Getting into Putin’s head

19 February, 06:41 PM
From left the signs read: Historical offences, Xi Jinping, Russian Army,  Imperialist's nostalgia, Biden and the US, Friends from the 1990s, Independent Ukraine, Russia's Security Council,  Money, Fear of the West and its democratic liberties (Photo:NV)

From left the signs read: Historical offences, Xi Jinping, Russian Army, Imperialist's nostalgia, Biden and the US, Friends from the 1990s, Independent Ukraine, Russia's Security Council, Money, Fear of the West and its democratic liberties (Photo:NV)

The following has been republished from the sixth edition of the NV weekly magazine. It has been translated and edited for clarity for English-language readers.

Who has the ear of the Russian president when he makes decisions concerning Ukraine?

Russia’s foreign policy, which has had Ukraine and half the world so terribly worried lately, has but one mastermind behind it: Vladimir Putin.

However, he is not the only person involved in the decision-making process.

A decade ago, Putin’s inner circle was populated mostly by oligarchs who were commanding capital flows and influencing the Russian state’s agenda. These days, however, it’s security professionals who can boast daily access to the Kremlin’s ruler, and who help him formulate policy.

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Sergey Shoygu, Nikolai Patrushev, Alexander Bortnikov, Sergey Naryshkin, and even the former shadow of himself – Dmitry Medvedev – are responsible for Russia’s security and defense, and it is they who compose the so-called “Kremlin Politbureau.” This group of high-ranking officials determine what gets on Putin’s desk every day, and how rapidly geopolitical events unfold: from the migrant crisis on the EU’s borders, to naval exercises in the Black Sea.

“It seems to work in this way: military (men) propose their options for Putin to choose from,” says Mikhail Fishman, a liberal-minded Moscow journalist and former editor of the Russian version of Newsweek.

“There are people around Putin whose counsel he seeks on strategic matters.”

Even if Russia’s economy has clearly seen better days, and despite the effects of Western sanctions, Putin is paying less and less attention to economic matters and PM Mikhail Mishustin, who is responsible for them. It is foreign policy and Russia’s international prestige that are the president’s top priority.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoy their lives (Фото: Reuters)
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoy their lives / Фото: Reuters

That’s why he treats his security officials with such clear preference.

Together with them, Putin makes crucial decisions on how to proceed on the current Russia-Ukraine crisis – which still has every chance to boil over into another Russian invasion.

Russia’s well-oiled propaganda machine allows the Kremlin’s boss to act with impunity, with no domestic opposition whatsoever.

“When asked about the biggest achievements of Putin’s rule, most Russians speak approvingly of foreign policy and national security,” said Serhiy Solodkiy, foreign affairs and security expert, and the deputy director of the Ukrainian New Europe think-tank.

According to a study done by the Munich Security Conference, only 4% of Russians hold Moscow responsible for the escalating tensions around Ukraine, while 50% place the blame squarely on NATO and the United States, and 16% — on Ukraine.

How Russia proceed on its path of geopolitical aggression will depend personally on Putin. For instance, on Feb. 15, the Russian parliament asked the president to formally recognize the Moscow-controlled areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region as independent “republics,” and now the ball is in Putin’s court.

And he makes these decisions based on off what the security officials are feeding him, which is a dangerous arrangement.

“Russian security services and defense departments are full of people looking to catch (Putin’s) attention, and could therefore be giving him unreliable information, and Putin could then act on the basis of this information. This makes the current situation dangerous,” said Konstantin Eggert, a liberal Russian political scientist, in a conversation with NV.

The Kremlin’s decision-making process

The current Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s borders started in April 2021, and by winter, had made Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu a veritable star of Moscow political life. He would occasionally pop on state TV to keep Russians appraised of military exercises.

“Shoygu is person No. 1 among Putin’s court of security professionals and trusted advisors, who influence (Putin) and set his agenda,” said Anatoliy Oktysiuk, a political science expert working for the human rights and democracy watchdog Democracy House.

The Economist dubbed Shoygu as “Master of emergencies” all the way back in 2015, predicting that his influence would grow – potentially even positioning him as Putin’s successor.

Vladimir Putin speaking to Russia's officials via video conference (Фото: Reuters)
Vladimir Putin speaking to Russia's officials via video conference / Фото: Reuters

We essentially see this transpiring right now. During the latest Russian parliamentary elections in 2021, it was Shoygu who led Putin’s United Russia party to a predictable victory, scoring almost 50% of the vote. Ahead of the elections, he gave a speech describing his biography and views at a Territory of Meaning youth forum in August 2021.

“To be blunt, I feel privileged to have been able to work with many leaders who ended up at the (International) Hague Tribunal (for the former Yugoslavia),” said Shoygu about Serbian war criminals Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and Ratko Mladic.

On Feb. 14 – during the height of the current crisis – Shoygu went to the Kremlin to see Putin in person. He reported that Russian Western Military District maneuvers and naval exercises in the Baltic, Black, and Barents Seas are over or nearing conclusion. The minister carefully emphasized that he was acting on Putin’s personal orders.

Russia’s Security Council, which has been meeting regularly lately, follows suit, never failing to mention that their orders come from directly from the president. Their last meeting on Feb. 11 had every member of the council report to Putin. Besides Shoygu, the body includes Patrushev and Medvedev as its leaders, and includes director of the FSB security service Bortnikov, foreign intelligence chief Naryshkin, speaker of Russia’s parliament Vyacheslav Volodin, and PM Mishustin.

“Shoygu is definitely the key figure there right now,” said Oliver Carroll, a Moscow-based UK journalist.

Shoygu tells Putin about the moods of his generals, who oversee military drills and wargames. According to Eggert, their moods play an important role in Putin’s decision-making process.

“Having 100,000 service members and thousands of vehicles crisscross the entire country in less than a year, with nothing to show for it, is bound to tarnish Putin’s status among his own generals,” said Eggert.

“They expect the Commander-in-Chief to give them clear objectives, with results proportional to the effort (expended).”

Conventional wisdom has Patrushev and Naryshkin responsible for Moscow’s Ukraine strategy, and these two have been by Putin’s side since the 1990s. And while Patrushev is a rather typical security service officer, Naryshkin is very versatile. In the 1990s, he oversaw foreign investment at the Promstroybank in St. Petersburg, at the same time when Putin was trying to attract foreign capital to the city, and directed the privatization of municipal property.

“Ukraine is very important to Patrushev and Naryshkin, they carry a deep grudge against (Ukraine) for not bending to Moscow’s will,” said Carroll.

Meanwhile, it is Dmitriy Kozak, the Kremlin Deputy Chief-of-Staff, and Volodin, who formulate policy regarding Moscow’s phony “republics” in eastern Ukraine. Kozak also represents Russia at the Normandy Four talks.

 Volodin, a former political operative, has become Putin’s trusted advisor on Ukraine, counterbalancing the influence of Vladislav Surkov on the subject. Surkov seemed to have retired from day-to-day Kremlin operations, but then suddenly published another op-ed about Ukraine on Feb. 15.

“What next? Definitely not silence. There’s a lot of geopolitics ahead of us, practical and applied. Perhaps, even contact (geopolitics, as in contact sports),” he said in the article.

But as we’re trying to discern how Naryshkin, Patrushev, and Volodin determine Russia’s Ukraine policy, we must not lose sight of the fact that it’s Putin who ultimately makes all crucial decisions.

“The head of state is being told what he wants to hear, and not the reality of things,” said Eggert.

“At the end of the day, Putin is a security apparatchik himself,” said John E. Herbst, Senior Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russian officials with economic portfolios have become hostages to the situation. In November 2021, Putin met with finance officials for a briefing on the threat of new Western sanctions and how to mitigate their impact. PM Mishustin, along with Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and the head of Russia’s Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina, were all involved.

According to Moscow-based political experts NV spoke with, these officials didn’t dare to try and change Putin’s mind, despite the potential sanctions being rather severe. During off-record conversations, however, they complained about how painful for Russia these sanctions could be. Siluanov even had to write an op-ed in the WSJ, claiming that Western financial sanctions would have a limited impact on the Russian economy.

Putin also met with Andrey Kostin, yet another confidante of his and the president of the state-owned VTB bank. It was at a VTB-sponsored event in November 2021 that Putin said Russia is not afraid of being cut off from international U.S. dollar transactions. According to Kostin, financial sanctions may never happen in the first place, and even they did – his bank and the Russian financial system as a whole would be able to absorb the blow. Shortly thereafter, on Dec. 1, Putin awarded Kostin the Order of Merit, First Class.

Putin is convinced that since Siluanov managed to save the Russian economy and state finances from the effects of the initial sanctions in 2014, he can do so again, according to Carroll. As a consequence, the Kremlin’s security interest groups are free to act based solely on geopolitical and national security considerations, with no regard for economic concerns whatsoever.

Anton Vaino is the youngest of these apparatchiks – he turned 50 on Feb. 17. Born in Tallinn, Estonia, he sat on Russia’s security council before becoming the Kremlin Chief-of-Staff in 2016. All other members of Putin’s inner circle besides Vaino are long-standing functionaries.

Russian combat training near Ukrainian borders (Фото: AP)
Russian combat training near Ukrainian borders / Фото: AP

“It’s right from KGB’s old playbook: a repressive regime must rely on a core of trusted individuals,” Solodkiy explains, regarding the Russian president’s management style.

“Putin avoids introducing new blood (to his inner circle), fearing they could lead to unwelcome dynamics.”

Konstantin Kosachev – Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council – is another rising star among the political elite with access to Putin. He handles Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China, and will soon be able to take a crack at implementing his ideas.

“Russia will next hold joint military exercises with China, which could shift tensions westwards – to Japan and Korea,” Oktysiuk told NV.

Russia’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July 2021, presents the combined aspirations and goals of the Kremlin’s security officials. The document pontificates about “supporting our fellows abroad” and “strengthening fraternal ties.” Besides Naryshkin and Patrushev – both Ukraine specialists – Chief of the General Staff of Russian Army Valery Gerasimov, and an advisor to Putin Yuri Ushakov, together with FSB chief Bortnikov, were all involved in formulating this strategy, according to political analyst Bohdan Voron.

In addition to overseeing the exercises in Belarus, Gerasimov has also been entrusted with some foreign policy aspects: he recently spoke with his U.S. counterpart, Mark Milley, whereas Ushakov is responsible for Moscow’s media and PR strategy.

“The West is confused, unable to logically, rationally analyze Putin’s rhetoric in combination with Russia’s numerous international law violations, energy blackmail, and manipulations,” said Viktoria Romanuk, deputy director of the Mohylanska School of Journalism and deputy head of the StopFake misinformation watchdog.

Putin’s strong and weak sides

Putin is a conservative, authoritarian ruler. His worldview dictates the need to remain fully in control of everything in the Kremlin and to have the final say on all matters. Experts NV spoke with describe him as a leader who is convinced that he understands all of Russia’s problems – from geopolitical to economic – better than anyone else.

"I’d say Putin doesn’t know how to share, that he missed that lesson in kindergarten,” U.S. intelligence official Beth Sanner said in a comment for The New York Times.

“He was a spy, and therefore was trained to analyze and manipulate – not share.”

Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, writing for The Atlantic, calls Putin both strong and weak. His strength lies in his almost total control of all aspects of Russian life. Applebaum described it by making an analogy to a U.S. president “who, in addition to the executive branch, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, also controls the Congress, the courts, major media, and with the largest companies like Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors.”

But Putin is also weak, because, having never won fair elections, he feels a lack of legitimacy.

This weakness sometimes even gives rise to anxieties – he occasionally becomes paranoid about a possible coup d'état, according to Carroll. But such fears alone do not a coup make, and we should hardly expect something like that in near future.

Putin's KGB training endowed him with precisely the risk tolerance he needs to overcome any dread he may have about the future of his regime.

“President Putin is overconfident and operates at a very high risk tolerance level,” said Ben Hodges, Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former commanding general of U.S. Army in Europe.

“I think he bets on many Western allies not following through on their threats of sanctions, especially if Russian strikes are limited in scope and intensity.”

Putin also tends to wait for the crescendo in tension before making a final decision, and his policy-making is rather reactive.

One of the things he clearly reacted to was the election of Joe Biden as U.S. President, who immediately started to make efforts to rebuild transatlantic relationships and bolster NATO. Ukraine, meanwhile, “triggered” Putin by prosecuting his close personal friend Viktor Medvedchuk for high treason.

“Medvedchuk is very important to Putin,” said Carroll.

In the past three months, Putin seems to have been disappointed by the conduct of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Putin counted on Zelensky being generally amenable to implementing the Minsk Protocol in some shape or form, and expected to “return” Donbas to Ukraine on Moscow’s terms.

“Somewhere in late 2020 – early 2021, it became clear that Russia can’t force Kyiv to implement Minsk on Russia’s terms, and that was the inception of the crisis,” said Fishman.

Serenity through stability

Russian liberal newspaper The New Times described Donbas as an “expensive ghetto.” And it really is expensive, in both how much it takes to financially support, and in how it can be leveraged to influence Ukraine’s future.

Despite Shoygu claiming Russian military exercises have concluded, the experts NV spoke with tend to agree that the future is unlikely to be entirely smooth and steady for Ukraine, while someone like Putin rules Russia.

“We must be prepared for the Russians keeping us in constant tension,” said Oktysiuk. He added that Russia would effectively abandon the Minsk peace process by recognizing its puppets in Donbas, which could be of some benefit to Kyiv.

The coming weeks will determine how this year will go for Ukraine, and it will depend on decisions fiscal, diplomatic, and everything in between.

“The Ukrainian leadership should be very visible, visiting soldiers and sailors, checking on military preparations, signaling to the citizenry that their leaders are being proactive,” said Hodges.

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