20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, New Times discusses the reshuffling expected in the Kremlin and the government after the March 18 elections; Vladimir Frolov writes about the new round of U.S. sanctions and the Kremlin reaction to it; Alexander Baunov argues that in the upcoming elections Vladimir Putin is planning to beat an issue, not an opponent; Alexander Rubtsov of the Center for the Study of Ideological Processes contends that Putin needs a resounding victory; and in another piece this week, Rubtsov discusses the role of ideology in the Russian political process.


Russia's deputy prime ministers Vitaly Mutko (left) and Dmitry Rogozin (center) are expected to lose their positions after the March 2018 elections. Photo: Dmitry Astakhov / TASS.


  1. New Times: In Anticipation of a Big Reshuffle

  • While Putin has not announced any final decisions, journalist Denis Vardanyan discusses the reshuffling expected in the Kremlin and the government after the March 18 elections. The likely candidates comprise three groups: those whose work is marred by mistakes, those who want a reassignment, and those whose fate depends on their current bosses.  
  • Two of the nine vice premiers—Dmitry Rogozin and Vitaly Mutko—have behaved so scandalously of late that it is almost inevitable they will lose their posts. Rogozin, behind Russia’s military-industrial complex, has encountered numerous problems with failed rockets at Roscosmos.
  • Mutko, the sports minister, is considered responsible for the doping scandal and Russia’s non-admission to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
  • Other ministers at the center of public scandals are Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky with his unscholarly dissertation and Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov, who expected to become the governor of St. Petersburg before the scandal surrounding the airline VIM-Avia.
  • Many predict the exclusion of Minister for Far Eastern Affairs Alexander Galushka from the post-March government due to serious disagreements with his superior, Yuri Trutnev, and Minister for Emergency Situations Vladimir Puchkov, who failed to maintain an effective department after Sergei Shoigu’s departure.
  • Most sources are convinced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will keep his post, though Anton Vaino, the head of the Kremlin administration, has also been floated as a replacement option (Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko could then take Vaino’s place).
  • Others hope for new ministerial assignments or to resign altogether—Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov allegedly wants to be appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, though his wish is unlikely to be granted as Sergei Lavrov remains one of the most popular members of the government.
  • Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov all hope to resign.
  • In information and media, Alexei Gromov in the presidential administration may also resign, though this seems less likely now that he is heavily involved in Putin’s election headquarters.
  • Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, is also expected to resign imminently. Konstantin Ernst of Channel One Russia and Oleg Dobrodeyev of VGTRK—the largest state-owned media—have been warned that if they cannot reconcile their differences, they will both lose their positions.
  • The author concludes by stating the many reasons behind the predicted rotations: the loss of an influential patron,  personal ambitions, public scandals that could affect Putin’s ratings, and, finally, the aging president’s desire to surround himself with officials from the younger generation of 40-50-year-olds.

New Times, В ожидании больших пересадок, Денис Варданян, 15 января 2018 г.


  1. Republic: Guessing Who Is on the “Kremlin List.” How Moscow Is Awaiting New U.S. Sanctions 

  • The most gripping political event for the Russian ruling class is arguably not the March election, but the forthcoming publication of the “Kremlin report” by the U.S. Treasury. International relations expert Vladimir Frolov writes about the new round of sanctions, and whether there is political will to annul them in the future.
  • There are many misconceptions about the “Kremlin report”—it is not in itself a sanctions list of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and it does not provide for any automatic restrictions on financial transactions in U.S. dollars or entry into the U.S.
  • However, inclusion on the list increases the risk that sanctions will be imposed in the future. These new measures are no longer economic restrictions, but personalized sanctions against the Russian elite and their family members.
  • The report is only one element of the new sanction package—real fears should be triggered by a separate report about illegal financial transactions related to Russia or committed by Russians in the U.S. and Europe, though the consequences are unknown.
  • The uncertainty and blurring of who could make the list also means that any notable businessman or politician in Russia is under threat. Many have tried to lobby Washington or have hired PR consultants to minimize reputational risks.
  • However, these efforts ended before the new year after the Kremlin allegedly expressed disapproval (the Kremlin wants to prevent high-ranking officials involved in foreign policy from defecting). At the same time, not being under threat can be interpreted as an official’s lack of loyalty to the Kremlin.
  • Some Russian officials, like Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, believe that the sanctions are an attempt to influence the situation in Russia before the elections. At the same time, measures are being taken to reduce the transparency of Russian companies, which may be affected by the sanctions.
  • Regardless, Russia lacks a symmetrical response to the U.S. Neither has it considered a meaningful strategy to have the sanctions lifted: finding mutually acceptable solutions to the conflict in Donbass and perceived interference in each other’s domestic affairs.
  • Instead, the Kremlin is waiting for the U.S. to realize that it has an interest in improving U.S.-Russian affairs, which the Kremlin believes is dependent on its domestic situation.
  • The Kremlin cannot make any meaningful changes before the March elections, but reevaluation is expected afterward, especially since there will be personnel reassignments to the foreign policy team.
  • Frolov believes that a solution to remove sanctions should be done without attracting the attention of the U.S. media and Congress—negotiations in a third country should be enacted between high-ranking proxies of the two presidents. The only question is whether there is the political will to do so.

Republic, Гадание на «кремлевском списке». Как Москва ждет новых санкций США, Владимир Фролов, 18 января 2018 г.


  1. Carnegie.ru: The Field Before the Fight. Whom Vladimir Putin Is Planning to Beat in the Elections

  • In the Russian elections, Putin’s real opponent is not a name on the ballot. Aleksander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, argues that Putin’s victory depends on his ability to defeat an issue that will define his next presidential term.
  • Putin has continually demonstrated that he treats elections as a deadly battle, not a sports match or talent contest. In 2012, for example, his reelection was not against another candidate, but against the domestic and foreign forces that brought protesters to Moscow’s streets in late 2011 for the sake of regime change.
  • According to Russia’s Constitution, the 2018 elections will be the last term for the government in its current form. It is thus necessary to defeat the idea of lost time and missed opportunities—two main critiques of Putin’s Kremlin. Whenever these questions come up, Putin rhetorically covers the gap of what has been left unfinished.
  • Putin also reinforces the dichotomy between what happened before him and what has happened since he came to power, glossing over any rifts in the elite from 2011-2012. In other words: the chaos of the nineties versus the period of GDP growth and enhanced industrial production afterward.
  • The most important concept behind this is that there is no reason to believe that without the freezing of the current government the former bad times would immediately return, or would continue unchanged without the current ruler.
  • Working against Putin is the passage of time itself, which is soothing the trauma experienced in the nineties (something that is also not relevant to younger generations). That period of upheaval is over, so it is not necessary to reelect the same person for the fifth time (after 2024), especially if he has not made significant economic achievements recently.  
  • Baunov writes that presidential candidates Ksenia Sobchak and Pavel Grudinin are the bright new faces of the upcoming election, selected to personify two different sets of missed opportunities: dogmatic liberalism and populist dirigisme. But both candidates have grown prosperous under Putin—this dilutes the alternatives they purport to offer.
  • Though Alexei Navalny is not on the ballot, Putin must defeat Navalny’s boycott; turnout must be convincingly high and verified in large cities. And since Navalny represents the “democratic opposition against authoritarian power” in the world press, foreign support for Navalny must also be defeated.
  • Another problem for Putin is that the ruling groups have grown accustomed to a routine electoral procedure and may miss the moment when their influence begins to wane. There are signs that the ruling party in Russia is losing control—Grudinin and Sobchak have both garnered support, unifying (albeit small) groups of motivated voters.
  • The author concludes that if Russia has a chance for democratization or liberalization from above, it will be realized through the power of self-preservation in the elite. But on the other hand, if the ruling group chooses to liberalize the system as a survival strategy or to simply save resources, the same idea must be popular among citizens before it can work.

Carnegie, Поле перед боем. Кого собирается победить на выборах Владимир Путин, Александр Баунов, 17 января 2018 г.


  1. Vedomosti: Why Putin Needs a Resounding Victory 

  • With the elections approaching, the opposition remains highly critical of Putin, but is also fighting within itself between initiating a protest vote or boycotting the ballot altogether. There is no foreseeable compromise here, let alone a victory for the opposition.
  • Still, Alexander Rubtsov of the Center for the Study of Ideological Processes contends that Putin needs a resounding victory for himself.
  • Putin, meanwhile, has planned many performances, special events, meetings, and tours extending to the outskirts of Russia before March 18.
  • Putin’s attention to the campaign is something new from the president—in previous elections, it was assumed that he would continue to lead the country, and so no special campaign was needed. But now Putin is mobilizing support because his legitimacy is based on a stable and high rating.
  • He seeks not simply victory, but one that is uncontested and earth-shattering, since ratings measured in elections or polls largely determine the degree of political freedom and power. What’s more, if the rating affects the authorities’ freedom to rule, then freedom to choose the means of ensuring the desired rating is no less important.
  • The author argues that ratings are not only important for self-perception, but also for the victor’s presentation to society, the country and the world. It is important to curb domestic opposition and to bring external enemies to life—even external opponents may strategize based on another leader’s ratings.
  • Rubtsov gives an example of the decline in the Kremlin’s ratings on the eve of the 2011 elections, when the protests shifted from the capital to other major cities. It was necessary not only to improve the situation, but also to prove that the situation was under control, even if “special means” were required.
  • This reaction by the authorities is based on a specific understanding of the essence of sovereign power. Rubtsov cites political theorist Karl Schmitt who saw a sovereign as the arbiter in declaring a state of emergency and granting powers to act outside of the rules. In this framework, normal proves nothing, and exception proves everything.
  • Even with the guarantee that the incumbent president will triumph in March, the situation will be tested and resolved as an emergency.

Ведомости, Зачем Путину оглушительная победа, Александр Рубцов, 16 января 2018 г.


  1. RBC: Transformations of Ideology: the Phenomenon of “Partisanship without Ideas”

  • In another piece this week, Alexander Rubtsov discusses the role of ideology in the Russian political process.
  • The short window before the presidential elections is practically the only time for discussing fundamental ideological problems in Russia, but it is unlikely that such a conversation will happen.
  • Ideological frameworks are typically more visible in parliamentary elections, in which parties and other political groups compete against one another. A competent ideological strategy is not based on letting your own adherents vote with greater ideological conviction, but rather on intercepting a portion of neutral voters, and, if possible, the electorate of other parties.
  • This is also true of presidential elections, but here there is something greater at stake: the president should represent society as a whole. It is more important for the president to address “earthly affairs’ than promote ideas and ideals.
  • Russia’s legacy of Soviet “ideocracy” and political repression complicates the picture. For instance, even if Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin did not mention communism, the shadow of the Party would still loom behind him.
  • While Putin’s ideological tactics are characterized by eclecticism (as opposed to “Medvedev’s modernity,” for example), there is now an attempt to expand the ideological spectrum of the “main candidate” in order to raise turnout and create some intrigue.
  • Putin has two ideologies: his own and the spectrum of ideologies admitted to the ballot. In other words, the candidates allowed to run show what is permissible, while those who were denied signify what is not. What this tells us, Rubtsov concludes, is that Russia, as a country, suffers from a lack of goals and principles.   

РБК, Превращения идеологии: чем объясняется феномен «безыдейной партийности», Александр Рубцов, 13 января 2018 г.