Almost the entire top tier of Russian politics consists of former members of the ruling Communist party of the Soviet Union. They have proved their conversion to champions of Capitalism. They all are very wealthy now.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was banned by Yeltsin in 1991, and remained illegal for about a year. Hardcore Communists, who still believed in the ideology, formed the Communist party of Russian Federation as well as a few smaller parties and fractions.
Technically, it makes Putin and the other rulers past members of an illegal far-left political entity as per Nov 6, 1991. There are no records of their Communist allegiance after that date.
Boris Yeltsin, his team and other Communists who eyed new, bigger opportunities in the Capitalist Russia, threw out their membership cards and went on building their new careers. Some of them, like President Putin and his friends, ultimately became the super rich rulers of the modern Russian state-oligarchical system.
Here’s an abridged list of top politicians, bureaucrats and managers in today’s Russia who were card-carrying Party members under Soviet rule.
President Putin, member of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) since 1975.
Russia’s policy is patently free of ideologies. It’s highly transactional, seeks tactical wins wherever possible and aims at disrupting the policies of the US and other “hostile” Western powers across the world.
When it comes for Russia’s foreign policy, unlike the former Soviet Union, it’s not based on a coherent ideology. What makes it distinct, it’s shaped by our President and has Putin’s fingerprints all over it.
President Putin is known as an accomplished tactician, with a visceral distaste for ideologies. His line is best described by the word disruption. He reads into the strategic intent of his opponents—for the time being, the US and NATO—and takes measures to disrupt their actions. Its initial objective has been to enforce a sort of a New Yalta deal on the US and NATO.
Deploying the instruments of disruptive power, Putin and his aides often call it “asymmetrical response”. The idea is to annoy and weaken the enemy to the point when he gives up and decides it makes more sense to sit down and negotiate than to continue the confrontation.
You can see it in the stuff produced by RT and Sputnik, in the heightened activity of the radical left and far right in Europe and USA, in the consequent Russian obstruction of Western global agenda, the hacker attacks. This is all ways to compensate for our economic weakness and lack of international allies.
The Germans showed considerable disruptive power in their submarine war in the Atlantic during WWII. Submarines can’t win wars, but they hugely facilitate strategic wins, as they did for the US in the grand Pacific battle of WWII. You may want to read more about disruptive power if you google the name of researcher Frances Fox Piven.
Predictive analysis of recent Russian and Soviet history points at three attributes that the future master of the Kremlin is required to have.
The name of Putin’s possible successor in the Kremlin is impossible to know, because the man himself doesn’t seem to prepare his exit. Anyone serious enough to claim their ambition would subject themselves to serious adversity.
However, based on the Russian and Soviet history, we may predict where to look for this person’s name. This will be someone who combines all of the following three attributes:
He knows how to lie low and bid his/her time. “Don’t look conspicuous, it draws fire / Try to look unimportant, they may be low on ammo.” (—Murphy’s Laws of Combat).
He is a part of Putin’s inner circle, or someone a step or two lower on the ladder, with a noticeable performance record in the state bureaucracy.
He is personally very wealthy, or has access to an ample war chest through his family or personal friends.
This person may come to power either immediately after Putin, or as a successor after one or two transitional figures, like Dmitri Medvedev. Medvedev himself is too weak and doesn’t have his own power base).
There is also some chance of a “non-systemic” opposition leader coming to power (think Alexey Navalny). But this requires a physical removal of Putin from the Kremlin, which may happen only as a result of a dramatic split in his inner circle. Right now, I consider the chance of it considerably less than 0.1.
Saving the country by ditching the Communist project was a project that the Soviet reformers ran aground. Putin had great success in turning Russia the way they tried to change the USSR.
Soviet Communism has compromised itself to the degree that even hard-boiled Stalinists find it necessary to recreate it with a serious upgrade. A multi-ethnic empire without the Communists is a different matter, though.
President Putin has been recreating on the territory of Russia something we could for simplicity call a sort of a Soviet-Union-with-shopping-malls-instead-of-Communism for some time now. Looking back, we discern parallels between today’s Russia and long-term visions of Andropovites. They were technocrats and intellectuals in the service of the KGB in the 1960s-80s who prepared a kind of China-like transition to Capitalism in “Socialist” clothes.
President Putin has achieved a considerable success where the Andropovites failed. This proves that some form of the “old USSR” in 1990s was salvageable.
Three big caveats, though:
Ethnic nationalism in the colonies around the southern and western rim. This is what brought down the USSR in 1991. China didn’t have to grapple with that. Ukraine and Belarus could have been retained, but hardly the rest.
Oil prices. Everyone is blaming Yeltsin and his dodgy American counselors for the chaos in the 1990s. The question is how someone like Putin would have made it with his state pockets empty back then. Putin’s approach to every problem has always ample money in it. I seriously question Putin’s ability to manage serious challenges on a shoestring.
If Communists and radical nationalists (“the Red-Browns” of Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, or Ziuganov variation) had reclaimed power in 1992, 1993 or 1996, the USSR 2.0 wouldn’t have a chance by now. Imagine everything what Yeltsin is now blamed for, plastered all over the Soviet old-timers. Russia would have been in NATO and EU by now.
Historically, Poland long occupied the central position in Eastern Europe that made it in the eyes of Russia a rival as the “main Slav nation”.
The relationship between Russia/Soviet and Poland changed several times. “Rivalry” would be the most fitting word to describe it.
The fundamental reason for the rivalry is geography. After the demise of the Bysantine empire, the main connection with Europe for us was Poland. Further south, sit the Carpathian mountains that separate us from the rest of Slavs. Poles occupy the plains between us and Germany.
This central position gave Poland a unique role as the “main” Slav nation in Europe for many centuries. What is now Ukraine and Belarus, was long a part of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Much of the German influence came to us through Poland, before the Russian empire began a wholesale import of German officers and engineers from the Baltics and Prussia in the XVIII century.
In other words, the role of the great Slav empire required of Russia to get rid of Poland. Poles, on their part, in the XVI and XVII got an appetite for the lucrative Russian fur exports. This resulted in several wars, and the funny situation when Poles for a short period of time became nominal Czars of Russia.
Now, with the creation of independent Belarus and Ukraine as a buffer between us in 1991, much of this tension has faded. In the mind of many nationalistic Russians, the place of Poland as the “evil Slav” is taken over by Ukraine.
Poland, along with Austria and Hungary, is also considered the place in the Central Europe with the most powerful Russian agents of influence. In addition to that, many among the Polish elite share Putin’s views on the EU as a liberal bureaucratic project, and the Anglo-Saxon globalism as a threat to the national identity. If the current tensions between the illiberal Polish leadership and the EU continue to gain strength, we may expect an emerging accord between Russia and Poland, in line with the existing one between Hungary and Russia.
If Putin continues to rule Russia the way he does now, with no friendly or hostile “Black Swans” arriving before he goes, this is what will go down in history:
Under Putin, due to the windfall of historically high oil prices, Russia experienced the wealth and stability unprecedented in our history.
Putin stopped the process of Russia shedding our dependencies after the break up of the Soviet Union. By unilaterally taking Crimea from Ukraine, he also put an end to the post-WWII security system in Europe.
Putin is the first Russian ruler during the last 100 years who did not try to modernize the country. He views modernity as a factor of instability. As a counterweight, he reinforces the elements of Russian imperial, orthodox political tradition, an assertive military and the economy based on large-scale extraction and export of natural resources. Internationally, he aligns himself with China who he considers as a politically and socially conservative, but economically successful force.
Putin successfully introduced—in Europe, for the first time since the Venetian Republic—a system where the secret police forms the core of the national political system, and secret operatives are the backbone of the ruling class.
Weakening Putin is an auxiliary objective of the Western sanctions. Creating a cumulative incentive to get rid him to his circle, as well as collecting trading cards for the day when normalization talks start is more important.
Western sanctions applied to targeted industries and persons in Putin’s circle have so far produced zero effect. So far, the sanctions only changed him for worse. He became more obstinate.
Bear in mind that none of the Western sanctions have targeted Putin, his assets or his closest family. Putin himself is the last name on the list of targeted individuals, for two reasons.
Putin is not an enemy of the West. He’s just a recalcitrant player, elbowing his way to a better place at the global table of power. No need to antagonize him more than necessary.
Hitting Putin directly would be the most painful of sanctions. Good players keep the strongest card to play it last.
Consider this example. According to a report, Putin’s decision to mess up the 2016 electoral campaign in the US was triggered by the Panama Papers revelations about his personal friend stashing for him 2 billion USD in an offshore fund. The uproar was about mere revealing of the fact. Imagine what kind of hullabaloo would have happened if Putin’s money were actually frozen or confiscated.
The greatest threat to Putin and his family are not Western politicians. It’s rich and powerful vultures that will go after them and his assets the moment he loses power. He knows he made a lot of powerful enemies along the way, but not always who they are, or how they can hit back. This is why the fall of Qaddafi made such an impact on him.
The pressure on Putin’s circle is more important than on himself. Behind the scenes, it can be scaled down by allowing or rejecting visas to them and their families, disrupting their business deals in the West, harassing their point men. The message sent would be “Staying close to the boss is your liability, not an assets–as long as he’s messing up the Eastern Ukraine.”
President Putin may not measure up to the standards of Western liberal democracy. But in the grand scheme of Russian civilization, he’s the best ruler ever.
Putin is the best leader Russia has ever had.
He’s the first since Stalin who knows how to run the country. And in comparison with Stalin, he does the job with immensely less blood and suffering, and to much better result. At last, we have a competent leader who doesn’t kill and torment people at industrial scale.
He´s not a sadist, or power maniac, or a simple thief, or conqueror. With the power he has amassed, he could be Ivan the Terrible, or Caligula, or Lenin, – and he chooses not to. What a welcome, wonderful change.
He has little time for liberal niceties like rule of law, or civil rights, or human dignity. But he is very legalistic. “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” He wants to win elections, not abolish them, tweak and change the law, not ignore it. That´s very fresh, very new, very empowering.
He has a sense of fairness, and he values loyalty. His enemies die or disappear, often in a horrible way, but not before they had declared themselves to be his enemies. He doesn’t betray. As long as he thinks you honestly hold your end of bargain, he does´t lie or cheat. Totally out of character for someone who spent formative years in the twilight world of Soviet secret services.
He´s not tormented by inner demons that he lets act out onto other people, like many in his entourage do. He’s pragmatic, calculating, rational. “Why kill when you can make a deal? Why steal when you can buy? Why make a scene when you can sit down and have a talk?” He´s a rock of reason in the neurotic sea of post-Soviet politics.
He realizes his power mandate comes from people, not from brute force, or God, or ideological sophistry. He´s obsessed by polls figures and popular acclaim. He says what people like to hear, and he knows how to cater to his power base. He shares. He and his friends stole billions from the oil-fueled bonanza, but down here, we got many fat morsels, too. We´ve never been that well off. That´s so new. We´re amazed. Simply amazed.
Russia is a declining power. For many different reasons, this decline seems impossible to reverse. But Putin might be the best to make it a rather smooth, long, uneventful decline.
Russians are generally a very Francophile bunch. President Putin seems to have no particular likes or dislikes beyond that. Nothing like the loves or hates he appears to have about Germany, the US, Greece or Ukraine.
Then came the cancellation of Mistrals and the whole kit and caboodle after the annexation of Crimea.
Putin has invested a lot in his agents of influence on the French right (Fillon, Mariani & Co) as well as in the fringes (Le Pen, Mélenchon), and among influential industrialists. He is mightily irritated why things don´t work out for Russia the way it did before.
Macron’s been often very direct in confronting President Putin for his high meddling in French politics. But Putin is a very pragmatic man. He understands he must pay a price for obstructing Macron’s rise to power, which explains his uncharacteristically humble look when he’s around the Frenchman. If he sees that Macron indeed becomes the top player in Europe and is willing to strike deals and follow up on them.
Detractors of President Putin sometimes refer to his showroom weapons, CGI-generated missile launches and blistering rhetorics as empty threats. This is misguiding. Threats from President Putin have layers of meaning beneath them.
In effect, “empty threats” as a term bunches together a lot of totally different power moves on the part of Putin, each appropriate only under a certain set of circumstances. If you mix them up, you totally misread what is happening and most likely make wrong conclusions.
To start with, President Putin is an alumnus of a highly professional special service and spy agency called KGB. This is a line of business where “threats”, if used unwisely, can easily ruin your career or get you killed. When Putin comes with threats, they are very well calculated. Therefore, they are never empty. There’s always something behind them that you can dismiss or accept, but should never ignore.
“He who offends us, won’t live three days”
This was one of Putin’s memes during his early presidency. At the time, most of what happened in the country was outside his control. Oligarchs ran their game over his head, the state functionaries paid little attention to his orders, and the local elites badmouthed the Kremlin at every occasion. This was a concise political declaration from the President: “A challenge to my power may be lethal for you, even if you are not a Chechen.”
The Russian military might, apart from the nuclear capability, is only a shade of what it was during the Soviet era. Even the newly-acquired oil wealth invested in Putin’s re-organization of the army, could not rectify much. Recently, it caused much hilarity in Russia when someone calculated that the combined tonnage of the oligarchs’ yachts has surpassed the one of Russia’s ocean-going Navy. This mixes poorly with the self-assured stance President Putin is taking as the world champion of anti-liberal resistance. Hence, the need for a few power moves.
Doomsday weapon. The chances that we really have the weapon are impossible to assess. But the certain fact that we possess a nuclear capability to cause the US unacceptable damage gives this ghost weapon much more credibility than if it came from, say, Zimbabwe.
Future weapon. Announcements that in a few years’ time, Russia will deploy a certain system, unmatched by anyone else.
Showroom weapon. Kind of weapons that exist as a proof of concept. Also, the ones that we technologically can manufacture, but which will bankrupt us if we launch their serial production.
Soft-spoken messages of strength rarely make an impact in Russian politics. Stalin, who was famously soft-voiced, slow and slurred in his speech, in order to be recognized as a great orator and man of outstanding wisdom, had first to destroy both the “left” and “right” opposition in the Party. The most impactful communicators in our history, like Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, talked with their fists and palms as much as their mouths. Putin’s stature and voice are nor made for a show of physical might, so he needs to compensate for it by tough talk.
Ukraine is a good example of what once was considered by the West as empty threats and goofy talk on the part of Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly shot warning shots to the US and Germans that he is willing to go pretty far in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western fold. The West ignored it every time—until it was too late.
If you are a man of power and don’t throw tantrums from time to time—preferably with torrents of obscenities—this is seen by many as a sign of weakness. The life of a Russian luminary is full of constant stress. Not venting from time to time the ton of frustrations you’re carrying around day after day on those weaker than you is unnatural and suspicious. People start asking themselves: maybe deep down inside, you’re weaker than them.
Below, a photo of the famous Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin. It’s a 5.3 m long barrel with 0.89m caliber . When I worked as a guide at the 1980 Olympics, I described it not much unlike President Putin presents nowadays new items of in Russia’s weapon arsenals: “a piece of art”, “a gem of metalworking”, “nothing comparable anywhere in the world”. However, the cannon was never used in battle—and experts say, for a good reason: the first shot would have exploded the barrel and killed the crew. Was this an “empty threat”? Definitely not. This was an excellent tool in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and propagandists.