Analysis Top Story

In Fortress Russia, Putin Only Listens to Hardliners Anymore

The removal of pro-Western liberals has reduced the Russian president’s inner circle to hardliners.

Since Vladimir Putin returned to Russia’s presidency in 2012, a siege mentality has taken hold of the Kremlin. Hawks far outnumber doves, if there are any left. Pushback, from within or abroad, is seen as treasonous or a challenge to Russia’s very sovereignty, requiring a crackdown or military response.

The consequence has been economic stagnation and renewed tension with the West.

In the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, military activity in Eastern Europe has risen sharply. Russia is regularly flying military aircraft close to and into European airspace without their transponders turned on, risking collisions with commercial jets. It has staged large military exercises on its western border, prompting the NATO alliance to move more of its forces to the east and carry out drills of its own.

The risk of miscommunication and an accidental confrontation between the two sides is now possibly as high as it was during the Cold War.

“Should a mistake happen, it is far from clear that cooler heads would prevail in the Kremlin,” Time magazine argues, “for the simple reason that there aren’t many of them left in Putin’s entourage.”

Liberals sidelined

When Putin assumed the presidency for a third time, the Atlantic Sentinel reported that relatively pro-Western liberals were being purged from his inner circle while veterans of the Russian security and spy agencies known as the siloviki were being promoted.

Dmitri Medvedev, the interim president who spoke often about the need to diversify the Russian economy away from oil and gas, was left almost powerless as premier. Alexei Kudrin, who led Russia’s liberalization as finance minister during Putin’s first two terms, and Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, once the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, had already been dismissed a year earlier. Gleb Pavlovski, a liberal Putin advisor, was shut out as well.

By contrast, Igor Sechin, a former Soviet intelligence officer who served Putin as chief of staff when he was mayor of Saint Petersburg, became head of the state oil company Rosneft. Sergei Ivanov, who had been removed as defense minister under Medvedev, was put in charge of Putin’s presidential administration. Sergei Shoigu, a former leader of the United Russia party, was named defense minister. All three are considered hardliners.

Circling the wagons

The personnel changes reflected a hardening in Putin’s attitudes. Where he previously oscillated between the conservatives and liberals — pursuing market reforms while doing little to revise a clientelist power structure in oil and gas; rejecting the hawks’ desire for an alliance with China without really joining the West either — his third presidential term has seen both liberal economies policies and Western outreaches abandoned.

In their place has come a pernicious form of nationalism, one that tells Russians the whole world is lining up against them and only a strong state — led by Putin — can keep them safe.

They have seen Soviet-style military parades back in the streets, the Orthodox Church rehabilitated, gay “propaganda” and European foodstuffs banned and the regime pursue a foreign policy in defense of ethnic Russians and national sovereignty.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Putin’s Security Council and another hardliner, recently warned Russians that the United States “really want Russia to cease to exist as a nation.” Internationally, Russia now positions itself as anti-Western in almost every possible way.

The objective seems to be safeguarding Putin’s popularity at a time when living standards are no longer rising and average Russians are starting to feel the pain of his policies. By appealing to Russians’ sense of duty and patriotism, the Kremlin may be hoping that the downturn — made worse by Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s landgrab in Ukraine — will be easier to bear.

But there are signs that the anti-Western sentiment is getting out of hand.

Patriotic frenzy

A man in Vladivostok recently made national headlines when he ratted on his neighbor for cooking illegally imported goose meat. He was naturally hailed as a hero. In Tatarstan, imported goose meat was bulldozed over. In Belgorod, Ukrainian ducklings were confiscated and burned. In Saint Petersburg, the local Cossack community has been raiding stores suspected of selling contraband foreign food.

The vigilantes are taking their cues from the top.

470 tons of imported cheese was confiscated in August and six members of an alleged cheese mafia were arrested. The Federal Customs Service has drafted legislation classifying banned foreign foods as “strategically important,” a label until now reserved for weapons and radioactive material. The Russian Association of Textile Manufacturers wants foreign clothes banned as well and authorities have been removing American- and European-made household products from supermarkets, claiming health risks.

“At first glance, the Kremlin’s jihad against all things Western looks like the postimperial temper tantrum of a regime that is truly losing the plot,” writes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore.

And perhaps it is. They want their empire back, dammit, and if they can’t have it they’re going to smash their dinner plate on the floor and trash their room.

But it’s also possible the state is deliberately whipping Russians into a frenzy, he admits, in order to prepare them for an era of low oil prices, a weak ruble, sanctions that stick and a standoff with the West that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Whitmore wonders how long this patriotic fervor can keep the population supportive while living standards plummet. Russian may have a higher tolerance for personal suffering than the average Westerner but they also thought the days of Soviet scarcity were behind them.

Elite cohesion at risk

Perhaps more important in the short term is how long the elite, which has become accustomed to a comfortable and globalized lifestyle, remains cohesive.

András Tóth-Czifra recently argued that it seems the wheels are starting to come off, from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov muttering expletives during a news conference to the unexpected resignation of Vladimir Yakunin, a Putin confidant and former head of Russian Railways.

Concerns about elite cohesion may help explain the dismissal of liberals, perceived as “soft”, in favor of the siloviki, who can be depended on at a time when Russia is ostracized abroad and forced to make cutbacks at home.

Putin has carefully divided the elite into factions. The military men seldom meet the oligarchs who seldom interact with cabinet members. This makes Putin indispensable to the workings of the regime and should prevent groups from being able to team up and remove him. But, as Time reports, it also results in each of the groups exaggerating the threats Russia faces.

The intelligence services, for instance, might overstate the threat from foreign spies while the oil and gas tycoons might play up the danger of competition in the energy market.

If Putin doesn’t keep a level head, he would start seeing threats from all directions — like his people do.

Not only does the system breed paranoia; it is wholly dependent on Putin to keep things together. Now that there are only hawks left at the top, Putin’s incapacitation or ouster would more likely see Russia take an even harder line in its foreign relations than walk back a policy of anti-Americanism and splendid isolation. That should give pause to those rooting for his fall and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the future of East-West relations.