6 September 2016

All The Kremlin’s Men: decoding Putin’s game


“Russia is Putin. Russia exists only if there is Putin. There is no Russia without Putin.” These are the words of the Kremlin’s current policy-wizard-in-chief, Vyacheslav Volodin. Many people in Russia happily believe this kind of clap-trap, and even the many who don’t are quite content to live with it. How did it get to this? How did the obscure middle-ranking state functionary of 25 years ago end up as one of the two or three most powerful people in the world?

This book by Russian TV journalist Mikhail Zygar takes a crack at unlocking the mystery. On the face of it the mystery is this: despite the aura of malignant invincibility the record shows that in many spheres Vladimir Putin is not a particularly effective operator.

He is not a good business negotiator – going right back to his time as advisor to the mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, he has a habit of striking deals at bad prices and getting taken for a ride by big business scammers. His most dramatic domestic interventions have been outstandingly incompetent, such as the failure to rescue sailors trapped in the sunken Kursk submarine in 2000, or the bungled rescue of hostages in the Nord-Ost theatre terrorist attack in 2002 where 130 or more people died mainly as a result of the actions Russia’s own security forces, or the Beslan school siege of 2004 where most of the over 300 deaths were again caused by the trigger-happy ‘rescuers’. Neither is he decisive, frequently unwilling to act or give directions, often telling subordinates “do as you see fit”, while at times of crisis he sometimes simply disappears. His only ideology is a reverence for authority. But that may be the key to the mystery.

Vladimir Putin first came to the Kremlin wearing the clothes of a liberal reformer, clothes borrowed from the wardrobe of Boris Yeltsin. When President Yeltsin selected him as Prime Minister he was a near-unknown, rather like the previous four prime ministers that Russia had run through in the preceding 18 months. At that moment Russia was still experiencing what was arguably its greatest revolution, the chaotic privatisations of state assets pushed through by Yeltsin and his pro-market lieutenants Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. The privatisation story is complex and contentious, but at its heart was a forced collision between the closed, controlled Soviet economy and the free market. This created a phase lasting several years when the vast price differential between Russia’s natural resources priced in Soviet terms versus real world terms could be exploited by anyone with the requisite contacts, cash and total absence of scruples. Putin had seen this at first hand when he was involved in selling Russian commodities as head of external relations in the mayor’s office in St Petersburg, and later in Yeltsin’s ‘Presidential Property Management Department’ in Moscow.

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These were formative experiences. As Putin cast off the reformist disguise and began the work of bringing Russia’s newly created private sector under his control, his guiding principle became (in the words of political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky) the conviction that ‘everything was stolen’. No one with resources really owned them: everything had been acquired by force and dishonesty from the rightful owner, the state. Putin’s worldview is not so much Communist (an ideology he has disavowed) or even Soviet, as superstatist. He took it to be his job to restore the primacy of the state, and since the Soviet idea had evaporated it had to be replaced by something new – something called Putin.

In Russia control is exercised in ways that are not always familiar in the West. Although Putin has been an energetic constitutional legislator, reshaping the political system to limit regional ambitions and concentrate power in a top-down model, much of what the Kremlin does to manage the country is accomplished through more informal means. Russia is too big, too amorphous, too corrupt and too anarchic to respond to conventional incentives and checks. Instead, the leadership must resort to a programme of political theatrics.

The great drama of Putin’s first presidential term was the taming of the oligarchs, the rag-tag crew of billionaires who had emerged from the privatisation boom to form new and potentially destabilising power centres. Although Putin had quickly disposed of oil and media oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, relieving them of their businesses and eventually driving them into exile, that was not enough. Putin’s Russia needed an iconic image that would demonstrate what lay in store for anyone who thought they could cross the Kremlin.

To hammer home this message Putin chose not one of the obvious robber barons, but rather the more intellectual and thoughtful oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky who as owner of Russia’s largest oil company Yukos was probably the richest man in the country. The details of the tax and money-laundering cases that sent Khordokovsky to jail and deprived him of his money are irrelevant: for Putin and for Russia, what is relevant is the unforgettable image of the former billionaire, shaven-headed and underfed, peering between the bars of a Siberian jail. The message was simple: spend your cash on Ferraris and dancing girls; leave politics to me.

This was early Putin. He spent all of his first presidential term and much of the second attempting to do two mutually contradictory things. Putin wanted to rebuild the power of the centralised, personalised state, but at the same time he wanted to integrate Russia into the global system as represented by the G8 and NATO. He wanted a seat at every top table. He wanted – as Mikhail Zygar puts it – to be ‘on the board’. This was never going to work, simply because the project of state building, Putin-style, meant co-opting and corrupting the society and systems of Russia and its allies to an extent that made anything but cosmetic collaboration with Putin’s realm impossible.

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World leaders like Tony Blair and George W Bush initially welcomed the apparent willingness of the Putin presidency to be part of the conversation, until it became clear that Putin for all his charming candour did not actually do conversation. In particular they became alienated by the Russian president’s tendency to lie prolifically whenever it suited him. Putin assumes that all leaders lie all the time about everything, whereas in fact global diplomacy relies largely on the presidents and prime ministers of this world telling the truth to each other, even if that truth is massaged for public consumption. Politicians learned this early about Putin; big businesses doing deals with Russia took rather longer to grasp the reality.

Putin’s third phase, the present phase, is the most dangerous – not least because his options have narrowed. The Russian president has knocked at the doors of all of the world’s power-broking clubs and one way or another been given the brush-off. Big-power alliances have failed: Angela Merkel learned the hard way to distrust Putin, while Barrack Obama disliked him at first sight. Much of the Putin political and business elite are now the subject of international sanctions, and the most cursory examination of Putin’s speeches show that he sees himself, and Russia, as the aggrieved victims of chronic injustice and hypocrisy. His characteristic tone is not the haughty conviction of world-shaping influence, but a kind of needy pedantry that is more David Brent than Ivan The Terrible. David Brent, with nuclear codes.

As the Russian economy struggles with the long-term stress of low oil and industrial commodity prices, Putin’s need to find grand distractions has grown. Russian GDP almost doubled during his first two presidential terms. During his third it has fallen, and Russia has annexed Crimea, sent troops or proxies into Eastern Ukraine, and begun a military adventure in Syria. Meanwhile Putin has fallen back on increasingly nativist themes at home as well as promoting illiberal legislation and encouraging semi-official bands of ruffians and motorcycle gangs to do the work of enforcing policy. In short, Putin phase three has gone seriously downmarket. While it is tempting to laugh at some of the absurd fibs and fiddles that make up the Putin package, it would be hollow laughter at an intrinsically unstable situation.

Paradoxically the instability is partly because there is no visible domestic challenge to the Putin version. This month’s parliamentary elections (due September 18) show that Putin’s party United Russia is by far the most popular in Russia, and Putin the most popular politician. The Kremlin has begun to believe its own PR, and the result is ‘Russia is Putin’.

Mikhail Zygar’s book has little to say on what comes next, but offers plenty of insight on how things got to here. You have to work hard for the insight – the book is written in that hint-heavy Russian tone of insinuation that often leaves the reader puzzling over what, exactly, is being said – but all the same it is worth some effort. The weird blend of timidity, ruthlessness, and bogus thinking behind the eerie Putin personality has not been better portrayed.

‘All The Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin’ by Mikhail Zygar is published by PublicAffairs on September 22, 2016.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.