20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Ukraine crisis has caused a shift in the balance of power within the Russian political elite. The so-called siloviki, or hardliners, are strongly in ascendance, but not completely triumphant. Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, reflects on Russia’s current political landscape.


According to some analysts, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov (right) and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (left) have become closest of all the elites to Vladimir Putin (center). Photo: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters.


The nature of Russian politics has been a hotly debated topic since tsarist times, and remains so today. The traditional view, associated with Harvard professor Richard Pipes, portrays the ruler of Russia as an autocrat who owns the country’s land and people and who struggled against the aristocracy to build a centralized state. Pipes analyzes the political behavior of the principal social groups—peasantry, nobility, middle class, and clergy—and their failure to stand up to the increasing absolutism of the czar.

A rival view by Edward Keenan, also of Harvard, emphasizes consensus and marriage ties over class divisions and conflict among members of the Russian (earlier Muscovite) court. For Keenan, the ruler was less an autocrat than he was the hub of an oligarchic system where the court functioned as an extended family of interrelated clans, the ruler’s dynasty being one of those clans. Current president Vladimir Putin’s system of rule has often been viewed as a pyramidal monolith, as Pipes described it, with Putin as the irreplaceable leader-statesman who makes most key decisions. The reality of power in Putin’s Russia, however, has often more closely resembled the Keenan model. While Putin is undoubtedly the dominant figure, Russia’s system of power has not been a strict power vertical ruled only by one person. It has instead been a conglomerate of shifting clans and groups with Putin at the center.

A much-publicized report by the Minchenko Consulting Communication Group, published in 2012, argued that current Kremlin decision-making increasingly resembles that of the old Soviet Politburo. First, Russian leaders almost never hold joint sessions. Second, the formal status of members of the inner circle does not necessarily reflect their actual influence in making decisions. Third, the collection of clans around Putin that is usually the locus of real decision-making in Russia (“Politburo 2.0”) includes elite groups that, to some extent, can be divided into “power” groups, “technical” groups, and “business” groups. These groups support and are part of the “collective Putin” and “Politburo 2.0” (though these labels are simplified and often overlap). On the other hand, the groups constantly compete with one another for influence and resources.

Putin’s role in the system, according to Minchenko, is by far the most influential. He is the arbiter and moderator and usually has the final say. As arbiter, Putin regulates the interests and conflicts among various subunits and members of the elite, and between the elites and society at large. He has maintained his power by forcing compromises and setting clans against one another, shifting the correlation of forces one way or another. This prevents tensions from building before they reach the surface, potentially destroying the entire system. Putin has also delegated authority, let things work themselves out, or waited until competing sides worked out solutions amongst themselves. His inability to completely control clan behavior sometimes frustrates the implementation of his decisions.

In a recent article, however, Konstantin Gaaze argues that Minchenko’s “Politburo 2.0” has been shattered by the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Since the crisis began, he writes, among Russian elites, Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Alexander Bortnikov, five of his deputies and some FSB department chiefs, oligarch Yury Kovalchuk, and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu have been closest to Putin (though Putin does consult with others outside this inner circle). Kremlin administration chief Sergey Ivanov has become a relatively uninfluential “yes man,” according to Gaaze, always agreeing with Putin in order to protect his political position. The government is now a place that merely rubber stamps decisions made in the Kremlin or in Putin’s residence, since the so-called siloviki, or hardliners, now “sell” external threats to the president at the expense of other considerations.  

The hardliners have received less from Putin in Ukraine than they wanted, in part because the Kremlin does not appear to have a single, unified strategy for Ukraine. Putin acts as though he wishes to avoid clashes with the hardliners, but does not want them to get so strong that they dominate the other blocks.

Indeed, events in the Ukraine crisis support Gaaze’s point of view to some extent.

Commentator Valeriy Solovey wrote on March 3 that Putin made the decision to annex Crimea personally, after a discussion with five or six advisors from the power ministries (advisors without assets in the West). A March 7 New York Times article agreed, finding that Putin made the decision with hardline advisors (possibly including Ivanov, Bortnikov, and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council).

At the end of June, a group of high-ranking European officials reportedly offered their services as moderators in the Ukraine conflict. But the FSB and SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence service) convinced Putin that the proposal was a provocation designed to uncover Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, so Putin turned down the offer.

Finally, Russian government ministers reportedly found out about Putin’s decision to impose retaliatory food sanctions on imports from the West only hours before it was announced publicly. Specialists on issues such as food safety who might have argued against retaliation were ignored.

But while the hardliners are strongly in ascendance, they do not appear to be fully triumphant. Foreign policy has long been the area where Putin has taken the lead, so it is natural that the role of a narrow circle of people drawn largely from the power ministries would grow as the Ukraine crisis came to dominate the agenda. On other issues, however, Putin seems to be managing the infighting in ways largely consistent with his traditional role as arbiter, even as the system as a whole moves in a more authoritarian direction. It is also normal in Putin’s system to have decisions made outside of formal channels, since clans play such a powerful role. The “liberal” elites, as they are inaccurately sometimes called, are still there, but marginalized and doubtless disappointed that Putin is tilting away from them. With Putin’s approval rating above 80 percent, they are likely unwilling to go too far in criticizing Putin’s Ukraine policy, regardless of any misgivings they may have about it. What’s more, many support the war.

There are also divisions within the leadership, including among the hardliners, over Ukraine. The Russian press has widely reported differences between the “war party” and “corporate” Russia. The first group includes Alexander Bortnikov, Mikhail Fradkov, Nikolay Patrushev, Sergey Shoygu, Sergey Glazyev, Dmitry Rogozin, Konstantin Malofeyev, Aleksander Dugin, and perhaps Vladimir Yakunin and Yury Kovalchuk. The second group is comprised of presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov, ideologist Sergei Kurginyan, members of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s team, members of Boris Yeltsin’s family, and others. The first group reportedly favored a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, supported independence for “Novorossiya” (a Kremlin-invented construct that would include Ukraine’s Russian-language speakers in the country’s east and southeast), and opposed the Minsk ceasefire. The second group, while favoring war and the annexation of Crimea in principle, has more limited aims.

However, the FSB is not a group of unified hardliners, but a collection of clans that also fight with one another. And within the “war party” itself, Shoygu and Rogozin are reportedly antagonists. Some people, like Ivanov, a former FSB officer, have, over the years, forged alliances—situational and otherwise—with “liberals.” Finally, various hardliners likely have their own favorites among the separatist leaders.

So far, the hardliners have received less from Putin in Ukraine than they wanted, in part because the Kremlin does not appear to have a single, unified strategy for Ukraine. Putin has tried to make decisions that balance hardline demands with those of the “corporate” group, of which Surkov is a member. Putin acts as though he wishes to avoid a clash with the hardliners, but does not want them to get so strong that they dominate the other blocks. The result has been an inconsistent approach that has frustrated prospects for a settlement.

Following recent reports of tensions in the field among separatist commanders, pro-Russia military anti-hero and adventurer Igor Girkin (Strelkov) returned to Moscow. Viewed in some nationalist quarters as a possible challenger to Putin, Strelkov made statements of loyalty at a September press conference. He voiced his support for Putin, saying that the president is a great man. But he also alleged that Putin is surrounded by traitors, and declared that he will remain in Russia to fight them. Strelkov openly demands that the liberal part of the elite be destroyed, which would completely wreck the balance established by Putin and open the door to the dominance of the siloviki. This means that if he is sincere, Strelkov supports Putin so that “Putinism” can be ruined. 

It is not clear how many of the hardliners would really want to totally destroy Putin’s system of “checks and balances.” It is likely that some of them would balk at going that far, believing it might make rival hardliners too strong. And surely they realize that maintaining a certain balance has kept the peace at the highest levels of the system throughout the Putin era, making life safer and assets more secure for the key players.

As for the liberal clans in the elite, they are relatively weaker than the “war party” at the moment, but they are not sitting idly and waiting to be cut down. It was they, and not the siloviki, who pushed for the ceasefire in Ukraine. Though Putin may be preparing to tighten the screws that would marginalize them even further, should the liberals sound the alarm about any threat to Putin’s position from the far right, it is almost certain that he would listen.