other sides.”

Russian infighting has led to the arrest of several heads of Prigozhin’s propaganda channels on social media. Putin’s chef, also responsible for the armies of bots that have interfered in elections in Europe and America, has witnessed these months several waves of arrests among his employees for alleged fraud; although the real motive could be his criticism of the authorities.

Putin’s change of direction has also reached the ultra-nationalist sector. Igor Girkin, known as Commander Strelkov, as well as other voices highly critical of the conduct of the war, are currently under investigation for their slurs against the high command, the Mash media outlet, with links to the Kremlin, has reported. The military officer even accused Shoigu of having committed “criminal negligence” when planning the offensive. “I don’t have a basis for accusing him of treason, but I suspect it,” Strelkov said in May, when Russia controlled thousands more square miles of territory. The growing arrests are signs that there is less and less control, experts agree.

Mysterious deaths and complicit silence

In this atmosphere of destabilization and concern, several mysterious deaths of people from the business world and some high-ranking officials of regional administrations are framed. From the death in strange circumstances of Ravil Maganov, director of Lukoil, to Alexander Tiuliakov, director of corporate security of the gas company Gazprom. “I wouldn’t say they were Kremlin-organized [assassinations], they could be rivalries; but the feeling of being in the 1990s is beginning to waft through,” says analyst Galeotti, referring to the turbulent post-Soviet years.

As stabbings and elbows surface in some military and political quarters, urban elites and the rosary of Western-educated technocrats remain mostly silent. Names like Alexei Kudrin, former Minister of Finance; the executive director of Sberbank, German Gref; or the director of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and all the other apolitical technocrats “refrain from public criticism, from rejecting the war, and cling to their posts,” analyzes the Carnegie expert Alexandra Prokorenko.

On February 21, when Putin summoned his Security Council to prepare his offensive, the old Putinism disappeared. The collegiate-consultative model, in which the opinion of the presidential environment was considered important, sometimes even definitive, has given way to a situation in which all decisions are made by a single person: the president, explains Prokorenko in a recent analysis in which he predicts that the system will enter a crisis: “The problem, for the technocrats, is that it will be impossible to be efficient among the moral and institutional ruins left by the war.”

All these visible infighting has also brought to the fore an enormous fear of what could happen in a Russia without Putin. In a country where the head of the Kremlin and the security apparatus, which actually runs the country, have completely mowed down the opposition and civil society, and where most of the prominent dissidents are in prison or in exile it is complicated to rebuild a rebellious social fabric from within.

Some have made their possible pools. And in Putin’s Russia, another Putin would probably sprout today, says an official linked to a Western intelligence agency. He would probably be one of the KGB men who is part of his inner circle. According to analyst Von Twickel, the current head of the Security Council and his successor at the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, would only be in the possible pools “in case of incapacitation.” “I don’t think it’s likely. It would be like the transition [in the last moments of the USSR] from Andropov to Chernenko: a sign that the elite does not want changes”, says the analyst. “The point is that it is extremely difficult to make a prediction because there are no institutions that can serve as a guide,” warns the expert.

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