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The Triumphant Return Of Kremlinology
Dusting off the Cold War relics
The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science defines Kremlinology as “the art of interpreting Soviet politics.” For “political conflict in the Soviet Union only occurred at the very highest level,” Frank Bealey and Allan Johnson write. It was “possible for Soviet experts to guess what was happening by reading Russian documents, but it was always a little like crystal gazing.”
In their history of the secret Cold War, The CIA and the Pursuit of Security, authors Dylan Huw and David Glow define Kremlinology as “the precise watching of individuals within the Soviet system, looking at the movers and shakers, studying those rising and falling politically and pondering what it all meant.”
Exchange the word “Russian” for Soviet, and by either definition, the term still works for the present-day art of Kremlin-watching.
Beginning with the so-called “Long Telegram” of George Kennan in 1947, American analysis of the Soviet system proved prescient. Armed with secrets unavailable to other agencies, the CIA was at the forefront of this art.
“Langley’s Kremlinologists were, to some extent, well informed of significant developments, but repeatedly surprised to some degree about what they, in aggregate, foretold,” Huw and Glow write.
Upon the death of Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1982, Yuri Andropov faced a dilemma. Technological development, especially military technological programs, required the old KGB hand to liberalize the Soviet economy against communist orthodoxy.
He was not up to the task, and his reign was also brief. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, also tried to promulgate a new theory of Soviet economics, but he also died after just one year in office.
It was his successor in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, who announced the twin policies of perestroika and glasnost. Langley was the first American federal agency to recognize Gorbachev as a “new broom” in Moscow, persuading the rest of the Reagan administration to embrace a Soviet leader.
From the outset of the Cold War, Kennan, a diplomat, had identified future transitions of power as weak points in the continuity of the Soviet state. “The future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men in the Kremlin,” he wrote in his pseudonymous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
“That they can keep power themselves, they have demonstrated. That they can quietly and easily turn it over to others remains to be proved.” Noting that a generation with no direct memory of the Great Patriotic War would eventually take power, Kennan considered the “possibility…that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”
We might say the same for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Personalist dictatorships seldom split during the lifetime of the dictator; the transition of power is always the greatest point of danger for a regime of personal rule.
Dictators prefer to deal with other dictators. They have little patience for democracy, and often clash with foreign democracies.
A personal ruler is therefore liable to impulsive, arbitrary decisions as they become ever more remote from the elites who run everything and understand how the world works outside the ruler’s information bubble. Witness, for example, the endless purges of the Stalin years.
We have seen the strongly-personal rule of Vladimir Putin, a Stalin admirer, follow this same trajectory. The result, former British diplomat and businessman Roderic Lyne wrote at the beginning of February, is the Russian president has become “remote and much diminished” as a public figure in Russia. His two-hour speech last week was all the more telling for his absence from public sight. Putin has abandoned his old routine for a bunkered existence.
Rumors of ill-health aside, sheer human mortality will result in replacement, some day. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Were Putin to die in office in the coming months, the Prime Minister (currently the technocratic Mikhail Mishustin) would become Acting President, under the Constitution. This would not guarantee his succession. The circle of securocrats (aka “siloviki”) around Putin would seek an authoritarian figure from within their own ranks, though there would be sharp competition between them for the top job.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is one of these competing siloviki. His Wagner PMC is a direct competitor to Patriot PMC, owned by his rival Sergei Shoigu, also the Minister of Defense. Both private entities are technically illegal in Russia. They compete for resources, such as weapons and shells and prison “recruits.” Prigozhin and his Telegram bloggers have criticized Shoigu for months, blaming systemic failures in Ukraine on MoD leadership.
This weekend, “the Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu over his son-in-law Alexei Stolyarov’s alleged Instagram ‘likes’ of anti-war posts,” the Institute for the Study of War reports. Prigozhin reportedly offered to train Stolyarov “for six weeks” and send him into combat, while one of Prigozhin’s milbloggers called for Shoigu’s removal. Online cancel culture, Russian style.
Another curious thing has happened in the last week: Wagner complained about not getting artillery ammunition, and then Wagner carried out another series of human wave attacks towards Bakhmut, claiming Yahidne, and according to Prigozhin, Berkhivka. Russian troops do seem to have advanced north of the city — right into the teeth of autocannon fire from Ukrainian BMPs.
This claim to have captured two suburbs around the small Donbas city is telling for its minimalism. Their objective remains the primary focus of Russian efforts simply because it is the one place in the line of contact where available logistics can support such efforts.
Putin continues pushing towards his maximalist war aims at the rate of thousands of dead Russians per square kilometer, ensuring that none of his generals, public or private, succeeds any more or less than the others. His war management style ensures that they all lose equally so that none of them can claim his throne.
“Putin has always taken care to ensure that there is no dauphin,” Lyne writes.
Those who have tried to position themselves as alternatives have tended to be downgraded or sidelined. But this now makes it harder for him to leave. He would only do so voluntarily if he could identify a successor whom he could trust to defend him and his associates (and their interests); and who was strong enough to command respect and run the country. Critically, the next leader must be able to exercise authority over the all-powerful organs of internal security. This would point to another authoritarian from within the existing establishment, whom Putin would make Prime Minister and then, most likely, Acting President (the path by which Yeltsin promoted Putin).
A successor from within the current inner circle, all of whom are implicated in Putin’s war, would be unlikely to accept defeat and seek peace through withdrawal. He might either continue Putin’s present attritional approach; or try to tip the balance (as hard-liners are urging) through an escalation to more aggressive tactics against both Ukraine and the West. Almost all of this group are of Putin’s age. They are not leaders for the long term.
History does not really repeat, but it does rhyme. The world at large awaits the day when a post-Soviet generation that has no memory of the 1990s and the painful days of privatization takes power. In that context, we might see Putin’s profligate expenditure of young Russian men as a preemptive war against the most dangerous demographic in Russia.
In The New Kremlinology: Understanding Regime Personalization in Russia, a 2021 anthology of essays on the comparative politics of Putin’s mafia state, the editors describe a rising generation of Russians that is tolerant of Ukraine’s existence.
As pre-war polling showed, the successor generation has grown up, unlike their parents, accepting that Ukraine is a separate state. Its leaders will not hold direct responsibility for the war. If and when they inherit the conflict, perhaps frozen or stalemated, they will be better placed to make a pragmatic assessment of the massive costs and minimal benefits it has brought to Russia.
This explains a moral disconnection in Russia. Crimea and Kherson and Donbas feel more “Russian” to young Russians than the rest of Ukraine, perhaps, but until now Kyiv has never been an enemy of Russia. The war has been a whiplash for them, and hardened their opinions against Ukraine, maybe, but without giving them a sense of purpose. Imaginary Nazis, satanism, and conspiracy theories about the west only paper over this gaping moral hole.
Renewed invasion and full scale-war have already consumed the lives of over 100,000 young Russian men, and Putin seems ready to sacrifice half a million or more on the way to defeat. They are dying for a cause that never made sense to them, that never will make sense, except as a general feeling about Russia’s status in the world. Putin sees this status as indivisible from his own. That is the nature of personal dictatorship.
In 2007, with Russia recovered from the “time of troubles” in the 1990s, Putin commissioned a film, 1612, which fictionalized the expulsion of a Polish army from Moscow and the founding of the Romanov dynasty. Russian opposition called its portrayal of history “diluted beyond recognition,” for it was a propaganda film released to coincide with Putin’s new “National Unity Day.”
Russia has never imagined itself as a nation of citizens rather than an empire of subjects. Russian autocracy, on the other hand, sees itself as a continuing tradition, a force greater than politics, and projects that image to Russians, who still respond to it, by and large.
One wonders what will be left of this generation to take charge after the old men of the siloviki die out, and for Vladimir Putin, perhaps that is the point. Every day he remains in power costs Russian lives, sure, and thousands of them now, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
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