20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media highlights, Konstantin Gaaze analyzes strategic documents presented at the Gaidar Forum; Andrei Pertsev observes that the power vertical in Russia has started to crumble; Andrei Kolesnikov explains why both the elites and the public prefer the stalemate; Vladimir Frolov details the way the Kremlin may see Donald Trump’s proposal to lift sanctions in return for nuclear arsenal reduction; and Vyacheslav Zubok argues that the U.S. and Russia cannot build equal, peaceful relations due to their almost incompatible concepts of national interest. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin speaks at the 8th Gaidar Forum. Some experts argue that numerous strategies developed, among others, by Kudrin, are pointless because there is no public demand for such documents. Photo: Sergei Savostyanov / TASS


RBC: Competition of Strategies: Why Liberal Expertise Got Caught Up in Crisis

  • Author: journalist and writer Konstantin Gaaze.
  • Gaaze discusses this year’s Gaidar Forum, a high-profile economic conference held annually in Moscow, and notes the meaning of words such as “strategy,” “priorities,” “future,” and “development” were consigned to almost complete irrelevance.
  • As the debate about economic reforms and the need for another strategy continues, it’s getting harder to understand what kind of “strategy” is needed, and to whom it should be applied (by now several documents called “Strategy” have already been written).
  • One of the parties involved in drafting a new strategy is the former minister of finance Alexei Kudrin. The draft proposal made public includes three key directions: 1. A technological revolution; 2. Administrative reform. 3. Budget maneuvering: a reduction of government spending to 32 or 34 percent of GDP.
  • The second team working on a strategy under Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin has developed its own document titled “Complex Plan of Action for the Government of the Russian Federation to Increase the Growth Rate of the Economy in 2017-2025.”
  • Judging by the titles, Kudrin’s strategy is more all-encompassing, while Oreshkin’s plan may be implemented as a matter of necessity.
  • There’s a third team, an alliance of experts and scholars from the Higher School of Economics and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. But the authors prefer not to take any public responsibility for the document they are working on.
  • It’s clear that the heightened interest in strategies and plans is connected to the 2018 election campaign.  
  • Gaaze argues that Kudrin’s stakes are clear: as the government pens its non-political plan behind closed doors, Kudrin will formulate his ambitious strategy around which all the liberals in the country will flock, thus positioning him to receive his reward: the presidency.
  • However, none of the groups developing these strategies have any substantial public support, and there is no public demand for the documents that are being written. Their only consumer is the current president pondering his future campaign.
  • The author points out that what we see at present is “a tired government surrounded by tired experts.” None of them have any energy or passion left to produce fresh ideas, as exemplified in the strategies presented at the Forum.
  • Gaaze writes that the discussion about the country’s future should move away from stale macroeconomic predictions, or any kind of complex economic shamanism for that matter. The real issue lies in how the country’s citizens see their own strategy in terms of improving their standards of living.  
  • On their own, economic growth and wider distribution of cash machines will not make citizens patriotic, their country strong, or their government effective without a discussion as to what it is that defines such strength.  
  • The more monochrome the background to the strategy, the more obvious it will be that there is no general consensus as to what “Russia” is in the second decade of the 21st century.  

РБК, Конкурс стратегий: почему либеральная экспертиза оказалась в кризисе, Константин Гаазе, 18 января 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: Own Worlds: How the Power Vertical Started to Crumble

  • Author: journalist Andrei Pertsev.
  • For many years, all political structures and players in Russia were not allowed any autonomy (with two exceptions—Ramzan Kadyrov and Igor Sechin). Loyalty to the Center was supposed to be universal, while creating any local set of rules was perceived as a threat to the power vertical.
  • Pertsev argues that 2017 marks a departure from that rule, as many “systemic players” have launched an “autonomization” process. A case in point is the current State Duma reformatted by its new chair Vyacheslav Volodin, former deputy chief of the presidential administration.
  • Volodin established a new order, took control over key positions in the United Russia faction in the Duma, brought his own people in, and built new borders around his “territory,” thus limiting access to the parliament for government and administration agents.
  • Another example of an emerging autonomous system in today’s Russia is the Moscow region, where Governor Andrei Vorobyov is building a more rigid, simplified governing system (e.g. hundreds of municipalities will soon be merged, reducing their total number to a few dozen). Thus, the governor will concentrate power mostly in his own hands.
  • Other regional heads are showing growing taste for more autonomy as well, including Rustam Minnikhanov (Tatarstan), Andrei Artamonov (Kaluga region), and Sergei Morozov (Ulyanovsk region). Their major concern is the unfair redistribution of the regional budget profits that are used by the federal government to cover poor regions’ deficits.
  • A similar demand for expanding powers can be observed inside the state corporations Rosneft and Rostech.
  • Pertsev concludes that all of these developments suggest that the centrifugal forces in Russia are gaining momentum. And those players who have access to resources are doing their best to secure their grip on power and to fortify their positions.
  • The crumbling of the vertical is bad news for the system, as it shows that the players are losing faith in the system’s sustainability. Establishing their own set of rules in their own domains, these new feudal lords hope to weather any future storms. And that is a sign that the transition of power has already begun, and won’t be easy.

Carnegie.ru, Свои миры: как начала разрушаться вертикаль власти, Андрей Перцев,


Vedomosti: Plus the Hybridization of the Whole Country

  • Author: Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center.
  • Kolesnikov argues that observers sometimes exaggerate the governability of the political processes in Russia. At the early stages of the 2018 presidential cycle, the elites care only about self-preservation, while the rest of the country is focused on survival.
  • The former pretend to govern, the latter pretend to be governed and even united over certain values, while in reality everyone is minding their own business.
  • The author thus questions the notion that Russia’s regime is personalist, arguing that it may be hybrid. How much power does Vladimir Putin have if the opinions of his close friends have so much influence on him?
  • Kolesnikov points out that analysts of Russia and its current politics should keep in mind that this gigantic post-imperial country is suffering from a severe case of “phantom limb” syndrome. And its people are not post-Soviet, but still Soviet, only living in anti-Soviet conditions. So whenever they sense any Soviet “ghost” (e.g. pompous military power, projecting fear), they feel good.
  • The elite’s self-preservation behavior may be rational, but short-sighted. They are not scared by stagnation but by the risk of losing their ill-gotten gains. This fear obstructs their long-term vision of launching change for their own sake.
  • As for the masses, they are conditioned to expect any change to be disastrous throughout the ensuing long period of so-called “negative adaptation.”
  • As a result, the country is stuck in a state that Kolesnikov describes as a “hybrid, poor balance”, too scared to even breathe, pinning its last hopes on Trump. 

Ведомости, Плюс гибридизация всей страны, Андрей Колесников, 18 января 2017 г.


Republic.ru: Missiles in Return for Crimea: What Is Behind Trump’s Nuclear Disarmament Proposal?

  • Author: Vladimir Frolov, expert in international affairs.
  • This week, president-elect Trump suggested a potential “big deal” with Moscow—lifting sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in return for nuclear arms reduction.
  • On the one hand, Moscow sees it as a breakthrough initiative, but on the other, similar ideas were articulated during the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to little effect. Therefore, the Kremlin may feel a bit concerned about the familiar military rhetoric.
  • Still, Moscow may yet harbor hopes of steering the conversation down the line toward the issues that have been bothering the Kremlin, such as U.S. global domination or the NATO-centered security architecture in Europe.
  • Also, the idea of putting sanctions and nuclear issues together in “one package” differs from earlier assumptions that sanctions are linked to Russia’s implementation of the Minsk Accords.
  • According to Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, who is rumored to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, the deal includes Russia’s full withdrawal from Ukraine, abolition of the DNR and LNR in return for Kiev’s refusal to join the EU and NATO, and recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea but only after Russia runs a new referendum under international oversight and compensates property losses to Ukraine.
  • Another issue that may concern Moscow is that Trump’s stance on nuclear arms has been contradictory: so far he has voiced the need both to reduce nuclear arsenals and to start another arms race. His negative view of the Iran deal (that Moscow supports) is also a problem.
  • There are plenty of other issues related to U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation,, ranging from nuclear modernization programs to compliance with various treaties (e.g. the INF Treaty).
  • But Russia has already showed the first signs of softening its stance in response to the new rhetoric of the Trump administration: last week Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia may shift to non-nuclear strategic deterrence.
  • Frolov concludes that overall, despite its complexity, the Trump deal is not utopian, and its implementation depends on how it is structured. For Moscow, the very wording of the deal, with no mention of Ukraine, is already a political win. Besides, the deal allows the Kremlin to include in the exchange something that it doesn’t care about (or cannot afford, like a “nuclear missile-armored train”).

Republic.ru, Ракеты в обмен на Крым. Что стоит за предложением Трампа о ядерном разоружении? Владимир Фролов, 17 января 2017 г.


Vedomosti: Russia and America: The Impossible Partnership

  • Author: Vladislav Zubok, professor of History at the London School of Economics.
  • Zubok notes that equal, peaceful relations between Russia and the United States never existed, so why build them now?
  • Their foreign policies rest on two almost incompatible concepts of national interest.  
  • American nationalism is based on the idea that the country is a force for good and freedom in the world. Zubok argues that American messianic nationalism played a huge role in starting the Cold War against the USSR, rather than returning to its pre-war isolationism.
  • Beginning from 1945 the belief that the U.S. has the right to distribute its concept of freedom across the world has been steadily growing. In this sense, American nationalism has become a global project.  
  • An overwhelmingly successful economy has overseen the realization of this goal, with two particular processes coinciding in favor of the U.S: globalization and the constant movement of American society towards a more “just” state of affairs and equal rights for minorities.  
  • America’s presence all over the world from strategic aviation to military bases dotted across the globe and its nuclear umbrella are not so much instruments of war as necessary for the defense of its partners from Western Europe to Taiwan. For America, losing domination over world markets is tantamount to the loss of “the American way of life.”   
  • Russian nationalism has its roots in very different soil. Ever since Ivan the Terrible destroyed the commercial dominance of Veliky Novgorod, Moscow’s basis of politics has been in assembling a great empire. Trade with foreign countries certainly played a significant role, but it did not constitute the thinking of the ruling class, the Boyars, who aspired to strengthen the unity and power of the state.  
  • “Volya”, the Russian word for “liberty” and religious “freedom” both appeared in the 17th century, but led to two Russian tragedies—the Time of Troubles and the schism of the Orthodox Church.
  • From the time of Peter the Great onwards, two major forces have been battling each other in Russian political culture—“the business party” and “the state party.” But as soon as the motives of nationalism and security come to the forefront of mass public consciousness, the ruling class and the merchants sacrifice their personal interests “on the altar of the Fatherland.”
  • After the fall of the USSR, Russian foreign policy was in the hands of a young and energetic “business party,” with figures like Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar and Andrei Kozyrev believing that Russia ought to follow the American model.  
  • However, millions of Russian citizens never shook off the impression that a strong state and a strong president are the only remedy for “times of troubles” and that a powerful centralized state will save the people from outright anarchy and lawlessness.  
  • Historical conservative nationalism urges millions of Russians to fear the very thing that Americans have been so enthusiastic about—liberalization that would lead to the destruction of the strong state.
  • It is not surprising that many Russians continue to support Putin when he says that the U.S. world order will bring Russia to ruin and anarchy. Therefore, for them the key to survival is to resist the American project, regardless of the consequences.
  • Zubok contends that a sort of friendship could arise between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin, but this does not mean that there will be grounds for a new era in Russian-American relations, as the concepts of nationhood will remain the same as they have always been.  

Ведомости, Россия и США: Невозможность партнерства, Владислав Зубок, 18 января 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.