Anatoly Adamishin, V Raznie Godi, Moscow, Ves’ Mir Editions, 2016, ISBN 978-577770651
Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin, Washington, Brookings Focus Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0815726173
Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia, The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, London, Atlantic Books, 2015, ISBN 978-0857891600
Michel Eltchaninoff, Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin, London, Hurst and Company, 2017, ISBN 978-1849049337
Masha Gessen, The Future is History, How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Granta Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1783784004
Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men, Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, New York, Public Affairs, 2016, ISBN 978-1610397391
Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Threat Perception and Strategic Posture”, in Russian Security Strategy under Putin: US and Russian Perspectives, Washington, 2007, ISBN 1584873272
Andrei A. Kovalev, Russia’s Dead End, An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin, Nebraska, Potomac Books, 2017 ISBN 978-1612348933
The mere titles of a number of these books are an indication of the new fascination with the arcana of Russian politics – what with the inside of Vladimir Putin’s mind, the view from inside his “court”, or the testimony of an insider, we could be back in the era of Kremlinology, and indeed we are to an extent. There is a patent concern with the direction of Russian policy under Vladimir Putin, the president from 2000 to 2008, the real power under his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, from 2008 to 2012, and, having succeeded Medvedev in 2012, the winner of this year’s presidential election, and thus the prospective president until 2024. It should be said that, while the inner sanctum of Russian policy-making is as determined to shield itself from the profanum vulgus as any government is, and is undoubtedly somewhat more determined and able to do so, the situation today is not as opaque as it was during the heyday of Kremlinology, when a publication such as that of Mikhail Zygar would have been unthinkable.
When Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985 after the death of Konstantin Chernenko, the Soviet Union was in a parlous economic and political state. During the period of “stagnation”, as it was called, settled on by Leonid Brezhnev, the long-time secretary general (1964-82), any attempt at meaningful reform was abandoned as threatening to the system as a whole. Adamishin quotes the eminent Soviet economist of the period, Abel Aganbegyan, on the economic situation at the time:
During the last few years of the decade-and-a-half-long period of stagnation neither Gross Product nor capital investment nor industrial production had grown. (Nikolai Ryzhkov, Prime Minister from October 1985, estimated that 43% of capital stock was antiquated.) We lived on the basis of export of oil and gas, sold at that period for next to nothing, also because we subsidised the socialist countries. In the area of scientific-technological progress, the country fell further and further behind, especially in advanced sectors, such as electronics and computers. In space, where we had been first, the Americans overtook us. The budget deficit, just like other negative financial indicators – currency reserves, external debt, the payments balance – were accessible to very few, and were simply concealed from the public. Agriculture stuck at the level it was at in 1978. By 1981, grain imports amounted to almost half of domestic production, and nevertheless the State could not feed the population. The deficit in retail trade grew, and various forms of direct distribution of goods through administrative canteens, closed distribution centres, etc. grew. Building of housing continued to fall. Average life expectation fell from 1964 to 1985 from 70 years to 66.
Adamishin further notes that the export of socialism had in practice become the export of arms. In practice, this occurred almost completely without payment. From 1955 to 1981 Soviet military supplies to the Third World amounted to $68.4 billion. These went, he points out, to Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Congo, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia. Within Comecon, while the Central and East European partners went ahead, the USSR remained the subsidiser and itself backward, because of an emphasis on the military-industrial complex. Only 18 per cent of mutual deliveries of machine tools in Comecon met the demands of the world market. The partner countries looked to the West for their technology. At the same time, by 1982, the year of Brezhnev’s death, the US and the USSR together had deployed and kept in store explosive potential equivalent to four tonnes of TNT per head of the world population.
As well as all this, the Soviet Union was a country of depression and cynicism. The last two secretaries general had been mortally ill when they assumed the position and thus unable (Andropov) or unwilling (Chernenko) to take the decisions that the sclerotic system demanded. Dissent was punitively pursued, so that those who thought differently were either imprisoned, labelled as suffering from psychiatric disorders which the rest of the world did not know, and thus confined to psychiatric institutions, or they had either emigrated or been forcibly exiled. This was the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Andrei Sinyavsky and Vladimir Bukovsky.
This was what Mikhail Gorbachev was confronted with when he took over the Soviet leadership in March 1985. He was, unlike his immediate predecessors, young and energetic, and, unlike most of them, aware that the country could not continue down this path. He decided to open the system up with the well-known policies of glasnost, or an open sphere for discussion, and perestroika, or reform – at the beginning, of the economy. He began under the illusion that reform could take up from a point in the Soviet past – Lenin and Bukharin were often mentioned – but it soon became clear that such systemic tinkering would not deal with the dilemma posed by the superpower arms race and the dismal standard of living of the Soviet population: “socialism” as defined in classic Soviet terms could nor deliver both.
The international background was that of the controversial decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe to counter earlier Soviet deployments in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev at an early stage took the view that the USSR’s relations with Europe were of prime importance. One of his first international appearances was when he gave a speech before the French national assembly in October 1985 launching the project of “the Common European House”. This was met at first with some scepticism, being seen as a continuation of the Soviet tactic of dividing NATO, but, remarkably, in due course Gorbachev was able to find in Ronald Reagan a sympathiser in his determination to do something about the more thoughtless reliance on mutually assured destruction. So much so that the two alarmed Margaret Thatcher when, at their meeting in Reykjavik in October 1986, they seemed on the verge of an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons completely. The meeting of minds eventually resulted in the INF Treaty of December 1987, which removed intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, and the START Treaty of 1991, which restricted the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons.
In the Soviet empire, Gorbachev had drawn the lessons of the failure of the Soviet model in the satellites, and the disasters for them and for Moscow itself of the forcible reversals of course in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He had made it clear that the decisions on their future paths would be taken by the satellites themselves.
While Gorbachev thus increased his credibility and margin of manoeuvre abroad, the same could not be said of the scene at home. He had been unable to bring everyone with him in his “new thinking”, as he called it. Understandably, a system which had been in place for seventy years could not be replaced in a few short years. A symptom of the problem was that Gorbachev was obliged to work with many irreconcilables. His ideological apparatus, for instance, had two heads. One, Alexander Yakovlev, in many ways the father of perestroika, believed the country needed a free market and private ownership. The other, Yegor Ligachev, was Yakovlev’s ideological opponent.
Eventually, conscious of Gorbachev’s aversion to force and repression, regional elites began to assert independent authority over their own affairs. Principal among these was Boris Yeltsin, who built his power base in the Russian Federal Republic, and who became imbued with a positive animus against Gorbachev. In May 1990, he was elected president of Russia and a month later the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federal Republic proclaimed its sovereignty, following the example of Lithuania. Against the background of empty shelves in food stores, he had an easy time persuading the local barons that, as he put it, they should “take as much sovereignty as they could swallow”. Gorbachev was cornered into bringing his opponents into the heart of government and was complicit in the attempt to put down the Lithuanian independence move by force, before a coup in August 1991 aimed at sidelining Gorbachev himself and restoring the status quo ante. The coup was defeated, thanks in no small part to the mobilisation of public opinion in Moscow by Yeltsin. Gorbachev was restored, but, by now, he had lost control and credibility. The Soviet Union was effectively ended by a conspiratorial meeting in December 1991 in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belorussia between Yeltsin, Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich, president of Belarus. To add insult to injury, Yeltsin telephoned George HW Bush in Washington to inform him, before letting Gorbachev know. The flag of the Soviet Union was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time on December 31st, 1991, and Gorbachev left the political scene.
Yeltsin himself had been a typical member of the Soviet nomenklatura – he had been first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Communist Party, where he was instrumental in demolishing the Ipatiev House, where the tsar and his family had been murdered in 1918. He had been summoned to Moscow by Yegor Ligachev to take over the construction section of the Central Committee, and later, in December 1985, appointed first secretary – in effect, chief executive – of the Moscow City Committee by Gorbachev himself. In his new capacity as president of Russia, he showed a completely new face. Ostrovsky remarks that “neither Gorbachev nor even Yeltsin as Russia’s first President had any coherent plan or idea of what kind of country would succeed the Soviet Union”, as indeed how could they? Yeltsin, under the influence of Yegor Gaidar, advanced precipitately an agenda of what came to be known as “shock therapy”, consisting of market liberalisation, privatisation and the freeing up of prices, which very quickly led to the impoverishment of large parts of the population and to the rise of an oligarch class which grabbed most of the newly “liberalised” resources. His mantra of taking as much sovereignty as you can swallow, taken at face value widely in the country, threatened to split the vast country into a number of independent entities. A confrontation with Chechnya resulted in a demand from many other local governments for bilateral treaties to regulate their relations with the centre. Over a two-year period, Yeltsin’s government had to negotiate treaties with Bashkortostan, the republics neighbouring Chechnya in the Northern Caucasus, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Irkutsk, the Siberian republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Kaliningrad, and even St Petersburg. The foreign policy his government pursued, especially under his first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was perceived to be excessively pro-American. Adamishin’s account of his service in the foreign ministry, where he became Kozyrev’s deputy, makes quite clear the extent to which even people such as himself, firm supporters of Gorbachev’s opening up, regarded this as a threat to Russia’s independence and freedom of manoeuvre.
This path reached a first significant turning point in the confrontation which resulted with the Congress of People’s Deputies, seen as dominated by what was called a “red/brown” coalition, that is an alliance between communists and nationalists. The coalition was led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the congress, a very clever and manipulative Chechen, and Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s vice-president, chosen by him in 1991 to gather the patriotic vote. Of the one thousand members of the congress, only two hundred were Yeltsin loyalists, and the situation was seen by the opportunist Khasbulatov and, indeed, eventually by Yeltsin himself, as a straightforward power struggle which would determine the future of the country. The stand-off resulted in the shelling of the White House, the seat of the parliament, in October 1993 and the surrender of the defiant parliamentarians. The outcome, however apparently satisfactory to the Yeltsin team, can only be seen as a grave defeat for the cause of parliamentary democracy in the new Russia. In subsequent elections in December 1993, which, Adamishin reports, are considered by many political analysts as the only Russian elections conducted fairly, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDP, a quasi-fascist nationalist party, arrived in first place with 23 per cent of the votes, followed, at 15 per cent, by Russia’s Choice, a conservative-liberal party led by Yegor Gaidar, the main proponent of “shock therapy”, followed by the Communist Party, then by agrarians and women, and, finally Yabloko, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, a party in favour of free markets, civil liberties and good relations with the West (and which Adamishin considers his own party). In Adamishin’s appreciation, democrats suffered a very serious defeat. Zhirinovsky, he says, played on the particularities of Russian political thinking, which demands simple answers, clear labels, and easy paths to decision-making. The basic reason, in his view, is the huge accumulated dissatisfaction with the management of the country by the democrats, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and going on to the situation at the time of the election after “shock therapy”.
After this, Yeltsin’s path lay only further downhill. He did, in view of his apparent conciliation of nationalist forces in many other respects, make one strange appointment in December of that year, appointing as head of television the godfather of perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev. But it was too late for idealism. Yakovlev had opposed nationalists and communists for a decade. Now, he felt powerless.
This was the strangest period of my life … I felt in my bones that something peculiar was emerging in Russian life – very different from what was conceived at the beginning of perestroika. My rosy dreams died when I got myself immersed in the television whirlpool. Chasing money, constantly squabbling about who will get paid more, falsehood and lies. For the first time in my life I saw corruption in action. In its naked form.
Even if perhaps one should take with a grain of salt the assertion that this was the first time he had seen corruption in action, it is undoubtedly true that the scale of corruption at this time was unprecedented, and that it reached layers of the population that had never seen the like before. Naive believers in easy riches, whether from the vouchers they had been given as certificates of their co-ownership of privatised state property, or as participants in the numerous Ponzi schemes touted on television, and who lost all in the process, numbered in their tens of thousands.
The first Chechen War (1994-96) was to an extent the result of the change of the correlation of forces within the system which saw Zhirinovsky, with his ultra-nationalist rhetoric, win a majority in the 1993 election. In early 1994 Yeltsin was absent for about five weeks and, when he did turn up, he was frequently in a foul mood and often drunk as well. This was the time when he failed to emerge from his plane at Shannon, where Albert Reynolds was waiting to greet him. In a drunken state at a ceremony in Berlin to mark the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany, he tried to conduct the military band. This was the time when the situation in Chechnya was becoming acute. Shady personalities from Yeltsin’s entourage, including his bodyguard Korzhakov, saw the opportunity of getting one up on the Zhirinovsky camp by mounting what they saw as a short triumphant war. The Moscow KGB chief sent tanks and crews under contract to Grozny, where they came under withering fire. Despite the efforts to cover the matter up, the television showed shaming scenes of captured young Russian soldiers and wrecked equipment. In June 1995, one of the most notorious Chechen commanders, Shamil Basayev, led two hundred men to take some 1,600-people hostage at a hospital in Buddenovsk. On the fourth day of the crisis, Russian special forces attempted to storm the hospital; this resulted in total mayhem. With Yeltsin attending a G7 meeting in Halifax, Canada, the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was in charge. After a couple of more botched attempts to storm the hospital, leaving more than a hundred people dead, Chernomyrdin agreed to negotiate with Basayev.
By this time, the end of Yeltsin’s first term was coming into sight, and elections were due in 1996. Those concerned with the future of Russian democracy, like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, looked around for an alternative candidate who could secure the democratic future and could find none. Igor Malashenko, who was a media operator and was to play a major role in Yeltsin’s re-election campaign, is quoted by Ostrovsky as asking American officials why they supported Yeltsin almost unconditionally instead of paying more attention to democratic institutions, “Yeltsin is your only democratic institution” was the answer. At the time, the main threat was seen as coming from Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, and democrats within Russia, just like the Americans, saw no alternative to Yeltsin in beating off what was seen as a decisive challenge. Yeltsin’s popularity had sunk to single figures. The oligarchs were alarmed at the possibility that a communist would return to power, with all the foreseeable consequences for their ill-gotten wealth. They were mobilised in support of the sitting president by the most blatant and immoral among them, Boris Berezovsky, who put together a coalition of the seven largest business tycoons.
Two of them, Gusinsky and Berezovsky, decided to hire Anatoly Chubais, who had the reputation of being an effective manager but who had been fired from the government a few months earlier, to run the campaign. Chubais had, a few months before that, endorsed a scheme put together by Vladimir Potanin, one of the oligarchs, which would transfer control over the country’s natural resources to a select group in exchange for their political and financial support. This was the notorious “loans-for-shares” privatisation scheme which is characterised by Ostrovsky as “the worst example of insider trading and outright sham that the world has ever seen; and it has haunted Russian capitalism ever since”. Everyone involved knew that the government, strapped for funds, had neither the wherewithal nor the intention of redeeming the loans. Yeltsin’s campaign, which was shambolic – he suffered his fifth heart attack, which incapacitated him, but was kept secret, between the two rounds of the election – was blatantly supported by the oligarchs, not only financially, but by the media spinners whom they owned or financed. The West, too, piled in on Yeltsin’s side. On the eve of the election, the US backed a large IMF loan which, in the words of The New York Times, was “expected to be helpful to President Boris N. Yeltsin in the presidential election”. Not only that, American political strategists, including a former Clinton aide, came to Yeltsin’s assistance in his campaign, leading to a Time magazine cover story: “Yanks to the rescue: The secret story of how American advisers helped Yeltsin win”. Berezovsky could feel justified in saying, as he did, after Yeltsin won, “We hired Chubais and invested huge sums of money to ensure Yeltsin’s election. Now we have the right to occupy government posts and enjoy the fruits of our victory.”
The second Yeltsin term proved as shambolic as the election campaign. It was marked by infighting among the oligarchs about division of the spoils, notably in the area of ownership of the media and telecommunications. Yeltsin launched an abortive attempt to define a Russian national idea. He toyed with anointing an heir apparent, in the shape of Boris Nemtsov, a successful perestroika-style former governor of Nizhniy Novgorod, whom he appointed one of his deputy prime ministers. Nemtsov, however, in due course fell foul of the oligarchs’ machinations, and thereby lost Yeltsin’s backing and resigned.
The economy meanwhile was in trouble. The country was running a large budget deficit and the oligarchs, who, thanks to “loans for shares”, ran strategic parts of the economy, devised effective tax avoidance schemes. Government finance was based on the issue of short-term high-interest bonds. By early 1998, the interest rate on these was exceeding 50 per cent. A spiral began, fuelled by foreign speculators and the Russian oligarchs. It could only end in collapse and, indeed, on August 17th, 1998, the government declared bankruptcy, defaulted on its rouble-denominated debt and devalued the currency. The effect went much wider than just the economy. The project promoted by Gaidar and Chubais, and signed onto or acquiesced in by Yeltsin, that monetarism, privatisation and “shock therapy” would modernise the Russian economy, had failed. During Yeltsin’s tenure too the oligarchs’ monopolisation and manipulation of the mass media had made a mockery of the ideal of glasnost.
Yeltsin had also threshed about with the composition of his government. Viktor Chernomyrdin, a bluff, typical old-style state enterprise manager, had already been his prime minister, but the oligarchs had had him dismissed. Now they thought he could pull their chestnuts out of the fire, so they pushed Yeltsin to appoint him again. He had tried twice, at the behest of Berezovsky, to have him appointed, but the communist-dominated parliament twice refused. He had then turned to Evgeny Primakov, an experienced member of the Soviet nomenklatura and former candidate member of the politburo, who had been foreign minister only since September 1998. He was endorsed by the parliament. This represented a significant change in Russia’s orientation, both domestically and externally. As Yeltsin put it in his memoirs: “Willingly or not, Primakov consolidated anti-market and anti-liberal forces and infringed on the freedom of the press.” His most notable gesture in foreign policy was his spectacular turnaround on his way to Washington on March 23rd, 1999 to negotiate financial aid for Russia, when he learned that a NATO airstrike on Belgrade was imminent. The plane turned around in mid-Atlantic and returned to Moscow. Adamishin recounts in some detail the progressive disenchantment in his – rather liberal – foreign ministry circle with the West’s ignoring of Russian interests, especially in the former Yugoslavia. Primakov’s was a powerful signal that Russia was no longer going to be taken for granted in policy areas that it regarded as in its sphere of interest. Zygar characterises it as “the first gesture of State anti-Americanism of the 90s”, adding that it showed the extent to which such a move could be popular among a population deprived of a feeling of national pride.
At the time, Yeltsin was still at profound odds with parliament, now called the State Duma. For all his flamboyant gesture politics, Primakov did not have the confidence of Yeltsin, who fired him on May 12th, 1999 “for lack of dynamism in the reforms involved in economic reform”. Yeltsin, however, was by this stage almost bereft of supporters of stature, at a time when his popularity ratings were, in Zygar’s words, “almost negative”. The main preoccupation of his entourage at this stage was how to preserve the interests of what was called his “family”, that is his daughter Tatiana Dyacbenko and Valentin Yumashev, the former head of Yeltsin’s administration and future husband of Tatiana. In a wider sense the “family” included the oligarchs closest to Tanya and Valya, as the daughter and future husband were known to everybody. These were Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. Finally, there was Alexander Voloshin, the “executor” of the “family” and the head of the presidential administration. Primakov seemed to have all the aces: by September 1999 the television channels regarded him as condemned to win the presidential election. His popularity ratings were the highest, he was supported by the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, who himself had political ambitions, and practically all governors. He was financed by two of the largest oil companies, Lukoil and Khodorkovsky’s YUKOS. The man called “the Russian Bill Gates”, Vladimir Yevtushenko, financed him, and Gazprom supported him, as did the principal media magnate of the country, Vladimir Gusinsky.
Vladimir Putin had risen precipitately in the Kremlin ranks after arriving from St Petersburg in 1996. He had become head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in July 1998. On August 9th of the same year, Yeltsin, having run out of personnel resources, named him prime minister and his successor, as the only man who could “consolidate” the country. A day before his appointment, a Chechen group, led by Shamil Basayev, led an incursion into neighbouring Daghestan as part of his agenda to create a Caucasus emirate. Putin, with Yeltsin’s blessing, ordered a full-scale invasion of Chechnya, starting the second Chechen War in five years. He explained after he had become prime minister: “Russia is defending itself. We were attacked. And we must cast away all syndromes, including the syndrome of guilt.” His popularity rose, and only rose further when he appeared beside Yeltsin: the contrast underlined the wretched spent nature of the one and the vigorous preparedness for necessary action of the other. A few weeks later, Putin delivered the words which have copper-fastened his decisive persona. Again, in response to a would-be Chechen outrage and using the salty language that he often used on such occasions, he said “We will pursue them everywhere. If it is in the airport, then in the airport. If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll rub them out in the shithouse. That is it, Subject closed.” Yeltsin also promoted Putin because he met the need to shelter himself and the “family” from being pursued in justice after his retirement. He was aware that Putin had moved to protect his former boss, Anatoly Sobchak, after he had left office in St Petersburg.
The advancement of Putin drew a line through all the reckonings of the oligarchs and the Primakovs and Luzhkovs on December 31st, 1999, when Yeltsin retired and nominated the Putin as acting president. That this was a decisive step was evident to all in the know, because only twelve days earlier, at the Duma elections, Voloshin had succeeded in putting together a synthetic party, called Unity, which managed to achieve more votes that the equally synthetic Fatherland-All Russia party led by Primakov and Luzhkov. The ever-present manipulator-in-chief, Berezovsky, it turned out, had been behind this manoeuvre too. He engaged in persuading governors to switch sides, but, in the main, left things in the hands of Voloshin and his young assistant, Vladislav Surkov, who would soon become his deputy, and go on to be the main ideological brain for much of Putin’s presidency. Yeltsin’s retirement meant that the presidential elections, normally scheduled for June 2000, would now be held in March. This put Primakov and Luzhkov at a disadvantage, losing three months of preparatory time after suffering defeat in the Duma elections. Putin went on to be elected president in March.
Putin began his public career as a thoroughgoing hardliner domestically, but he was also gifted with luck. Even before he assumed the presidency, the oil price began to rise, and his finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, was able for the first time in the new Russia to produce a budget with a surplus. Oil and gas revenue grew so fast that the country was able to repay foreign debt ahead of time. Zygar calls the period “a real Putin economic miracle”. According to Mikhail Kasyanov, his first prime minister, he agreed with him on taking over the PM job to continue with the privatisation agenda, except in the oil and gas sector and, again according to Kasyanov, he held to this at first.
In foreign policy he began with an emollient tone. Even before formally assuming the presidency, he received Tony Blair, whom he had set as a model for himself, in positively tsarist splendour in the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg: the two met five times in 2000. Zygar states that “Putin began his Presidency in the full confidence that it was possible to build good relations with the West, and in particular with America”, citing this example and Putin’s equally clear intention to curry favour with the new American president, George W Bush, who, on meeting him in Ljubljana, notoriously remarked that he had looked into his eyes and saw his soul there. In summer 2000 Putin took the decision, much to the ire of his military and security services, to close the foreign bases that Russia had inherited from the USSR, the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam and the Lourdes signals intelligence facility in Cuba.
The honeymoon was not to last, either externally or internally. Putin surrounded himself with ideologists of the strong state, principal among them Vladislav Surkov, already mentioned, who was behind such formulae as “sovereign democracy”, “managed democracy”, “the vertical of power” and the difficult to translate concept of gosudarstvennichestvo, approximately, centrality of state interests. Hill and Gaddy appositely remark that “the first key to Vladimir Putin’s personality is his view of himself as a man of the state, his identity as a statist (gosudarstvennik in Russian). They further remark that the “Russian values that were at the core of what Putin called the ‘Russian Idea’ … were patriotism, collectivism, solidarity, derzhavnost’ – the belief that Russia is always destined to be a great power (derzhava) exerting its power abroad – and the untranslatable gosudarstvennichestvo”. Even before he engaged Surkov, and this is evidence that Surkov was speaking to the inner convictions of Putin, rather than devising an ideology for him, Putin wrote a dissertation for the St Petersburg Mining Institute with the title “Strategic Planning of the Reproduction of the Mineral Resource Base of a Region under Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations”. It is dated 1997. An entire chapter is devoted to what Putin calls “the need for Russia’s transport independence on the strategic level”. Russia must not be dependent on any other power in this area. Hill and Gaddy make the point that “in sum, the importance of oil and gas as the main source of value for Russia, and the significance of transport infrastructure as a means of ensuring control over the physical flow of oil and gas, have helped Putin to define which companies needed to be in the core of his Russia, Inc. In this context, the juridical ownership of the core Russian companies has proven almost irrelevant”. Curiously, Igor Sechin, who is perhaps the longest-lasting and most intimate associate of Putin in the Kremlin, wrote a dissertation on almost the same subject, a cost-benefit analysis of a project to build a pipeline from Russia’s largest oil refinery in the Leningrad region. In his undertaking to Kasyanov, exception was made for the oil and gas sector evidently not only for strategic reasons.
One of the most prominent actions of his early presidency was his meeting with leading Russian businessmen in the Kremlin in February 2003. These included Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had managed by adroit purchase of privatisation vouchers and during the follow-up to the loans for shares episode to gain control of Russia’s largest oil company, YUKOS. Khodorkovsky was also deeply involved in funding campaigns in the parliamentary elections. Putin asked, “Mr Khodorkovsky, are you sure you’re in compliance with the tax authorities?” “Absolutely,” Khodorkovsky replied. “We’ll see about that,” Putin said. And indeed, we all know what the result was: Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and his company taken from him. Even though, as Kovalev remarks, “The possibility that Khodorkovsky and some of his associates did something illegal cannot be ruled out”, the main motivation for Putin’s move cannot be doubted, and has little to do with maintenance of a state of law. The move was intended to kill two birds with one stone: to scare off any oligarch from acting as Berezovsky and Gusinsky had done under Yeltsin – no meddling of oligarchical money in politics – and to achieve Kremlin control over the strategic assets of oil and gas.
In other aspects of domestic policy, it has been seen that Putin’s decisive reaction to terrorist Chechen outrages has been a key to his support among the populace. The Chechen problem has not been solved, however. Rather, in some sense it has been made to disappear. The solution adopted by Putin has been to outsource the handling of the problem to Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the late chief mufti of Chechnya, and successor of his father in the role of boss of Chechnya. The basis of the agreement is apparently that the young Kadyrov can run a repressive criminal regime in Chechnya provided he contains the problem within Chechnya. This arrangement is liberally financed by Moscow. There is some evidence that, if the Chechen problem may be confined to Chechnya itself, the use of violence elsewhere has not ceased. The young Kadyrov professes a positively feudal devotion to the person of Vladimir Putin. There have been a series of murders of politicians and media people over the years which have not been cleared up. Prominently, these include the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and, most disturbing of all, the politician Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered within sight of the Kremlin. Many signs point to Chechen involvement, but the cases remain fundamentally unclarified. In a situation where Putin has made it clear in good KGB style that traitors should be dealt with mercilessly, the worry is that Kadyrov’s myrmidons, in a desire to please the feudal lord, may have been responsible. If so, the fact that the ultimate string-pullers have not been brought to justice is a matter of profound concern.
Despite what Putin apparently undertook in his conversation with Kasyanov, his interference did not stop at the oil and gas sector and even there the question of formal ownership is, as has been seen, of minor importance. The decisive men – and they are all men – around Putin are not really what are called siloviki, or representatives of the military and security sectors, even if they have worked, as Putin himself did, in these sectors. They are all predominantly involved in the energy, transport and trading sectors, with Igor Sechin occupying a preponderant role in the energy sector. Outside the energy sector, Putin found a way soon of sequestering the media empire of Boris Berezovsky, who was under the illusion that he had him in his pocket, and forcing him into exile. The same was true of the other main media magnate, Vladimir Gusinsky, who was jailed until he agreed to give up his media holdings and go into exile. Vladimir Yakunin, a crony of Putin’s from his Petersburg days, became chairman of Russian Railways and continues to be active in promoting the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church. What are considered “strategic” sectors have come, and will remain, firmly under the direction of the Russian state. On the purely technical level, the economy has on the whole been well-managed, whether under his first PM, Kasyanov, his finance minister Kudrin, or the current head of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina. Since the imposition of Western sanctions following the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian economy has by and large continued unscathed. In some ways, there has even been an improvement from the government point of view, as its banning in retaliation of imports of European food products has led to sometimes successful import substitution. The oil and gas sector is growing and both this and the defence sector have been able to continue to prosper despite targeted sanctions aimed at them. Oil production is at a thirty-year high, while annual gas production is at its highest level ever. The economy came well out of the 2007-08 recession thanks to the careful management of Nabiullina. It is now also benefiting from the rise in oil and gas prices and has kept in close touch with Saudi Arabia in this regard – King Salman, in a first, visited Moscow in October last. Chinese financing has compensated for the financial sanctions targeting the oil and gas sector. For example, Western banks withdrew from financing of Yamal LNG, a leading LNG project in the Arctic, in 2016, but it benefited from $12 bn of Chinese finance, and this winter began to ship its first cargoes. (This episode indeed raises fundamental questions about the viability of the perennial Western reach for financial sanctions based on the premise of Western, essentially US, monopolisation of the international finance markets.)
Reference has already been made to the dissatisfaction of the foreign policy elite with the domination of the international scene by the US. Of particular sensitivity were, and are, what Moscow calls “the near abroad”, that is, the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the Caucasus and Central Asia especially prominent. Russia has come to terms more or less with the choice of the Baltic countries to integrate with the West. Further, as has been seen, there is resentment at perceived American insouciance when it comes to areas, such as Serbia and other Orthodox Balkan countries. But there is a persistent feeling of betrayal in Moscow at the expansion of NATO to the East. Adamishin makes the point, as Gorbachev himself and many other Russian spokesmen have, that, when the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, met Gorbachev in Moscow in February 1990 in the course of discussions on German unification, he indicated that “if the United States would maintain its military presence in Germany in the context of NATO, the jurisdiction and the military presence of NATO would not extend an inch to the East”. Not only was this undertaking not implemented, but he remarks that the subsequent declaration of NATO, in 2008, that the Ukraine and Georgia would be members of the Alliance made it even more of what he calls a swindle. Putin has notoriously used the phrase, also used in essence by Stalin ‑ and, indeed, not without a sense derived from practical experience – that the weak get beaten. This lesson was made vivid for him in December 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he was posted to the KGB Residenz in Dresden. A group of demonstrators appeared before the building. Putin told them that his comrades were armed and authorised to open fire on intruders. The crowd withdrew, but Putin telephoned the HQ of a local tank unit to seek support. He was told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow, but that Moscow was silent.
His political advancement is marked by a series of incidents which come to shape his security approach. As has been seen, his launching of the second Chechen war in essence sees his national political career launched. He is elected president after it with 52.9 per cent of the votes. In August 2000, he learns a lesson in public presentation, when he fails to demonstrate adequate support for the families of those who lost their lives when the submarine Kursk sinks. Only two months later, the resolution by force of a terrorist incident at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow unites the country behind him, despite the loss of 130 hostages’ lives. A series of laws limiting the freedom of the media is adopted. He is re-elected in March 2004 with 74.2 per cent of the votes. On September 1st of that year, a school in Beslan is taken hostage by an armed Chechen group, resulting in 334 deaths, many of them children. The official reaction had been a fiasco, significantly because the local security authorities hesitated to take any initiative without orders from Moscow. But this does not seem to be reflected back on Putin, who gets more security powers and, in addition, brings about the end of the election of governors, who, henceforth, will be appointed by Moscow. In August 2008, following shortly after a visit to Tbilisi by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, launches a military action to retake control of the separatist region of South Ossetia, which has been a source of mounting tension immediately beforehand. The Russian armed forces are prepared for this and inflict a resounding defeat on the Georgian forces, stopping just short of seizing the capital, Tbilisi. Although formally Dmitri Medvedev is president, the reins are firmly in the hands of Vladimir Putin, whose popularity rises to 88 per cent as a result. In April 2008 he is re-elected president in the first ballot with 63 per cent of the votes. The crown of all this military/security activity comes for Putin in March 2014 when, following the fleeing from Kiev of his man, Yanukovich, who had failed to prevent the orientation of the Ukraine towards the West, Russia took advantage of the confusion and unrest in \Kiev to annex the Crimea and to supply manpower and equipment to keep the Donbass, in Eastern Ukraine, outside Kiev’s control and in a state of permanent unrest. Putin’s popularity rose to 89 per cent. In September 2015, Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil-war-cum-war-against-terrorism. Despite confident predictions in the West that soon Putin would find himself in an irrecoverable morass, as of now Russia has established itself as an essential party to any eventual settlement. In the process of all this, of course, Russia has joined the transgressors against international law as set out by Putin in Munich in 2007 – see below. Adamishin quotes a Russian expert after the annexation of the Crimea: “Yes, subsequently we ‘broke the American monopoly on the breaking of international law’”.
Russia maintains a long list of recriminations against the West in the security area. The ABM Treaty of 1972 was the cornerstone of the arms limitation agreements between the US and the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the USSR, four former Soviet republics agreed with the US to succeed the USSR in the obligations of the treaty. But in 2002, the US withdrew from the treaty, leading to its termination. Not only that, but the US agreed to deploy missile defence systems in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania on the pretext that they were not aimed at Russia, but at countering Iranian nuclear missiles. The US continued, however, with the planned deployment after conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Russia then countered with a decision to deploy Iskander missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad. There was the series of US interventions without UN endorsement which had begun with the bombing of Serbia/Kosovo in 1999, which continued with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bombing of Libya in 2007. Moscow sees a pattern in these, that of ignoring international law and of conducting technologically sophisticated operations from the air with no, or very little, risk to the aggressor. The perceived pattern led to Putin’s outburst at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when, avoiding “excessive politeness”, as he said the conference format permitted, he denounced “a unipolar world”. This unipolar world was, he said, “not only unacceptable but impossible in today’s world”. “The use of force”, he said, “can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN”. He availed of the occasion to rehearse the Russian complaint about being deceived by the decision to enlarge NATO. “I will allow myself”, he said, “to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO Secretary General Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee’. Where are those guarantees?” Significant of the whole Russian approach were his closing remarks: “Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used this privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy. We are not going to change this tradition today.”
Domestically, the management of democracy, the prioritisation of “the vertical of power”, and the exclusive emphasis on the interests of the state have led to an effective hollowing out of genuine democratic forms in Russia. This began with the Yeltsin election of 1996, as has been seen, with Western complicity. But the engineering of democratic forms has prospered in a large way under Putin. Mikhail Kasyanov, his first prime minister, decided to challenge him in the presidential election of 2008. In a recent broadcast, he describes how he gathered the three million signatures required but was disqualified by the electoral commission because thirty-five of these could not be verified. Garry Kasparov was unable to rent enough space to campaign at the same election and had to withdraw. The most prominent challenger in the recent election, Alexei Navalny, has been prevented from presenting his candidacy on apparently vexatious legal grounds.
Eltchaninoff’s title speaks to the many who would like to see “inside the mind” of whatever personage he or she is currently concerned with. The “mind” in this instance has to be interpreted in a very wide sense. Several times, it emerges that, whether the talk is of Leontiev, Danilevsky, Prokhanov or Gumilev, what is in question is influence on Putin’s circle of advisers and users of influence, not of Putin himself. Dmitri Trenin correctly remarks that “Russian strategic policy makers have no ideology. However, they respect what they regard as the laws of Realpolitik.” He himself has declared he is against a state ideology in any form. Andrei Illarionov, who, as a former economic adviser, is in a position to know, says of Alexander Dugin, the crackpot ideologist of Eurasia, that “Dugin’s crass proclamations insult the President’s intelligence”. Bur Eltchaninoff won’t let go for all that. He will have it that “Putin must have been influenced, whether he likes it or not, by Dugin’s fanatical media activities”. Even in the case where Putin has cited certain thinkers, such as Ivan Ilyin, referred to in his national addresses of 2005, 2006 and 2007, Hill and Gaddy make the point that this is because Ilyin advocated a strong, law-based state, which supports Putin’s own agenda. The same goes for religion, and Putin’s widely touted devotion to Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, of the Sretensky monastery, situated close to what used to be KGB headquarters. Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large of the independent daily Vedomosti, says that the Kremlin is “pragmatic and cynical” in this respect, and instrumentalises the Russian Orthodox Church. And, indeed, how could it be otherwise, when Orthodoxy is only one of Russia’s religions, and when, even if a large number of ethnic Russians identify with it, only a very low single-figure percentage of them are practically observant. Gessen provides useful cameo summaries of both Dugin and Lev Gumilev, another somewhat eccentric theorist of Eurasianism, whose writings on the subject became very popular in the last twenty-five years. Gessen’s thesis, however, that Dugin had a significant influence at any stage – as opposed to being used – seems unlikely. Equally, Gessen’s thesis, evident in her title, How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, is off the mark. The problem is authoritarianism, not the imposition of a totalitarian ideology. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, as the latest presidential election only underlines, is the effectively unchallenged leader of Russia, an example to many other would-be authoritarians.
As Adamishin characterises the situation:
In our country (the political system) has been elaborated on the template of Lenin, and tweaked … by that cruel genius, Stalin, becoming in the last analysis quite close to the monarchic system. Modified somewhat by the Twentieth Session of the CPSU (the Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin in 1956), it withstood the attack of perestroika and at present takes on more and more characteristics known to our cost.
In it are not included such components as fair elections, branches of power independent of one another – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, as well as the free press. For the same reason, there is no place for open political competition and the periodic change of leadership is made extremely difficult, as is the operation of the principle of meritocracy, which calls for selection according to merit.
Instead, there are other “know-hows” of the Bolsheviks – the removal of the large majority of the population from political life, lies, a criminal social contract. From the very beginning it was based on a maladaptive exchange: the state would look after the welfare of the people ‑ more exactly, as was shown in practice, affording them a low standard of living ‑ and in exchange would take away its freedom.
The question is how this has come about. Adamishin cites a low cultural level, general and political, the culture of conducting affairs and the culture of communication. He also quotes Pisarev from the nineteenth century: Russian poverty comes from stupidity, stupidity from poverty. Like many others, he points back to what is called the Mongol Yoke, 1237-1480. This was a period of Mongol/Tatar domination. The Mongol/Tatar overlords, conventionally regarded as exponents of Asiatic cruelty, outsourced the collection of the tribute which they demanded from the conquered Russian lands to the Russian elites, who mercilessly beat it out of the lower classes and in the process, turned the tables on the Mongol Horde after 250 years. Mongol schemes of administration, implicitly relying on force, were adopted – the very word for money in Russian comes from this period and is of Turkic origin. Others point to the forcible Westernisation pursued by Peter the Great in the seventeenth century. Peter brutally imposed Westernisation on the upper classes, forcing the men to shave off their beards and the women to appear in public with their husbands, reinforcing the peasant/aristocrat division, and neutralising the Orthodox Church. A more cogent additional explanation of the present state of affairs is the absolute traumatisation the country endured during the nineties. This has been described earlier. It has a very particular resonance in Russia, one which applies a supreme value to stability. The historical analogy, which has left deep cultural scars, is the so-called Time of Troubles between the death of the last Tsar of the Rurik dynasty in 1598 and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. In 1602-3, Russia suffered a famine which killed a third of the population, about two million people. The country was occupied by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was plagued with multiple civil uprisings, usurpers and impostors.
In the light of the presidential election results, the outlook for a change in the situation so eloquently described by Adamishin is not very promising. He is essentially one of the classical Westernisers, seeing Russia as essentially part of European culture and needing to find its way back there, as it had begun to do under Gorbachev. At the same time, he regrets that the reaction in the West to the overtures from Gorbachev, especially on the part of the Americans, was far from showing understanding. Nevertheless, he pleads for a further effort in this direction, asking what possible interest the US could have in attacking Russia. He also complains of a tendency to what he calls “infantile anti-Americanism”. He sees adoption of Western norms as the only policy with prospects, asking why, when proclaiming Russia’s great power status, the country is somewhere in the middle rank when it comes to income per head – in 2015 in 75th place, and at the same time, far ahead in levels of corruption. Why when it comes to such a\comprehensive index as life expectancy, is Russia at the end of the list? “We live 10-12 years less than the citizens of the US or Western Europe.” He might have added that the country needs infrastructural investment and that it is excessively reliant on exports of primary products. But, as has been seen, if Putin began by proclaiming his commitment to being part of the European value system – Adamishin cites his meeting with Pope Francis in 2015, when their “common human values” were stressed ‑ this has changed and, for evident reasons of Realpolitik, the emphasis now is on its Eurasian vocation. Adamishin also describes Russia as belonging to those great countries which are condemned to exist in the world without permanent allies. This of course was once famously formulated by Palmerston as being the case of the UK, and it may be having something of a renaissance there today. In the last analysis, it is a question of choice for Russia, just as it is for the UK. For the time being therefore, we are left with his acknowledgment that “major changes, for good or bad, come from the top in Russia”.
We are also, it seems left with the prospect of a new cold war, which both Russia and the West are in danger of manoeuvring themselves into in a fit of absence of mind. The Skripal affair is not encouraging. On the one hand, the Russian reaction is marked by a degree of scorn and mockery which bespeaks a deep resentment of the UK in particular and of the West in general. On the other, the reaction of Boris Johnson, imputing the crime personally to Vladimir Putin, scarcely presages conciliation at any level. By 1982, the US and the USSR together had deployed and kept in storage explosive potential equivalent to four tonnes of TNT per head of world population. What now are we to make of a proposal by Donald Trump to increase the US’s holdings of nuclear capacity by a factor of ten, or of Vladimir Putin’s announcement on March 1st of a range of new, high-tech, “invincible” nuclear weapons? The declarations may well be political, but the future of the planet is at stake. It seems questionable whether America and Russia can both be great again.
Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.