Streetwise Professor

January 25, 2015

Mewling Oligarchs Move Putin Not At All: The Security Forces Are a Different Matter

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:36 pm

Bloomberg breathlessly reports that oligarchs are irked at Putin because he adamantly refuses to countenance backing down in Ukraine.

And Putin really doesn’t care. Mewling oligarchs move him not in the least. Or if they have an effect on him, it is to create disgust and disdain. Putin cares about retaining power, and the oligarchs don’t threaten that.  He can destroy them, in a trice, and they know that: the recent example of Evtushenkov is surely fresh in their minds.

The Bloomberg piece states that Putin’s circle has shrunk to a few:

The ruble’s plunge has heightened opposition to Putin’s backing of the rebellion in Ukraine among his wealthiest allies, prompting the president to shrink his inner circle from dozens of confidants to a small group of security officials united by their support for the separatists, two longtime associates said.

. . . .

The core group around Putin is led by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, according to Markov.

This selection is probably overdetermined. As a Chekist, Putin’s views are likely broadly similar to those in the security services and the military. But perhaps more importantly, these people can actually pose a threat to Putin. A challenge is most likely to arise from their ranks, and unlike oligarchs, these people have force at their disposal.

Meaning that Putin is likely acting along the lines of the old adage: “Hold your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Putin doesn’t need the oligarchs as friends. Patrushev et al may not be enemies, as such, at least not yet, but they are a threat. And so keeping them close, and satisfied, is wise as a survival strategy.

This has broader implications. Putin likely has every intention of continuing his attempts to bring Ukraine to heel. But if he thinks about backing off in the face of pressure, or because of rising casualties and costs of continuing the campaign, he realizes that he risks running afoul of the hard men around him. Which implies that internal political forces will continue to impel Putin to continuing confrontation.

This further implies that outraged denunciations by Kerry or the Euros or even Obama will have little effect on Putin. Something sterner is required, for behind Putin stand some very stern men.


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  1. I have always found this “friendship” between Putin and Shoigu a little weird. Trusting a man who seemed to have been more or less a local war lord (for kicks), and trusting him enough to give him all the forces he now has is not an obvious choice.
    More and more, this story reminds me of Roman emperors. And a few were killed by their Praetorian guards…

    Comment by Nathalie (@spacedlaw) — January 27, 2015 @ 12:20 am

  2. I’m not so sure. The problem with kicking the oligarchs out of the inner circle is that now any potential rival outside the circle can find himself a wealthy backer, something he may previously not have had. And although Putin is able to crush any one of the oligarchs when he likes, Russia still needs businesses to survive and any new, fledgling leader will need the oligarchs on side (at least until he’s found his feet). And the oligarchs will now be highly incentivised to back anyone who looks as though he can topple Putin, and thus enjoy a cosy position with the new regime. Of course it carries considerable risk, but what doesn’t in Russia?

    I’ve often said that I think the challenge to Putin won’t come from the senior men in his own circle but from somebody in the middle-high ranks of the security services (or less likely, the military) who has for years flirted around the edge of the circle never having been fully accepted but allowed close enough so he knows who is who and how it all works. It will be somebody who nobody has ever heard of, and probably somebody Putin wouldn’t suspect in a million years. And now he has a lot of pissed off oligarchs with billions of hard currency at their disposal and a very good knowledge of intrigue, politics, and the international markets at his disposal.

    This might be a costly move by Putin: the idea that he can remain safe by surrounding himself with a small gang of long-serving, ageing arse-licking toadies has been tried in Russia before, and each time it failed. Alexei K made a very good point, one I have made in the past, on his blog recently:

    There would be no need to worry about Putin’s 85% approval ratings as they are phony in more ways than one. A change in the state TV line, with Putin’s team exposed as the thugs they are, would fix those ratings in weeks, perhaps days. Crowds turn on their idols just like that when the time is ripe.

    I think Putin’s position is extremely precarious.

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 27, 2015 @ 2:20 am

  3. Hey, I think your spam filter is munching my comments. 🙂

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 27, 2015 @ 2:21 am

  4. Thanks to Tim for quoting me. 🙂 I have no idea if Bloomberg’s sources are reliable. I hope they are not limited to Markov, a buffoon on Kremlin’s payroll. What if Putin merely wants everyone to believe he has gone crazy and is capable of any imaginable madness? I think Peter Pomerantsev speculated in the FT last week that P. could be using “Nixon’s madman theory.”

    Taking the Bloomberg report at face value, I would suspect Shoigu could be the guy with potential power. He’s not a career KGB agent (apparently), merely an aspiring but not particularly promising Soviet bureaucrat who championed Yeltsin’s cause early enough to get a good position in his government. Being the Minister of Emergency enabled him to set up an army of his own, a mix of trained rescuers and support troops, which is still commanded by a Shoigu protegee.

    Speaking of Patrushev, I don’t know if he’s diabolically clever or just clueless. Judging by his recent article in the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the latter.

    Comment by Alex K. — January 28, 2015 @ 1:48 am

  5. @Alex K. I beat Pomerantsev to that theory months ago, in a couple of posts. And the idea goes back well before Nixon. Machiavelli recommended it as a strategy in The Prince.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 28, 2015 @ 10:44 am

  6. @SWP, I should have given credit to you, since you blogged about Putin possibly playing the madman in March 2014, after his first post-Crimea press conference.

    Comment by Alex K. — January 31, 2015 @ 4:07 am

  7. @Alex K-No sweat. Thanks, and thanks for the props in your blog post. I still don’t know whether it’s an an act or a reality, or whether in the absence of anyone who can give him a reality check that what started as an act has become an actuality. But as we agree, it doesn’t really matter. The wages of his mad behavior will be paid in blood.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 1, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

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