Special Services Aggravate Bad Governance in Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 42

(Source: The Moscow Times)

The escalation of repressions against all manifestations of discontent in Russia inevitably results in greater influence of the country’s special services and police, often described as the siloviki (literally, power-wielders). This plain fact has come into sharper focus when the Kremlin found it necessary to disagree with a recent article in the Financial Times that elaborates on the transformation of Vladimir Putin’s regime into a police state (RIA Novosti, March 12). Dmitry Peskov, the veteran-spokesperson for President Putin, found it opportune to lament the supposed decline of professional competence within the “Anglo-Saxon media” just a few hours after the article’s publication, inevitably drawing significantly more Russian attention to the piece (RBC, Izvestia, March 12).

The theme raised by the Financial Times story is certainly not novel, and the key role of such personalities as Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), or Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, in unleashing domestic repressions is already regularly examined in Russian commentary (Sobesednik, February 27). But the Kremlin typically never comments on the extremely secretive workings of the presidential administration or on relations inside the narrow circle of Putin’s closest associates and the wider court of aides and subordinates.

So the self-revealing disapproval last Friday might appear to fit the well-established pattern of Kremlin renunciations; indeed, only a few days prior, Peskov had denied that Russian special services were conducting a campaign aimed at discrediting Western vaccines against the COVID-19 coronavirus (RBC, March 9). Moscow sticks to disavowing even irrefutably established Russian crimes, such as the destruction of Malaysian passenger flight MH17 over the Donbas war zone on July 17, 2014, or its interference in the United States’ presidential elections in 2016. In most cases, however, Moscow’s repudiations seek to distance Russia from botched operations by its special services, like the March 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom, or the more recent, August 2020, poisoning of Alexei Navalny, both apparently with the deadly nerve agent Novichok (Fontanka, March 5). It cannot be established for a fact that Putin ordered these operations; but by officiating over the denials, he effectively takes responsibility for the attempted assassinations.

The Russian presidential office’s rejection of the plain point made in the Financial Times article is different as it refers not to a specific operation or a particular fact but to an analytical assumption based on conversations with unnamed sources in the Kremlin. It is this revelation of discord among the courtiers that has apparently irked Putin, who is known to read only a few summaries of media commentary that aides place on his table (Meduza.io, July 16, 2020). The swiftness of the unnecessary denunciation, thus, shows that the intensity of feuds for influence and access among Kremlin elites has risen beyond the usual squabbles (Moscow Echo, March 12).

Many bureaucrats in the vast presidential administration have good reason to resent the self-serving intrigues of the top siloviki. One recent case was their effort to exploit Putin’s ignorance about the workings of the internet to expand state censorship over online social networks and shut down “subversive” electronic media (Rosbalt, March 12). However, the ongoing inability of the Russian special services to establish an effective China-style blockade of Western reach into the Russian information space and to check the proliferation of independent content is telling (Moscow Times, March 9). Moscow’s capabilities to execute cyberattacks may be impressive; but in domestic affairs, loud assertions are routinely followed by awkward failures (Forbes.ru, March 11). Illustratively, the attempt to “discipline” Twitter by slowing down its circulation among Russian users in early March resulted in crashes of many official internet properties, including the Kremlin website (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, March 11).

Such ineptitude may irritate some media-savvy Putin’s aides, but many of them have a much more pressing concern: sanctions (The Insider, March 9). The most recent addition to the expanding package of US and European Union sanctions targets not only the bosses of the special services but also such key bureaucrats as Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy chief of the presidential administration (Svoboda.org, March 3). A further tightening and fine-tuning of the Western sanctions regime is widely expected as US and European investigations into new “hybrid” crimes by Russia, including cyberattacks, continue; so the list of punished “civilians” will lengthen (Riddle, March 12). The Kremlin is doing what it can to demonstrate that sanctions do not work, and it seeks to amplify every sign of internal disagreement in the West about the impact the planned sanctions may have on further dialogue (curtailed as it already is) with Russia. Nevertheless, the beneficiaries of Putin’s regime cannot find much reassurance (Kommersant, March 12).

Their main defense is to ensure that sanctions hurt Russia’s middle classes and not just the super-rich; but for the latter, another part of the problem is that the siloviki are increasingly taking control over key financial flows in the country (Rosbalt, March 10). Putin still relies on such professionals as Elvira Nabiullina, the head of the Central Bank. But the top regime enforcers tend to treat those economists as “bourgeois specialists”—today’s successors to the functionaries who directed the short-lived New Economic Policy 100 years ago (Finansovaya Gazeta, March 12; see EDM, March 9). Meanwhile, the expansion of repressions brings such cadre shifts in the FSB as the promotion of Sergei Korolev, heretofore the head of the economic security directorate, to be the main Russian internal security service’s first deputy director (Novaya Gazeta, March 5). Korolev has rich experience in dealing with criminal groupings, which informed his approach to setting economic guidelines (Istories-Media, March 11).

Putin likewise understands the techniques of racketeering and money laundering far better than the intricacies of macro-economic policy or the trends in the global energy markets toward renewable resources, which undercut Gazprom’s utility as a political weapon. Still, this insight warns him about the eroding centrality of his position in the system of power, which today relies more on suppressing the opposition than on mobilizing popular support. Russia’s special services execute the forceful actions as they see fit, like crashing the forum of municipal activists in Moscow last Saturday (March 13). And Putin’s role in all of this is necessarily reduced to asserting the “legitimacy” of such repressions (Medusa.io, March 13). He may feel irritated with this de facto irrelevance, but the metastasis of bad governance, which he set in motion a year ago by revising the constitution and removing the limit on his reign, cannot be checked by denials.