Biden-Putin Geneva Summit, June 16, 2021

This is a summary of the discussion at the most recent of the online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 15 June 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The speakers were Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence/UCL/RUSI and Pavel Baev of PRIO, and the discussion was moderated by Graeme Herd of the GCMC. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants.

RHSS#6, June 15, 2021

‘Biden-Putin Geneva Summit, June 16, 2021’

Central Proposition: Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. is now the norm; relations with the EU have deteriorated to a record low and will continue to remain there; and offensive cyber operations as well as active measures against the political West are ongoing and likely unremitting.  The strategic interests of Russia and the West are incompatible and irreconcilable. 

Context: Characterizing U.S. Policy to Russia:

  • There is a transatlantic consensus for a targeted “pushback” against the Kremlin’s malign activity and influence and to build resilience in defense of shared core democratic values and practices. This approach suggests targeted ‘Containment 2.0’, in that it seeks to contain (or constrain) Russian aggressive and malign strategic behavior within “stable and predictable” lines.   
  • The U.S. and Europe can coordinate approaches to “impose real costs” to reduce Russian military and diplomatic efficacy through disruption. Disruption can cause friction, overextend and unbalance Russia and thereby control Russian escalation and deter further malign activity. The tools at the disposal of the U.S. and its friends and allies that facilitate the imposition of costs are varied and context specific. These tools can be diplomatic, economic and cyber. 
    • Diplomatic tools include “attribution diplomacy” (“name and shame”), diplomatic expulsions, and closing diplomatic properties.
    • Economic tools are also varied.  Tariffs, full embargoes and restrictions on technology sales necessary for hydrocarbon exploration and production, could shape Russia’s malign strategic behavior.
    • Cyber tools can be used to reveal or freeze Russian leaders’ foreign assets and expose corruption and a policy of “defend forward” or “hack back” can be used.   
    • In public diplomacy terms, the West can restructure the narrative from Putin’s preferred image of Russia as a besieged fortress encircled by an aggressive, dysfunctional, and failed West to one about a Russian kleptocracy and oligarchy (“Kremlin blacklist”) versus Russian civil society. As well as countering Russia directly, the West needs to invest in narratives that point to the advantages that liberal and democratic practices can offer, and the connections between rule of law, transparency and accountability with development, progress, peace and stability, as well as help countries build their capacity and strengthen their statehood (sovereignty and territorial integrity).
  • A ‘theory of change’ underpins sanctions against the Russian oligarchic business elite close to Putin. Sanctions are designed not to crash the Russian economy or force regime change, but rather to impose a cost on those sanctioned, and thereby change Russian strategic behavior from destabilizer to constructive international relations actor. 

Context: Characterizing Russian Policy towards the U.S.

  • Anti-Americanism is not a temporary phenomenon: “Putin and his anti-Western rhetoric remain popular in Russia precisely because he expresses a view widely held domestically (and reinforced by ceaseless anti-Western propaganda).” Putin, himself subject to emotional neuralgias, has proved a master at exploiting the dominant phobias, expectations, myths and emotions of Homo sovieticus, mainly because he himself shared them and so could ride “the wave of the public disorientation, frustration, resentment, and diffused aggression.”
  • Confrontation with the West are not based on misperceptions: Confrontation is hard-wired into Russia’s foreign policy and current strategic behavior is unlikely to change.  As Pavel Baev observes: “Every step in bolstering solidarity among Western democracies and in upholding democratic values constitutes a threat to the existence of this corrupt autocracy, and no détente or a “reset” can possibly mitigate that threat in the Kremlin’s eyes.” In reality, Russia is too weak for the U.S. to recognize as an equal, too strong to be willing and able to accept unequal tactical allay status.
  • Russia explains its failure to gain recognition as a product of the U.S.’s determination to oppose it through “containment”. 
    • In February 2021, President Putin noted the United States’ “so-called containment policy towards Russia.” He stated: “This is not competition as a natural part of international relations, but a consistent and highly aggressive policy aimed at disrupting our development, at slowing it down and creating problems along our external perimeter and contour, provoking internal instability, undermining the values that unite Russian society, and ultimately, at weakening Russia and forcing it to accept external management, just as this is happening in some post-Soviet states…”.  
    • In May 2021, at an online meeting of the UNSC Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow views as unacceptable attempts by the U.S. and the EU to impose “totalitarianism”. Lavrov argued that Western countries instrumentalize the notion of a “rules-based order” and sanctions as a substitute of the norms of international law to prevent the process of the formation of a polycentric world.  Later that month, at a Russian-German Potsdam Meeting forum, he accused Germany of stepping up its containment policy toward Moscow: “We have to admit that Berlin has only intensified its policy of systemic containment of Russia.”
  • Russia leverages unintended consequences of U.S. pushback:
    • Putin can profit from sanctions by redistributing resource rents to strengthen the existing system and elite cohesion. Sanctions provide an alibi for economic downturn and encourage de-dollarization of SWF by end of June, use of a digital rouble and other alternatives to SWIFT.  The “theory of change” that animates Western policy appears unproven.
    • Attribution diplomacy can be ineffective when siloviki in Russia have de facto immunity from prosecution.Adverse publicity can intimidate opponents, instruct, and educate society into submission, be worn as a badge of loyalty and have a rally round the flag effect.  Information secrecy in Russia is justified as is greater KGB-SVR cooperation “to counter Western destabilization”.

Geneva Summit, 16 June 2021

  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev met in Geneva for preparatory talks. Sergei Lavrov characterised the talks as “frank” and showing a potential to “remove certain irritants” in bilateral relations and “covered the entire spectrum of our relations, similar to our discussion with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken a week earlier in Iceland”. 
  • Engagement with Putin’s Russia poses dilemmas and difficult choices.  While this coercion-plus-dialogue statecraft approach to Russia may better manage conflicts and disputes at lower risk and is supported by allies (Charap, 2021), a trade-off exists between widening negotiations to create leverage between issues areas, and increasing the legitimacy of the Putin regime through high level dialogues and summits. (Petrov, 2021) 
  • What does Putin want?
    • A legitimizing spectacle that raises his profile, underscores Russia’s Great Power status and suggests Russian power plays win external recognition and acknowledgement.  “Biden’s initiative on granting Putin the privilege of a personal meeting, which incentivized Russia to reduce military tensions with Ukraine—but also paved the way for Gazprom to complete the construction of the geopolitically divisive Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline.” (Baev)
    • President Biden’s conditional offer of “stable and predictable” relations should Russia refrain from malign activity is problematic for Russia, as to be both stable and predictable is to be strategically irrelevant.  In most policy areas, excepting perhaps the Arctic, Russia seeks to be stable but unpredictable to maintain its strategic relevance.  For Russia, Belarus is very unstable but Russian support very predictable.  Ukraine is stable and unpredictable and the Middle East neither stable or predictable. 
    • Likely agreement to start discussions on strategic stability re strategic offensive and defensive weapons, non-strategic nuclear weapons and even space. Given that the larger the agenda, the lengthier and more complex the talks will be, the greater the ability of Russia to shape the agenda, and define the parameters. The talks become an end in and of themselves: political theatre and stagecraft trumps statecraft.
    • Emotional neuralgias of a mature autocracy are central to the Summit: grievance and resentment that the “empire was taken from us” animate Putin’s inner circle. (Galeotti, 2021)  The Summit presents an opportunity to push back and a chance to lay down red lines.  Discussion of Russian domestic affairs (the escalation of repression) is considered off-limits, as are granting Ukraine NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, or attempts to deny Russia its “rightful role.” Putin is not an anarchist: he only opposes the notion of a rules based order when he feels Russia does not have a say in their formulation and implementation.  These feelings make it harder to convince Putin that current frameworks work to Russia’s advantage. 
    • It is in Russia’s interest not to highlight its partnership with China as this detracts from Russia’s standing and draws attention from the uniqueness of a forum where China not strategically relevant.  
    • The inclusion of Dmitry Kozak (Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine) and Alexander Lavrentyev (Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Syria) in the Russian team may indicate that Ukraine and Syria are on the agenda.  President Zelensky is nervous that the U.S. may not be a reliable partner, while the slow implosion of Belarus and its increasing dependence on Russia relieves some of the pressure Russia imposes on Ukraine. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

The Grand Old Sergei Shoigu, He Had 10(0),000 Men…

Oh, the grand old Duke of York

He had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again

There’s a fair amount of bemusement about the news that Russia is scaling down its troop build up around Ukraine. As ever, this provides an opportunity for everyone to spin their favoured line. For some, it’s that Putin “won” by getting Biden to offer a summit. For others, that Putin was deterred by US sanctions. The former has some merit, the latter much less so. I think it’s a little more complex.

Defence Minister Shoigu himself announced the spin-down: “I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved.” Given that “the troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country” then “I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews.”

Of course, the exercises and snap inspections to which he is referring where actually retroactive justifications for the concentration of forces, so we ought not to give this too much credit.

However, there was never a great likelihood of a major offensive by the Russians. (Lest this sound like I am being wise after the event, here’s something I wrote for BNE Intellinews at the start of the month.)

First of all, there were questions about the adequacy of the logistics present – there was a lot of front-line hardware, very ostentatiously assembled, but armies march on their stomachs, fuel bowsers, ammunition depots and field kitchens, too. Secondly, with the Ukrainian military now numbering some 250,000 men and woman, and having gone through quite an effective reform process, while no one could doubt the Russians’ capacity to make local or even major advances, there would be serious casualties. With a distinct lack of enthusiasm at home, and elections looking, why would Putin risk the backlash from a bloody and unpopular conflict? Those who talked about Putin trying to provoke a crisis to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect thoroughly misunderstand Russia’s mood, I think.

But most fundamental of all, what would the political aim of any major escalation be? Wars are fought for a reason. The perennial talk of driving a land bridge to Crimea, or seizing the North Crimea Canal, or degrading the Ukrainian military, none of them were credible, especially when offset against the inevitable and massive costs of sanctions, let alone military reversals. Even Berlin, that has so resolutely fought to keep the 95%-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline unconnected from the political scene, would have been hard-pressed to maintain this stance if Russian tanks were driving into Ukraine, and Russian aircraft in Ukrainian skies.

So what was this about? I felt this was about a concatenation of three factors

  1. Late April is when the campaign season always starts, as thaw muds dry, and each year we get the “OMG, Russia’s going to invade” chorus, especially from certain quarters in DC. Sure, this concentration of forces was unusual, but some escalation is normal.
  2. Zelensky’s new shift towards attacking “pro-Moscow” forces at home, not least to shore up his flank from the nationalists, was perceived as a hostile move in the Kremlin, and one that demanded punishment
  3. The Kremlin is unhappy with the Donbas status quo, and has been for a while, and the operation was an attempt to push Kyiv towards renewed negotiations on Moscow’s terms. We probably would have seen this kind of move last year, had COVID not disrupted everything.

As is, there has been no such renewal of negotiations – to be blunt, that was never on the cards, but Moscow is both optimistic and often misreads Kyiv. However, the Russians tend to be flexible in their iterative assessments of costs and benefits. By now

  1. Kyiv is clearly not going to shift
  2. Biden has offered Putin a summit, which speaks to a primal need to be treated as the US’s equal or at least a necessary interlocutor. The Kremlin probably feels it forced this on him, just as the 2015 Syrian intervention pushed Obama into meeting Putin at the UN.
  3. Russia has made the point that it can quickly assemble massive forces in-theatre, and at a time when Ukraine’s requests to join NATO are likely to be met with the most polite of rain checks, it emphasises to Kyiv that what didn’t happen this time, could easily happen next time
  4. The hawks are left off-balance, and next time they start predicting Russian aggression, whether in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia or wherever, Moscow can point to the 2021 Ukraine Offensive That Never Happened, whether to defang them, or to keep people guessing in case there is a real attack planned that time

As is, Moscow likely feels it got enough out of the operation compared with the costs of either extending the build up or moving onto the offensive, that it can be satisfied with the result. And the 58th Army of the Southern Military District, the 41st Army of the Central Military District, and the 7th and 76th Airborne Assault and 98th Airborne Divisions all got a good workout.

Storm-333: KGB and Spetsnaz seize Kabul, Soviet-Afghan War 1979

Out today, my latest Osprey, this time on the fateful Soviet commando operation that eliminated the (admittedly, thoroughly unpleasant) dictator of Afghanistan and kicked off the bloody and (practically) unwinnable ten-year Soviet invasion. Here’s the blurb:

Storm-333, the operation to seize Kabul and assassinate Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, was at once a textbook success and the start of a terrible blunder. It heralded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an operation intended to be a short, largely symbolic show of force, yet which quickly devolved into a gritty ten-year counter-insurgency that Moscow was never able to win. Nonetheless, Storm-333 was a striking success, and despite initial concerns that it would be an impossible achievement, it saw a relative handful of Soviet special forces drawn from the KGB and the military seize the heavily defended presidential palace, neutralise the city’s communications and defences, and open Kabul to occupation. The lessons learned then are still valid today, and have been incorporated into modern Russian military practice, visible most recently in the seizure of Crimea in 2014.

As usual with Osprey books, it’s very visual, as you can see from the pictures, and it was interesting to write something so granular, day by day and literally minute by minute, based especially on Russian sources.

My next Osprey is also on Afghanistan, incidentally. Out in October in their Campaign series, it’s a look at the pivotal struggles for the Panjshir Valley.

Navalny, Protests and the Risk Calculus of the Securitocracy

Протестующий с плакатом, призывающим освободить Алексея Навального; Sergei Korneev, CC-SA 4.0

This is a summary of the discussion at the most recent of the online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 16 March 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The speakers were Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence/UCL/RUSI and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, and the discussion was moderated by Graeme Herd of the GCMC

RHSS#3 Summary:


The questions pursued in RHSS#3 presentations and subsequent discussion were inter alia: Have protests reshaped the political calculus of the presidential administration and the ‘securitocracy’’s attitudes to the use of force within? How might the management of protests ahead of the September Duma elections change, as protest shifts from a ‘battle of maneuver’ to a ‘battle for position’? Does internal instability have a foreign policy consequences?

Late Putinism – the nature of the state

Putin came to power in 1999-2000 and assumed a legal-rational (‘dictatorship of the rule of law’) legitimation of his political authority.  By 2011-2012, a shift was underway, from legal-rational to historical-charismatic (“No Putin, no Russia”) legitimation.  By 2020-21, Putin legitimizes his political authority increasingly through national-patriotic mobilization and coercion, and Putin presides over a fully-fledged authoritarian regime and police state.  Core characteristics of the regime include:

  • an absence of a rotation of power and the presence of an imperial bureaucracy and enlarged military and security service sector;
  • a lack of any liberal or democratic impulses or even an authoritarian modernization project, i.e. late Putinism lacks a vision of the future;
  • a marketing of external and internal threats to bind a passive, conformist, indifferent and apathetic majority of the population to the state to legitimise the regime and keep it safe;
  • the all pervasive presence of the state which manifests itself by praetorian guard capitalism, an economy marked by a low dynamic, reflecting the lack of a law-based state, high levels of raiding, and a disproportionate allocation of resources for prestige state projects;
  • securitization of the political space and civil society, resulting in generational gaps where the views of active 18-24 year olds on Navalny and ‘foreign agents’ differ from those − more passive and conformist − in their 50s and 60s, but conservatism is a dominant trend in both generations; 
  • shrinking opportunities for change in the name of stability, characteristics include the lack of a positive agenda, which is a problem because repression of the opposition and wider civil society is not the same as mobilizing supporters around a compelling vision of the future.

Civil Society

  • The regime has criminalized not only political, but also civic activity.  As a result, civil society is being politicized, with Navalny a symbol of moral resistance to the regime.
  • A broken social contract and high levels of corruption drive the opposition and animate civil society protest.  Although Levada surveys indicate that 41% of respondents in 2017 wanted radical change and that in 2019 that number had risen to 57%, this indicates a declaration of a desire for change but  not the expectation that change will be forthcoming.
  • The State’s response is to try and make Navalny a person of the past by keeping him incommunicado and arresting team Navalny and other non-systemic opposition soft targets. Calibrated responses by the authorities attempt to manage the situation and prevent a mobilization, hardening and crystallization of the opposition.
  • Pensions and pandemic (but not yet Putin) rather than economic mismanagement elicit a psycho-emotional opposition to the regime. Putin the president remains, in the eyes of “his” majority, the unquestioned symbol of national unity; Putin the politician—i.e., the specific actions that he takes and the officials whom he appoints—is perceived as fallible. Nevertheless, ‘rational conformism’ results in the Putin majority voting for Putin approved candidates.
  • In the upcoming September Duma elections, ‘smart’ voting (direct votes to whichever candidate can beat United Russia) will have the unintended effect of giving the impression of political pluralism in Russia, whereas in fact all systemic opposition parties (and only these parties will be registered) are controlled by the state. 


  • This strata of law enforcement agencies, prosecuting bodies and the security service are not a monolithic bloc but one within which fluid alignments and rivalries proliferate:
    • Institutional factional rivalries exist, for example, between the Interior Ministry and police who resent OMON and the National Guard (NG) – the police resent having had to clean up after NG deployments and having been provided early access to vaccination and preferential equipment; 
    • The temporary alliances are formed.  For example, even alliances forged between NG and FSB, who are in the vanguard of repression, have their limits. An example of this is the FSB’s veto of the NG’s attempts to create its own investigation committee, as this was perceived to encroach on the power of the FSB;
    • The newly appointed first deputy director of the FSB, Sergei Korolev, has a very unsentimental view of those above him in the chain of command.
  • The Orthodox chekist mindset of the securitocracy is one of defensiveness, ever more repressive and non-responsive to public opinion.  The managers of the authoritarian system, including or above all the siloviki, do not fear a radical democratic breakthrough resulting from mass protest, but worry about the accumulated friction and costs imposed on them in their role as managers of stability.  They feel embattled and defensive and so embrace entrenchment. Managers want to hold on to power and money (not just control but continue to own the country’s resources) at all cost.
  • Reforms or any kind of modernization (even economic) are not possible under Putin; any modernization puts in question the very foundations of his system. Only small changes are possible from within with the help of relatively young appointees − technocrats controlled by the siloviki, who formulate real political priorities. As Putin has completed the nationalization of elites, technocrats are beholden to and hostages of Putin. Take, for instance, the example of Sergei Kiriyenko, leader of the political bloc and first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration – he is now bound to Putin for the rest of his career. As a result, an elite conspiracy in the shape of a ‘palace coup’ against Putin is not possible. As the breakup of the FSB would be one of the first reforms in a democratic break-through scenario, Bortnikov, Ivanov and Patrushchev (current and former FSB directors) will resist any regime change until the end.  
  • Disruptive unknowns include regional debt defaults; technological breakthroughs that can undercut Russia’s commodities export business model; and political blunders (such as the Navalny botched Novichok assassination attempt).

Foreign Policy Implications

  • Navalny and protests in Russia undercut Putin’s attempts to ease Lukashenka out of power under the cover of constitutional change and reform. Putin is hostage to his rhetoric on western containment and protest as ‘color revolution’.  Lukashenka instrumentalises this to his advantage (‘we can’t bow to the street and western security service manipulation’).
  • Generally, foreign policy has lost the ability to unify and animate Putin’s majority, but under some scenarios we may see foreign adventurism, especially those involving reactions to perceived external threats:
    • If Kyiv launched a military campaign to retake the Donbas, Moscow would feel it had no option but to punch back and that it could use this opportunity to push further. This would be another example of ‘offensive defensiveness’ in response to a perceived existential challenge to Russian credibility.
    • If the Belarus opposition turned violent Putin could and most likely would intervene militarily.
  • In general, however, there are likely to be only low cost moves useful for public consumption. An example would be Russian anti-piracy operations off the coast of Sudan to demonstrate Russia’s global role. 
  • Russia is not so ‘post-post imperial’ as Dmitry Trenin and Vladimir Frolov have suggested, focused on rational, non-ideological, pragmatic costs/benefits calculations.  Russia is still imperial in outlook. Putin perceives himself as Tsar of Eurasia and seeks to create a quasi-empire out of the non-recognized states on Russia’s periphery.
  • Confrontation with the U.S. is the norm; relations with the EU have deteriorated to a record low and will continue to remain there; and offensive cyber operations as well as active measures will continue.  Offering concessions to Russia in the name of pragmatic and flexible cooperation will not alleviate Russia’s narrative of western encroachment, encirclement and containment. The West does not have to confirm Russia’s claim to Great Power status as it defines it. Russia’s placing of its own interests above the sovereignty of neighboring states is neither aligned with Western national interest nor its democratic norms and values.

Critical Thresholds and Drivers of Change

As Russians are habituated to the circumstances and rules of an authoritarian political regime, a democratic breakthrough precipitated by street protests is highly unlikely.  It is still possible to envisage a more practical and realistic evolution of change – one that can be termed: ‘Medvedev 2.0’, that is, the attempt to achieve  authoritarian, top-down reform efforts, but without Medvedev as the post-Putin president. These could be set in motion by:

  • a realization within the regime that the absence of reforms creates more instability than stability and that, therefore, reform is needed for regime continuity.  Given that the siloviki are rich, cynical, pragmatic and determined to hold onto power, if reform and change is the means through which they think that they will stay in power, then they will go for it.
  • fear of trade-technological dependence on China and loss of strategic autonomy as this would  restore or enhance pride, prestige, status and power. Reform in such a context would be a means to preserves Putinism and resists Xi-ism.
  • intra-elite struggles and factional infighting as the competitive goals of key factions clash: reforms enable a re-division of resources and power.
  • generational developments within the siloviki. The current seniors have very different horizons than the 50-something-year-old colonels who now do the heavy lifting in the system, but still have up to 20 years in active service. These younger mid-level managerial strata are all members of the Russian middle class; enjoy stable incomes and predictable career trajectories.  They have incentives to undertake reform to maintain their consumption habits and status.
  • gradual loss of active support of the population. Reforms could provide safety valves, and new political narrative that can bind Putin’s passive majority to the regime and encourage conformism.  The performative politics involved in anti-corruption show trials, for example, can be the answer to the demand that ‘something must be done’.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Graeme P. Herd and Andrei Kolesnikov) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

Sanctioning Putin’s Staff – why it is not “Putin’s friends” who are being targeted

Although formal confirmation is still pending, there seems a consensus that the EU has chosen, in its usual timorous way, to sanction just 4 Russian officials in retaliation for Aleksei Navalny’s kangaroo-court conviction: Investigative Committee (SK) head Alexander Bastrykin, Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard. Predictably, debate swirls around who they may be, and whether targeting them will affect Putin’s future political calculi. Already, I’m seeing some claiming they are “Putin’s friends,” so let me do my best to scotch that right now. They are not his friends, they are his staff.

Bastrykin was a classmate of Putin’s reading law at Leningrad State University back in the early 1970s. That meant that when he and Igor Sechin were lobbying Putin to make the SK independent of the Prosecutor-General in 2007 (for they own reasons: Bastrykin was ambitious and didn’t get on with new Genprok Yuri Chaika, Sechin wanted to maintain influence over prosecutions now that his tame Genprok Vladimir Ustinov was gone), Putin was aware of him. These kind of weak human ties do matter, especially in such a personalised system, and meant that Putin was more favourably inclined than he might otherwise have been.

However, I have seen absolutely no evidence (readers: if you have, please let me know) that Bastrykin is a “friend”: no pictures of them sharing some social activity, no family connections, nothing. Indeed, Bastrykin, aware that he has no special dispensation from the boss, and singularly lacking in allies, actually has to work constantly to demonstrate his value and loyalty to the Kremlin. The parallel I have used in the past is that, like a shark, he has to keep swimming or he drowns.

What about Zolotov? Having been first one of Putin’s bodyguards and then head of his security detail, he undoubtedly is closest to the Body. Again, though, this is the relationship of a trusted lackey rather than a chum. He does get the occasional invite to attend Putin’s Night Hockey League – a ritual of imperial self-indulgence, in which the president inevitably scores the most goals and attracts the most fulsome praise – but as a spectator, not a player. He used to be a judo sparring partner of Putin’s, but again I think that was just when he was working his security.

Like Bastrykin, he is valuable because he is loyal – and because he has nowhere else to go, lacking friends or allies within the system with the questionable exception of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. That what makes him so useful, hence his appointment as the head of the newly-formed National Guard in 2016, and so dangerous. He too has to keep swimming and, shark that he is, biting.

As for the lower-profile Kalashnikov, he started his career in the Ministry of Internal Affairs before switching to the KGB and thence FSB before moving upwards and across to become head of FSIN in 2019. I can see no evidence of his early career intersecting with Putin’s (he joined the KGB in 1988, by which time Putin was already in Dresden, and working in wholly different arms of that sprawling octopus), nor of any contact since.

Krasnov is in some ways even less of a Putin man. For sure, he would not have been appointed Prosecutor-General had the boss had any qualms about him, and as a former deputy of Bastrykin’s he is presumably a loyalist. In fairness, though, he also has a good reputation within law enforcement circles as an investigator who follows the evidence; it was noteworthy that he was originally leading the enquiry into the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and as soon as he uncovered the Chechen connection, it was handed to a more ‘political flexible’ case officer. Again, I can see no evidence of a personal relationship with the boss.

All four absolutely have played their parts in Navalny’s persecution. Bastrykin has been at the fore of the campaign of questionable court cases, not least pushing for the re-opening of the case on which he has now been imprisoned. Kalashnikov’s FSIN made the formal charge that he had breached the terms of his probation while recovering in Germany. Krasnov must have accepted if not initiated any investigations. And Zolotov’s goons were the front line dealing with the protests that erupted.

So it is not that I think they are innocents maligned. But the notion that these are “Putin’s friends,” whose fate will in any way affect Kremlin policy, is at best a shabby attempt to justify the EU’s lacklustre response, at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.

One of the metaphors I like to use is of a traditional country house. Putin is the master, and he and his friends – the Rotenbergs and the like – are having a ball. Then there are some who are gentry tenants and similar hangers on: socially acceptable, possibly useful allies and clients, but not social equals. These, the Patrushevs and Shoigus, are there in their Sunday best, enjoying the drink and cheering on the dances, but careful not to transgress. Maybe Prigozhin is there, but maybe not.

Then there is the huge apparatus of ‘below stairs’: the cooks and gardeners, maids and manservants, gamekeepers and stableboys who keep everything running. The prime minister, Mishustin, is the chief butler, obsequious to the master, a tyrant to the staff, and no doubt happy to divert a little of the housekeeping his way. There is an arcane hierarchy within the staff, formal and implicit. Bastrykin, Zolotov, Kalashnikov and Krasnov are all staff. Perhaps Zolotov, as the master’s chief gamekeeper, is rather better known to him than, say, Kalashnikov, but they are still all staff.

The master cares about them in a general, paternalistic way. They get an extra ruble on a feast day. But there are always more applicants for every vacant position than openings, and the master knows they are lucky to get a job at the big house. They come, they go, he doesn’t pay too much attention, because life above stairs is sweet, and there is another ball next weekend.

What’s Navalny’s sanctions strategy?

With Alexei Navalny’s return into the mailed fist of FSIN, his ally Vladimir Ashurkov yesterday released the top eight names of an apparently rather longer list of people Navalny identified as his sanctions ‘wish list’ before he flew to Berlin. It is worth looking at this list in a little more detail to get a sense of what Navalny’s sanctions strategy may be. This shortlist is (copied with descriptions from Ashurkov’s Facebook post):

Roman Abramovich – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

Denis Bortnikov – Deputy President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board. He is the son of Alexander Bortnikov, FSB director and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Andrey Kostin – President and Chairman of the Management Board of state-owned VTB Bank, a key facilitator of corrupt money flows related to the functioning of the Russian government and security services.

Mikhail Murashko – Minister of Healthcare of Russia, responsible for covering up Alexey’s poisoning and hindering efforts to evacuate him to Germany for medical treatment.

Dmitry Patrushev – Minister of Agriculture of Russia. He is the son of Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Security Council of Russia and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Igor Shuvalov – Chairman of the State Development Corporation VEB.RF, a former senior government official, who has been instrumental in creating the system of state corruption, which took over the Russian political and legislative institutions.

Vladimir Solovyev – a key Russian state media personality, one of the primary mouthpieces of authoritarian propaganda.

Alisher Usmanov – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

This is an interestingly mixed collection, from which three main lines of attack emerge, which I could categorise as:

His attackers: With people such as FSB director Alexander Bortnikov already being under sanctions, instead two of these look directly connected with the attempted poisoning. Murashko, obviously, considering the treatment he faced from the Russian medical system (as opposed to the individual first responders and doctors who saved his life, probably at the expense of their careers), but also Solovyev, a particularly toxic individual even by the standards of Russian TV ‘shock jock’ style presenters. Solovyev – who called Navalny “Nazi scum” on TV last year, perhaps relishing the chance for revenge after Navalny’s 2017 revelations of his opulent lifestyle and hypocrisies – was a particularly outspoken cheerleader for the state’s cover-up after the poisoning. Given that the precedent to hit those peddling state lies especially enthusiastically has already been established with Russia Today director Dmitry Kiselev, Navalny presumably is happy to build on this. One wonders if people like RT’s Margarita Simonyan may be on the long list. The message is presumably that if you actively take part in hostile actions against Navalny, you become a target.

‘Wallets and Facilitators’: Others are those Navalny presents – often having produced video exposes to this end – as front men, bag carriers and agents for other individuals already under sanction. In other words, they are sanctions-busters. Kostin, Bortnikov Jr and Patrushev Jr  are in these terms not so much important for who they are, but who they serve or represent. The message, I assume, is proxies are as guilty as those they represent.

Kleptocrats: It is certainly not the case that every rich Russia is rich because Putin made him rich, or stays rich because he is an eager Putin crony, ally or agent. Nonetheless, Navalny has targeted Abramovich and Usmanov – perhaps as well known in the UK as anything else for owning Chelsea and, until 2018, having a major stake in Arsenal – as two symbolic leaders of the pack. I’m surprised, to be honest, that such even closer figures as Rosneft’s Gor Sechin aren’t here, but then again it may be that to Navalny – not without reason – the Sechins of this world are really nothing but Putin’s proxies, whereas Abramovich and Usmanov choose to collaborate with the Kremlin. Honestly I was wondering whether Shuvalov should go in the previous category or this one, but I suspect he really fits here, as someone who chose his path. It’s hard to tell for certain, but I presume the message is: if you deliberately choose to dine with the devil, you can expect to be exorcised.

Of course, only when the full list becomes known will we have the data to make a better assessment of the kind of strategy Navalny may have in mind. What is interesting is that all three of these lines of attack seem well-chosen to be able to fit UK, US and EU sanctions regimes, which allow measures to be brought to bear when it would punish human rights abuses or encourage better behaviour (the first), to strike at sanctions-busters (the second) and to deliver a rebuke to those prospering from a regime engaged in breaches of human rights (the third).

The key question, of course, is one of political will. It is all very well Navalny giving Western governments a list of the people he believes deserves to be sanctioned. But will they listen and think it worth the while doing anything about it, or just stick to the expressions of “grave concern” which the Kremlin is, by now, eminently used to ignoring.

%d bloggers like this: