Mark Galeotti: The perils of late Putinism. Not an evil genius, but a tsar

Mark Galeotti: The perils of late Putinism. Not an evil genius, but a tsar

Interview by the Czech Radio. Today, we witness a fundamental change of the Putin’s regime: Russia is heading towards late putinism, where ambitious figures disappear and the more dependent and faithful emerge. Their wish to obey the ruler’s desires could lead to catastrophic decisions, which may thread not only Russians, but all of us. So said Mark Galeotti, an expert on political and security system of Russian Federation in an exclusive interview for Czech Radio.

Magdalena Slezáková: “Every single war is terrible. Sometimes the art of war is to be the most terrible,” one Russian told you once about the war in Chechnya. You’ve mentioned this quote recently once in context of the Russian actions in Syria. Do you see any parallels between Grozny and Aleppo?

Mark Galeotti: Russia doesn’t believe that the Americans are able to bring the rebels to the negotiating table. Putin knows, that Assad’s regime needs to get hold of Aleppo in order to negotiate from the position of power, and such decision has certain dreadful logic. If Aleppo needs to be conquered, and it needs to be done hastily, Russians see brutality as a valid tool. To turn the Rebel footholds in the Eastern parts of town into ruins and expel its citizens is a frightening tactic, but it works. Here we can see the commonalities with Chechnya: In the second Chechen war, Putin was incredibly brutal and he practically turned Grozny into rubbish and everyone was saying how terrible it was. But after a while, they started to forget. And started to be pragmatic. The Russians presume that, in the end, everybody is pragmatic.

An eruption of maximal violence, to conquer the city – and then use it as a basis, a power tool for political discussion, which the Americans and the rest of the World need to get accustomed to. What makes headlines today gets gradually turned into column on the page 6, and, after a few weeks, material interesting for historians only. Russia presumes that everything can be forgotten. That everything can be forgiven – as long as you succeed.

Magdalena Slezáková: And if Aleppo falls, what will Russia do next? Is there any concrete plan?

MARK GALEOTTI. Historian and political scientist, long-time expert on the issue of Russian and post-Soviet area, particularly on questions related to policy and security. He taught at universities around the world, advised the British Foreign Secretary; today he works at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. Photo by: Magdalena Slezáková

MARK GALEOTTI. Historian and political scientist, long-time expert on the issue of Russian and post-Soviet area, particularly on questions related to policy and security. He taught at universities around the world, advised the British Foreign Secretary; today he works at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. Photo by: Magdalena Slezáková

Mark Galeotti: So far it looks like classic Russian improvisation. They believe that the fall of Aleppo doesn’t necessarily come with immediate peace talks or even the end of war, nevertheless it could be a landmark victory for the Assad’s regime and its supporters in Moscow, as it would cement Assad’s power and make the rebels come and hold talks with him.

The international community will obviously be outraged, but what is that for? Russia can outlast that. Sanctions are being discussed, but they aren’t probable, and should they come into place, they won’t have substantial systemic impact on Russia. Honestly: experiences from past atrocities, for example in Grozny, have taught Russians that at first everybody gets outraged only to calm down later.

I fear that they trust the impotence of the international community, especially as China holds a seat in the UN Security Council and is not really aroused by the suffering of Aleppo. That is the main problem of the West and the Russian stance is – and now I’m oversimplifying, maybe even caricaturizing – that the West hates them anyway. So what can they lose?

Magdalena Slezáková: Lives of Russian people, for example? The air campaign is being discussed frequently, but Russians are fighting in Syria on the ground, as well, many of them as mercenaries…

Mark Galeotti: The Russian deployment has indeed various forms. There are planes there as well as artillery troops, including the termobaric rocket launcher TOS-1, a horrific weapon, which launches volleys of rockets with almost nuclear power. Ground troops are present as support and protection for these units or air bases, specialists are mapping the targets for air strikes and intelligence branches are advising the Syrian General staff in Damascus.

And then there are those, who can be contradicted by Moscow: mercenary soldiers of private company, named OSM – informally called Wagner after the nickname of its leader. Wagner seats in St. Petersburg and it is definitely a mercenary organization, established by the regime in conflict with the Russian law. Wagner is full of war veterans, many of which already fought in Donbas and now moved to Syria – they’ve already been spotted in Spring during the battle of Palmyra driving Russian T-90 tanks, paving way for other troops.

They are not official soldiers, which helps them stay hidden not only from the sights of the World, but primarily from the Russian public. Because the ordinary Russians aren’t enthusiastic about this war. Of course they want to hear about the successes of their boys, but they don’t care about Assad if they should die for him. And because this war is not a popular one and the numbers of casualties are swelling, mercenaries come in handy. They aren’t formally connected to the government, so their losses don’t have to be made public. By the way, their casualties are at least four times higher than of the whole official contingent. But no ordinary Russian hears about this, because Wagner is a completely private company, paid by Syrians. That’s the narrative.

Elections? Why bother…

Magdalena Slezáková: When we speak about ordinary Russians: recent parliamentary elections did entice a low record and for the victorious United Russia voted even a half less, practically a quarter of eligible voters. What is it? Indifference or resignation?

Mark Galeotti: Even the official voter turnout was disastrously low for Russian standards, from 60% dropped to 48. And keep in mind that it is a demonstrably spurious number – about one-tenth of the votes falls under it, in vast majority for United Russia, which miraculously emerged thanks to carousels, false election tickets and etc.

Elections were rigged and two things testify about it. First, most Russians did abandon the politics. Medvedev’s presidency brought a brief camber of hope, not because they considered that Medvedev would somehow great, but because they hoped in the promise of a more democratic model. And then Putin returned, he smothered the protests and many Russians resigned.

This does not mean that they are completely apathetic. There is multiplication of local and industrial protests; in the first half of this year the number of such disputes rose by a quarter. But it means that the Russians put pressure on local governments to correct the road or renovate the school – instead of believing that they can push on the state repair.

Magdalena Slezáková: And initially it seemed that this year’s election does not matter neither to the Kremlin…

Mark Galeotti: They changed the strategy. First, they wanted quite elections because they did not expect a big turnout, so they made it clear that it really does not matter too much, and that it would be the cleanest vote. But then they turned back that they require the opposite: clearly show to everyone that they can have the results, which they wish to have. I think that’s why those frauds were so blatantly. As if the government wanted that the Russians did not believe that elections matter, but at the same time needed to declare that it has a mandate.

Magdalena Slezáková: Why?

Mark Galeotti: Because they are charging weapons for the presidential elections 2018. This poll, on which it really matters. Putin not only needs to win – he needs to win crushingly.

Magdalena Slezáková: Some believe that the Kremlin plans early elections next year. What would he gain?

Mark Galeotti: Primarily, it would be quickly over with it. Get over with the elections, and have in front of itself another six years, during which it does need not have wrinkles about elections. And secondly, there is a certainty bordering risk that it will be worse. The majority of Russians do not have an easy life, and things do not get better, on the contrary. The key of Putin’s popularity has never been his nationalist rhetoric. The key Putin’s popularity has never been his nationalist rhetoric. Sure, people like to hear that Russia is again a proud and strong, but the real reason is that the ordinary Russian lived a better life under Putin than ever.

But that is changing. Fall will bring harsh austerity measures and those will hit mainly the ordinary people. It will not be immediately: when you cut the financing of hospitals, it does not mean that it immediately collapses, it will go piece by piece. Doctor will leave, they will not hire a new one, the ambulance will break, there is no money for spare parts, until eventually the hospital will not be able to function. Usually it takes a year before the cuts are fully visible – that is autumn 2017 and thus a possible undesirable impact on the election outcome. In that case, they will have reason to hurry.

The Communist leader Gennadij Zjuganov; on the background characteristic view of Lenin Photo by: Reuters

The Communist leader Gennadij Zjuganov; on the background characteristic view of Lenin Photo by: Reuters

An interesting point of conflict is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although the Communist leader Zyuganov adopted the position of the false opposition leader, however in the party are growing stronger people who want to go into a real opposition, and will want to celebrate this anniversary. I doubt that Putin will like it, who although is having sympathy for Stalin, but repeatedly made clear that he is not a Leninist. And it does not seem likely that they would like elections at the moment when they will face the communists.

We will see. We do not know what Putin thinks; he does not feel the need to share with us. But let’s say that if we will see early elections the next year, it means that he believes that really hard times arise.

The court, where they do not speak in an informal way with the Tsar anymore

Magdalena Slezáková: Are not the recent exchanges in high positions a certain presage? Ended also inter alia the head of the powerful presidential office Sergei Ivanov, you yourself are talking literally about “cannibalization of security and legal apparatus,” … Is the Russian regime changing in front of our eyes?

Mark Galeotti: I believe that we are actually watching something essential – something that I would call a transition to late Putinism. The regime in Russia is personalized and there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin is deciding on everything important, but Putin is just one person. Many consider him as a sort of diabolical genius and a chess master, but it is not so. Putin is a politician like everyone else, maybe just a little more unscrupulous and at the head of an unscrupulous system. However, he can govern only through other people who will co-create and implement his policies – and those vary depending on what is actually decided.

It used to be a surprisingly varied form of government, where, although there was no place for the opposition but yes for different views, until they were coming from loyal putinists. And also for the numerous institutions, among which was shared the responsibility. Putin ensured to himself by that control so he could to play divide and rule, but it also meant different ideas and alternative perspectives, which he had to always manage.

Now it seems that he feels between himself and the elite a still bigger gap, as if he would not believe that he is fully supported by the elite in his big plans for Russia. My contacts with the senior representatives of the Russian regime surprised me by how much most of them are abnormally pragmatic: they take the opportunity to ensure themselves and their families a comfortable life. Yes, they are Russian patriots, but if they will have the choice between suffering for the glory of Russia and comfort, they would choose comfort. I think that this is one of the causes of the rising tensions between them and Putin.

Magdalena Slezáková: On what would therefore stay the last phase of Putin’s government?

Mark Galeotti: On the imperialization of the system. And on the weaker, younger “Yes Men”, figuratively speaking on those, who will not speak in an informal way to the Tsar but in a formal way. Putin consolidates the regime: less institutions and more loyal and on him dependent people at the expense of those who have independent ambitions.

Sergei Ivanov Foto: Fotobanka Profimedia

Sergei Ivanov Foto: Fotobanka Profimedia

An example you mentioned is Sergei Ivanov. Everyone knew that he wanted to be president, at least until his son died. And everyone hated him; I have not met a single person that would find him a good word for him. But everyone acknowledged that his working methods were highly effective. Now Ivanov was replaced by Anton Vaino, former chief of protocol and perfectly capable bureaucrat, but at the same time a feeble human being without much authority.

These are people, who Putin can easily shape but at the same time he can get rid of them. The trouble is that today’s thankful youth can change tomorrow into an ambitious rival. It would mean a constant carousel of power and repeated purges. We will see what will happen next; now we can only state that increasingly more prominent figures find themselves out of the game.

Magdalena Slezáková: But Putin did not build his power alone. You outlined a vision of empire, where the emperor gradually frees himself from those who helped him to the throne – is he not going to weaken himself?

Mark Galeotti: He will get a short-term advantage, yes. But it means that in the long run perspective his team loses the capabilities, and as a result he also loses himself. From where he chooses his recruits? He relies on people he knows personally, had promoted a number of his former bodyguards… The result can be a government of bodyguards, bags carriers and trainers, which will not be probably strong.

Disturbing is that the court meddling means also a significant objectivity drop. The consultative process is already now incredibly political: it is basically said to Putin what he wants to hear, which is one reason of some disastrous policy decisions, including the entire Donbas escapade. Just six months, he then heard from the consultants, and Kiev capitulates, we will retreat and everything will be fine. It seemed like a rational decision – and it has proved to be terrible. I fear that such steps will now increase.

Look at the new foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin. In the 1980s he was a spy, but has no contacts or connections, and most importantly there is no indication that he wanted to go see Putin with bad news or criticism. We can expect that Putin will even more listen to what he wants to hear, entangled in a cocoon of half-truths and uncovered lies. And that based on this false information he commits a very dangerous decision – not only for Russia but for all of us.

WHO IS MARK GALEOTTI? Mark Galeotti, a British-born historian and political scientist, long-time expert on the issue of Russian and post-Soviet area, particularly on questions related to policy and security. He lectured at universities in New York, England, Moscow and Prague, where he works since September at the Institute of International Relations; he was also a special adviser to the British Foreign Office. He is the author of numerous articles and a series of technical books, most recently, Spetsnaz: Russia’s special forces, which was published last year in the London publishing house Osprey.

By: Magdalena Slezáková

Translated by: Mattieu Chudoba

This text originally appeared on the Czech Radio:–1657172.