Putin’s Autocratic Moment

Vladimir Putin

The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.

Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:

Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.

Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.

Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:

Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.

The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.

They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:

“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”

While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.