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Erroneous predictions Political scientist Kirill Rogov on why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just ‘Putin’s war’

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

It will take a lot of time and research to answer the question of what led to Russia’s monstrous war against Ukraine. After Moscow launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, the notion quickly spread around the world that this was “Putin’s war” and that he personally made the decision to invade. In this essay for Meduza’s “Ideas” section, political scientist Kirill Rogov breaks down why this reasoning is more of a convenient pretense than a real explanation of how Russia reached this point. 

Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine has been devastating for the country, the people, and the economy. But even if we assume that this massive decision was made by an extremely narrow and opaque circle, this in itself is the single most important diagnosis of the condition of the state, national institutions, and society. Of course, Russia today is an authoritarian country where citizens have very little leverage over the state. But why did the national elites — those who managed to concentrate wealth and power in their own hands, and should be more interested in preserving the status quo, and therefore play a stabilizing role — fail to develop mechanisms to restrict the possibility of such odious and destructive decisions? 

The history of post-Soviet elites and their relationship with the state is divided into several stages. In the second half of the 1990s, a system of competitive oligarchy took shape in Russia — something quite common among developing countries, countries in transition, and post-Soviet states. Against the backdrop of the weakness of mass parties, the law enforcement system, and the state as a whole, oligarchic groups were quick to accumulate property and capital, and buy up media, politicians, and bureaucrats, thereby capturing the state. At the same time, the existence of several oligarchic “pyramids” ensured a relative pluralism in political life. This did not, however, translate into the institutional pluralism of a mature democracy.

This situation was typical not only for Russia, but also for other post-Soviet states — including Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova. But although it undermined the potential for many reforms and led to corruption, it didn’t radically impede economic growth, integration into the global economy, or the development of a vibrant civil society. 

In the early 2000s, the popular new President Vladimir Putin replaced the unpopular Boris Yeltsin, and announced a policy of countering oligarchs and building a “power vertical.” In reality, this policy turned into the creation of a “monocentric patronal pyramid” (as described by political scientist Henry Hale). From the point of view of political institutions, such a system looks like classic, personalist authoritarianism. 

And yet, this single patronal pyramid — with the figure of Putin as the supreme arbiter at the top — included several groups of elites, both old and new. Part of the old oligarchy (the Alfa group, Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, and others) preserved itself in this new context by refraining from attempts to influence the political situation inside Russia, and by adopting a “two-pocket strategy”: they made their money in Russia, but securitized and invested their capital in the West.

Because they kept their long-term capital in the West, these elite didn’t need to build institutions capable of protecting private property or seek broad safeguards that would allow for investing and bequeathing capital inside Russia itself (Maxim Trudolyubov also writes about this in his book The Tragedy of Property). This same circumstance saved them from the need to engage in direct confrontation with “Putin’s oprichnina” — a burgeoning oligarchy with a security mentality, which Putin brought with him to the political stage. 

At this point in history, this strategy seemed selfish, but more rational and advantageous than Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s attempt to get involved in politics in Russia and “join the fray.” Putin’s bureaucrats appeared to have an equally pragmatic strategy, faithfully serving the regime, while buying property in Italy, Spain, or the United States, and funneling money into offshores to fund their children’s education in the West and their own comfortable retirements outside of Russia. 

Refraining from investing in the protection of their assets inside the country and handing over the domain of domestic politics to Putin’s henchmen brought both groups to a paradoxical end. By unleashing an insane war against Ukraine, Putin’s henchmen dealt a crushing blow to their capital and assets securitized in the West. As well as to the dream of a peaceful retirement in Spain, Italy, or Greece harbored by the regime’s thousands of lesser fellow travelers. 

This case will undoubtedly find its way into political science textbooks, as a clear explanation of how elite strategies, guarantees for the protection of property, and a system of checks and balances in politics are interconnected. Having no incentive to fight for safeguards for their own capital inside Russia, the old elites surrendered the political domain to Putin’s security-minded elites without a fight — and eventually their radicalism manifested itself in real politics. 

This course of events had its own logic. Putin’s new oligarchy has always had problems legalizing its capital in the West and integrating into Western markets and the Western business environment. Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, most of Putin’s inner circle — “Putin’s Seven Boyars,” also known as the Ozero dacha cooperative — ended up under sanctions. Not to mention the large swaths of the security apparatus, who — due to internal prohibitions and external risks — have long been limited in their ability to travel abroad and store their capital in the West. 

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Hence, by the beginning of the 2020s, two domains had formed within the Russian elite. One consisted of oligarchs from the old guard, who were losing political influence inside Russia, but still retained control over significant resources within the country and protected capital outside of it. This same group included representatives of Putin’s bureaucracy and the “servants of the regime” who were on his payroll, feathering their retirement nests, and lining up careers for their children outside of Russia. 

The other consisted of Putin-era oligarchs, who are now either under sanctions or under suspicion in the West, but who have acquired increasing political influence inside the country. As well as those broad groups within the security apparatus that are also mostly cut off from the West, but have increasing pull and wealth inside Russia.

From the moment they took place, the annexation of Crimea and the start of the large-scale confrontation with the West looked like a small, internal coup that radically changed the balance of power; weakening pro-Western elites and strengthening the hawks. In the years that followed, an anti-Western bent increasingly became not just a hallmark for the latter, but a platform for strategic consolidation.

At the same time, a sluggish economy, young people’s turn towards the Internet, and the diminished influence of television created a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among the anti-Western elites. This coincided with the eve of the inevitable generational transition in the 2020s, when both political power and asset management should have passed from the hands of the first-generation Putin-era elite to their children. In this situation, Russia’s deepening and more radical isolation from the West, launched on the basis of patriotic mobilization, looked like a good strategy for them. Moreover, it led to a further weakening of those elites who had one foot in the West — thus preserving both a degree of freedom and even the potential for political revanche. 

This is not to say that the plans of the anti-Western elites included such a large-scale war and such large-scale sanctions against the Russian economy. As often happens in history, all of this was the result of “something going wrong” — that is, of erroneous predictions and calculations. However, in any case, the picture presented here explains the context and conditions in which the logic of this erroneous decision became not only possible, but to some extent promising and popular across a broad spectrum of Russian elites. 

Paradoxically, the most direct effect of the sanctions has been to undermine the pro-Western group within the Russian elites. Of course, this is not because their role in building and preserving the regime is more significant, but because it was easier for the West to punish them. Indeed, their capital is stored in the West. At the same time, the resources and assets of the other (and more significant) segment of Putin’s elite are located inside Russia. These assets, which are based on energy revenues, are protected by the country’s isolationist drift. And undermining their political influence is only possible if coupled with undermining the Russian economy as a whole. 

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Essay by Kirill Rogov

Translation by Eilish Hart

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