The Real Russia. Today. Five years after Russia decriminalized domestic violence
Monday, February 7, 2022
- Domestic stories: The results of decriminalizing domestic violence, (opinion) Tatiana Stanovaya dissects the schism in Russia’s elites, and (opinion) Yulia Latynina says Kadyrov has exposed Russian statehood
- New podcast episode: Katie Marie Davies discusses the cultures of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia
- Opinions and analysis on the Ukraine crisis: Andrey Pertsev raises an eyebrow at Western reporting, Elizabeth Buchanan ponders what Putin’s failure could mean, Adam Casey and Seva Gunitsky say it all boils down to a personalist regime in Russia, Samuel Charap outlines how nonalignment could save Europe, and Mark Galeotti interprets a letter from an angry veteran
⚖️ Five years after Russia decriminalized domestic violence, women’s aid groups are busier than ever. Officials continue to sweep the problem under the rug. (8-min read)
Exactly five years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. Since then, victims have been unable to press criminal charges for domestic battery unless it’s at least the abuser’s second offense — first time offenders only face administrative fines, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 rubles ($66 to $400). To find out what impact this legislation has had on Russia’s domestic violence problem, Meduza spoke to Diana Barsegyan — the deputy director of the aid group Nasiliu.net (No to Violence).
In a research paper for the Carnegie Moscow Center, political expert Tatiana Stanovaya argues that a “sharp but still latent conflict” is developing within the Russian elite that she attributes primarily to Vladimir Putin’s gradual exit from decision-making and political arbitration. Stanovaya begins the text by clarifying that Russian oligarchs as they existed in the 1990s have ceased to exist (though the concept still appeals to Western analysts). Under Putin, oligarchs have given way to partnerships between major entrepreneurs and “businesspeople” who enjoy close personal relationships with the president and can offer “political insurance” against attacks from security elites and competitors. Because proximity to a slowly disappearing Putin is the lynchpin in these coalitions, Russia’s modern-day “state oligarchs” are in danger of losing their influence and wealth.
Stanovaya identifies three basic types of state oligarchs: managers (men like Igor Sechin and Sergey Chemezov, whom Putin entrusts to run major state assets almost independently), contractors (like Gennady Timchenko and the Rotenberg brothers, whose wealth relies primarily on privatizations and preferential access to government contracts), and attendants (like Evgeny Prigozhin and the Kovalchuk brothers, who handle the Kremlin’s “outsourced” political and geopolitical agenda, implementing projects to which the state wants no direct connection). The ideal scenario for this group, says Stanovaya, would be a return to Russia of 2007, when Moscow was already confronting the West but not so aggressively that it threatened the domestic development of the country’s state corporations.
State oligarchs’ only significant resource — the only means they have of legitimizing their own wealth and status — is their direct access to Vladimir Putin. But the president’s role as the political system’s crucial arbiter erodes as he isolates himself physically, delegates more sensitive decision-making to others, and “loses interest” in everything but “strategic and what he thinks are historically important subjects.” Stanovaya also warns that the “de-Putinization” of the system and “half-automatized regime” (theories she has articulated in previous essays) have empowered and politicized a new generation of technocrats like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and even members of the Parliament.
The most pressing challenge for state oligarchs is the rapidly growing political influence of the siloviki, Russia’s security elites. The siloviki’s rise threatens even the conservative and anti-Western state oligarchs, says Stanovaya, arguing that the divergence between these two groups “is political not ideological” (in other words, the siloviki seek the primacy of national interests over capitalism).
Stanovaya lists three strategies that are theoretically available to state oligarchs trying to convert their Putin access into assets not dependent on the president that can still guarantee their political survival: (1) seek “administrative resources” that allow them “active influence” over personnel policies, including in the security agencies, though this risks provoking fiercer competition with other influence groups; (2) obtain new financial-economic assets by buying cheap assets, selling them for big money, thereby legitimizing their wealth, and then reinvesting in less politically vulnerable assets; and (3) acquire political resources by investing directly in political parties and facilitating their “privatization.” All of these strategies are fraught with risks, however, and the domination of illiberal discourse in Russia likely ensures the continued rise of the siloviki.
In an op-ed for Novaya Gazeta, columnist Yulia Latynina says the Kremlin’s inability to confront lawlessness in Chechnya demonstrates Moscow’s failure to secure a monopoly on violence in Russia. Latynina notes that the Putin administration delivers ultimatums to NATO in Europe at the same time that it is unwilling to confront the Kadyrov regime’s public threats to behead the family members of a human rights activist and abduction of his mother, a thousand miles from Grozny.
Neither China’s dictatorship nor American federalism would accommodate a relationship like the one Chechnya enjoys with Moscow today. In fact, says Latynina, no modern state could allow what happens in Chechnya, which is why the Russian state is closer to a medieval kingdom. She goes on to argue that Russia is a declining empire incapable of winning “real wars” because (1) its military exists only to pilfer the state budget, and (2) the power vertical “is really a vertical of lies” (in other words, Russia prefers “hybrid wars” about which it can lie and claim victory).
The Naked Pravda
Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European breakaway states of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia exist in a sort of geopolitical limbo. Born out of wars that ended in deadlocks in the early 1990s, these self-governing regions remain unrecognized by most of the world and dependent on Russia’s backing. This isolation presents a unique set of challenges for cultural creatives living and working in these regions, as well as for journalists trying to help them tell their stories to the wider world. To find out more about the evolving contemporary cultures of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, The Naked Pravda turns to Calvert Journal features editor Katie Marie Davies.
Also featuring recent analysis and expert opinions from Michael Kofman, Leonid Bershidsky, Fyodor Lukyanov, Andrey Kortunov, Alexander Baunov, and Vladimir Denisov, as well as a review of the Kadyrov regime’s war on the Yangulbayev family in Chechnya, Russia’s continued crackdown on the Navalny movement, and the media war between Moscow and Berlin.
The Ukraine crisis
In an essay for Republic, journalist Andrey Pertsev flags alarmist reporting by news outlets in the West, ranging from a German tabloid’s claim that the Kremlin is preparing “concentration camps” for Ukrainians to Bloomberg’s accidental (and incorrect) bulletin that Russia launched a full invasion of Ukraine. Pertsev also disapprovingly cites reports by The Washington Post and The New York Times featuring speculation by Western experts that Russia’s imminent military intervention will kill tens of thousands of people, unleash millions of refugees across Europe, and result in the capture of Kyiv in two days.
Pertsev says the tone of news coverage in Germany, Britain, and the U.S. demonstrates that the West concocts its own “parallel world,” not unlike the alternate reality that animates Russian state propaganda. He attributes this alien perspective to (1) Western journalists’ willingness to treat public political rhetoric from Kremlin-adjacent figures (like political experts Sergey Markov and Oleg Matveichev) like it represents the Putin administration’s thinking, and (2) the “clickbait” value of a war between Russia and Ukraine for home audiences who know little about these places and consider them to be “exotic.”
“The problem,” explains Pertsev, “is that this foreign entertainment fluences what happens in both Russia and Ukraine.” He acknowledges that even the most disturbing scenarios in Ukraine remain possible, given Putin’s unpredictability, but emphasizes that Ukrainians and Russians aren’t bystanders like Westerners when reading these stories. Russians, he says, are finally learning that the West has its own version of their country that it uses for domestic purposes. “And it doesn’t necessarily resemble the real Russia at all,” says Pertsev.
In an article for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, scholar Elizabeth Buchanan warns that Moscow’s current military buildup outside Ukraine could be a “reflection of Russia’s weakness” precipitated by Moscow “losing control of its buffer zones.” Vladimir Putin now risks blowback at home if he recalls Russia’s troops “void of any substantial ‘win’ to present,” but policymakers should also be considering “what fills the vacuum” if the Putin administration emerges from the Ukraine conflict significantly weakened.
“Russia remains essentially a ‘Europe problem’” for most Australians, laments Buchanan, warning that “Russia’s footprint remains robust and in some cases is growing” across the Asia-Pacific energy sphere. Moscow also “enjoys a roaring arms trade throughout Australia’s sphere of interest” — interests that she insists have few intersections with what Moscow wants in the region.
In an essay for Foreign Affairs, scholars Adam Casey and Seva Gunitsky argue that Vladimir Putin’s personalist regime in Russia makes the Kremlin susceptible to war optimism. Though Putin has demonstrated more restraint than other authoritarians, the common characteristics of personalist systems mean that Russia’s leadership suffers from groupthink (wherein the president’s circle of trust has consolidated around hawkish advisers who “may leave out inconvenient facts”), “a dangerous feedback loop” (where cycles of provocation with the West escalate and justify more belligerent policies), and a lack of reliable information about public attitudes (blinding the Kremlin to the unpopularity of war with Ukraine).
Russia’s institutional weakness also prevents separate groups or agencies within the intelligence community from “telling leaders when their aggression is backfiring.” If Putin miscalculates and launches a major invasion, “the personalist features of his regime” will be to blame, and it will “fall on Kyiv and its partners to check him, because there is no one in Russia who will.”
In an essay for Foreign Affairs, scholar Samuel Charap argues that Russia is “destined” to clash with the West over the status of the former Soviet republics “unless all parties can agree on a mutually acceptable arrangement for the regional order.” In the text, Charap presents recommendations for such an arrangement derived from a group of nongovernmental experts who spoke to the RAND Corporation (where he works) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The U.S., he says, must confront the results of the “geopolitical pluralism” it nurtured (with remarkable success) in the post-Soviet space — namely, that Washington “helped prevent a neo-Soviet Union from reemerging, but it did not create an alternative regional architecture that both Russia and its neighbors could accept.” This being the case, “continued pursuit of geopolitical pluralism” in the region “will create significant risks for the United States and its allies.”
Charap’s group proposes the following: (1) “a new consultative body for major-power engagement on regional security,” (2) “new norms” to guide the behavior of both NATO and the CSTO toward nonmembers, and (3) “multilateral security guarantees and other confidence-building measures” for “nonaligned states.” Russia and the West would sustain and stabilize this new regional order through “increased multidirectional trade,” “regular dialogue,” and “mechanisms and processes” designed to “improve the livelihoods of people living in regional conflict zones.” Charap argues that Europe’s frozen conflicts “are all interlinked,” explaining that the continent must address its separatist disputes “in a mutually acceptable way” before states like Georgia consider “nonaligned status.”
“These arrangements,” Charap says, referring again to nonalignment, “would provide far greater security, stability, and prosperity to Ukraine than the status quo — even if Russia were not threatening an imminent invasion.” For pluralism to work in post-Soviet Eurasia, the region will need “agreed-upon institutions or rules” to govern “competition among divergent interests.” If policymakers refuse to pursue “mutual agreement on a stable regional order” because it is considered “tantamount to appeasement,” Europe could be locked into “a major catastrophe,” warns Charap.
In an op-ed for The Moscow Times, scholar Mark Galeotti reviews retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov’s public letter calling for President Putin to end his “criminal policy of provoking a war” in Ukraine. In fact, Ivashov even calls for Putin’s resignation, which Galeotti notes is in keeping with the veteran’s history of criticizing the Kremlin. Also, says Galeotti, Ivashov’s organization, the All-Russian Officers Assembly, “is a body of limited political weight and uncertain numbers.” At the same time, however, Galeotti argues that nationalist critiques of the Putin regime uniquely intersect not only with “elements of the systemic and non-systemic opposition” but also with Russia’s security apparatus itself. “Although the leaders and overt structures of the nationalists are often amateurish, marginal, and unpleasant,” he explains, they have strikingly broad resonance,” which is why the Kremlin “has so often tried also to distract and co-opt nationalist politics.”