The Briefing: Putin Vs. Putin

September 2, 2016

The emperor is at war with his inner godfather. The autocrat is battling his inner kleptocrat. The commissar is struggling with his inner crime kingpin.

The most consequential political battle in Russia today is not another skirmish among the Kremlin clans; it’s not a showdown between the siloviki and the technocrats; and it’s not a standoff between the regime and the opposition.

No, the battle defining Russia’s next political season is one that appears to be going on between Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Putin.

As the Kremlin leader culls his inner circle, purges the elite, and tries to enforce some limits on the massive graft that pervades Russian politics, he’s also fighting with himself.

And that is because Putin is something of a hybrid.

As veteran Russia-watcher James Sherr has noted, genealogically Putin is a product of the KGB, but sociologically he is a product of the Darwinian chaos and gangster capitalism that marked Russia’s first post-Soviet decade.

Putin’s political DNA may have been formed in Lubyanka, in Yury Andropov’s KGB, where order, hierarchy, discipline, and Soviet great-power ideology were paramount.

But his political socialization took place as vice mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, where, as Karen Dawisha notes in her book Putin’s Kleptocracy, one of his key roles was acting as a liaison between the political and criminal authorities.

It was the Wild Wild East, a world where duplicity was the norm, rules are for sissies, and only might makes right. It was a world where informal networks ruled and you controlled people by corrupting them.

It was a world where only the strong survived. And Putin not only survived, he thrived.

And when he became president, Putin took both of these formative experiences with him to the Kremlin and fused them. He formed a hybrid state: one that acted like a crime syndicate but also ruthlessly consolidated political power and pursued Putin’s great-power ambitions.

“This regime’s unique long-term vitality was due to the fact that, in place of institutions, power resided in informal and often semicriminal networks,” political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov wrote recently in

“Putin was both the head of state and the leader of this formally nonexistent — but very powerful and vast — organization…Putin’s unique versatility, his ability to be both the prince of light and the prince of darkness, to a large extent explains the success of his long reign.”

It was successful because Putin deftly managed the informal power structures by playing clans off against each other.

It was successful because he skilfully used corruption as a carrot and stick to control the ruling elite and keep it loyal.

It was successful because in times of expanding resources due to high oil prices, there was enough money to go around.

But most importantly, it was successful because it reflected and reinforced deep-seated norms in Russian political culture.

It exploited what political scientist Alena Ledeneva, author of the book Can Russia Modernize, calls “sistema,” the immense web of illicit networks that have long dominated Russian political life.

For much of his rule, Putin was able to enrich his cronies, revive Russia’s power, and raise living standards.

But as oil prices dipped, the economy slid, and living standards fell, the system came under pressure.

And as Russia’s confrontation with the West intensified, the ideological Putin, the one whose main priority is to restore Russia’s superpower status, began to eclipse the kleptocratic Putin.

Lubyanka began to trump St. Petersburg.

This is the context for the dismissals of longtime Putin cronies like former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, former Federal Antinarcotics Service chief Viktor Ivanov, and former Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov.

This is the context for Putin’s efforts to get the elites to repatriate their offshore assets.

And this is the context for the less-bogus-than-usual campaign against corruption.

“Putin is driven now not by personal economic interest but an ideological program — a vision of a nation restored to its due place in history and the world (and, by extension, a vision of his appropriate legacy),” Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote late last year.

“He has surrounded himself with a small coterie of like-minded cohorts — or at least figures willing and able to play that role — and they are ultimately in charge.”

And by sidelining ambitious heavyweights in his court like Yakunin and Ivanov, he is also removing potential challengers to his rule.

As Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote recently in Vedomosti, Putin is trying to move away from the collective leadership model reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev and toward one centered on a single leader, as under Josef Stalin.

But in the process, he is fighting “sistema,” he is fighting the system he built, and he is fighting himself.

“Corruption remains today, in the absence of ideology, the only effective binding element of the Russian world, its saving ether. And Putin, like no other to date, skillfully used the corruption in order to strengthen his personal power,” Pastukhov wrote.

“Now, in the same interests, he believes he needs to start fighting corruption, violating the social contract with the old elites.”

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to this week’s Power Vertical Podcast later on September 2, when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.