As the war continues in Ukraine, the leadership of Vladimir Putin and the future of his regime seem increasingly inextricably linked to the outcome of the clash. Behind an apparent broad internal consensus, in fact, increasingly strong signs emerge of a very strong popular malaise and of a repositioning of some state and non-state actors who, during the past years, had supported the ascent to power of the tsar.
But how was it possible that an obscure, almost unknown and seemingly insipid lieutenant colonel of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti (KGB - Committee for State Security), without any political experience, had the opportunity to parachute to the head of Russia in less than ten years?
The first step in Putin's future political career, born in 1952, was the "magic circle" of closest collaborators that he made when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned from Dresden to Leningrad (which will become St. September 6, 1991).
In August 1991, a few months before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, he resigned from his military career and began his political career as deputy mayor, alongside Anatolji Sobchak, newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg and his old university professor at the faculty of law.
During his stay in St. Petersburg he builds a network of complicity both with old collaborators within the secret service and with new acquaintances in the public administration. The "Peterskis", as they were nicknamed, therefore constituted the first nucleus of those who wove special relations of confidence with the future head of the Kremlin, constituting a significant pressure group, despite the relatively small number.
As deputy mayor he had the opportunity to come into contact with numerous politicians, such as the then president Boris Yeltsin, who in 1996 called him to join his entourage making him, two years later, director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (Federál'naja Služba Bezopásnosti Rossijskoj Federácii – FSB), the agency that replaced the KGB.
Meanwhile Putin builds a second magic circle around himself, made up of those Russian leaders like Dmitry Anatol'evich Medvedev, for example, who later even had the opportunity to assume the positions of president (2008-2012) and prime minister, and that since 2020 he is vice-president of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. This, while not a politically homogeneous group, has so far proved to be very devoted to Putin.
In August 1999, Putin became prime minister and in 2000, following Yeltsin's resignation, he was appointed president of the Russian Federation. He immediately begins to build a third level of "loyalty", so to speak, represented by those technocrats, often quite young, favored by his new policy of cadres (kadrovya politika)i.
During his presidency he also took care to ensure the loyalty of the oligarchs who had grown up during the previous period and were then particularly politically active. This happened with good luck but, often, also with bad luck, as demonstrated by the emblematic case of Michail Borisovich Chodorkovskij, the Russian oil entrepreneur who did not bow to diktat of Putin and became a great supporter of the political opposition to the tsar.
Since 2000, the influence of the oligarchs in Russian political life has been progressively decreasing and, in parallel, the importance of the power structure has been growing (silovye strukrury) connected to the apparatuses for maintaining public order, so much so that many observers have renamed the Russian regime as a "militocracy".
With the taming of wealthy businessmen and the silencing of the independent press, Putin managed to remain at the top of the Federation, with the brief period of the presidency of the dauphin Medvedev, during which he was prime minister.
The current Russian political picture
Russia is an extraordinary country, with an extraordinary history, straddling West and East, always hovering between attraction towards the East and towards the West (symbolized by the two-headed eagle, with divergent gazes). A great people with a soul as vast as the unlimited Russian plains and as evoked by its very high literature. However, the peasant population, previously totally enslaved directly to the nobility and more or less indirectly to the Tsar, is today in position of very deep and absolute subordination to the central power.
Even if, after the almost inadvertent episodes of Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin got carried away and with the Ukrainian affair he went beyond simple containment of Western Europe and NATO, the consensus of this mass of poorly educated people has not substantially changed, also thanks to the pervasive propaganda of the regime. For these reasons, the prospect of a popular uprising or, more simply, of a massive social mobilization that would force a change of course appears unlikely. Proof of this is the mobilization carried out starting from 21 September 2022 which, on paper, could trigger powerful protests but which did not cause significant upheavals, if not some rebellion in about forty cities, immediately put down by the repressive apparatus, and a few attempts to sabotage with limited implications, such as the fires set in some military commissariats. Propaganda has replied to these attempts to seize up the machinery of power with interviews of mothers and wives who did not ask for an end to hostilities and for their children and husbands to return home, but that they were provided with the material to wage war in the best possible way. An unambiguously consolidated authoritarian regime masterpiece.
In this area, the regime is also trying to maintain the loyalty of middle managers and women elite second level, in order to maintain the functioning of the State administration despite the numerous and objective difficulties. A program that is getting positive feedback in most cases, since the vast majority of cadres seem to accept the situation, well aware of the risks associated with disobedience to the directives of central power. Nonetheless, there are some dissonant voices from the chorus, quickly overshadowed by the regime or its willing water carriers. They are, however, signs that repression fails to completely silence the growing dissatisfaction in the country.
But frustration also fuels the more extremist fringes of the domestic political landscape. These ride the discontent of Russian society to make themselves more visible and loud, sometimes making Putin's line seem "moderate". The narration of these ultranationalist groups, mainly influenced by the philosopher and political scientist Aleksandr Gel'evič Dugin, is the one that justifies the military aggression against Ukraine with imperialist rhetoric, which imagines a Russian world (Ukraine included) threatened and humiliated by the West . A narrative that has influenced many parts of Russian society and which is increasingly polarizing on apocalyptic tones in favor of a war without quarter. Precisely in this context, it should be noted the recent birth of a new political group called "Angry Patriots", a movement that seems to have been founded by blogger military Igor' Girkin, a now retired colonel of Glavnoe Razvedyvatel'noe Upravlenie (GRU - General Directorate for Military Intelligence), ardent nationalist known as Shooters (shooter). According to some international media reports, he is also planning a big press conference in Moscow for next June, with the aim of increasing the visibility of the group and increasing pressure on the Kremlin.
Even in the eyes of less attentive observers, however, there should by now be no doubts about the great strategic expansion plan imagined by Putin for Russia. A program supported by his magic circles, cultivated and elaborated for a long time in silence, in dissimulation but also in an extraordinary perseverance of intent. A plan that brought him on a collision course with the West and "to embrace each other" extremely dangerous with China, in a non-equal formula partnerships, but of junior partnerships.
In this context, the shocks produced by Putin's choices, by the heavy economic sanctions and the relative strong malaise of the population, by the incomplete military events on the battlefield and by the increasingly accentuated international political isolationii have heavily influenced the internal political situation of the Russian Federation, which it has become noticeably more fluid, opening up large spaces for competition for power.
Some very radical actors have therefore presented themselves on the internal scenario such as outsider and we can bet that they will want to play it all in order to secure an important political role in the Kremlin.
Starting with the Chechen Ramzan Akhmatovič Kadyrov, born in 1976, who in response to his loyalty to the Russian federal power had a free hand in Chechnya, establishing a system of terror with its security forces, better known as the kadyrovtsy. In the aftermath of the Russian aggression, he immediately sent about 10.000 men to support the Moscow army and then multiplied his warmongering statements, distinguishing himself by his boisterous ability to appear on the day's news. Since last September, also using i social media, began to publicly criticize the conduct of operations and the leadership of the Russian defense. In October he even went so far as to advocate the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Some analysts consider him one of the possible players capable of holding roles in the Federation, also in light of the credit he seems to enjoy in the Kremlin.
Another actor appearing in the race to take on relevant positions seems to be Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, born in 1961, restaurant entrepreneur (known with the derisive nickname of "Putin's cook")iii and founder, in 2014, of the private paramilitary group "Wagner". It is a private company of mercenaries particularly and violently active in Ukraine, in the Middle East and in Africa, so much so that the Russian power, at first opposed to having formal connections with these mercenaries, then recognized their role as a military actor in support operations in Ukraine. A group that "sells itself" as troopselite but which recovers its mercenaries from their homeland prisons, with the promise of a second chance after the war.
The participation of a private structure in Russian military operations could not fail to give rise to some frictions at the level of cooperation between the regular army and the paramilitaries. Frictions that are becoming more and more evident and that give rise to Prigožin's heated accusations against the defense leaders. His statements are, therefore, disseminated on all communication channels both to attribute the merits of the victories (e.g.: battle of Soledar of 16 January 2023iv) and blame the losses (e.g. Bakhmut's events, underway at the time of this analysis) or defeats, both to fuel an internal communication campaign for one's own personal profit, which allows him to present himself to the attention of the media Russians as an authoritative figure of political reference in the future.
According to the independent news site Meduzav, given the failure of his previous attempt with the party Rodina (Fatherland) in the 2020 legislative elections, Prigozhin would also intend to form his own conservative, patriotic and anti-elite, in order to capitalize the "credits" acquired on the battlefield in politics.
The third actor who presumably would like to present himself as the main interpreter of the post-Putin era is the already mentioned Medvedev, born in 1965, who at the time he was appointed president deluded Russia (but also abroad) about a real liberal turning point, speaking of "renewal and democratic values", of a "society of free men" and of leaving "a archaic society, where the boss thinks and decides for everyone" (November 12, 2009). Now he seems to have thrown off his mask and his speeches about him have radically (it's not a random term) changed. More and more often, in fact, he appears in the news for his extremely aggressive and very out of line statements, competing with the others competitors politicians who shoots the biggest. A metamorphosis that can be explained simply bearing in mind his total loyalty and subjection to Putin. He is, in fact, one of the "Peterskis", a Praetorian of the first hour. And until 2020 he remained very close to Putin, until the allegations of corruption made him one of the least loved characters by the Russians. Today he seems to want to return to play an important part on the Russian stage and his strong declarations seem to want to stand up to (and sometimes surpass in verbal violence) the other pretenders to the "throne", laying the foundations for his eventual return to politics in the elections of the Duma of 2024, perhaps through the ultra-nationalist far right (liberal democratic party), orphan of leadership, and with the complicity of the poor memory of the population, now forgetting the documentation provided in the past by Aleksej Navalny regarding his illegal properties.
About the first mentioned blogger military it must be said that these are characters that are followed by thousands of followers on social media and are playing a central role in fueling the popular consensus towards more aggressive fighting. While most of these are careful not to criticize the head of the Kremlin, they do not spare heavy and violent censures to military leaders, bringing consensus to the most unscrupulous and violent parties or personalities and acting as centers of pressure to direct political choices (and military) Russians. Among the most influential figures the aforementioned Igor 'Girkin, who exploits his popularity in Russian society for his role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Finally, at the moment, there do not appear to be any opposition figures who formally aspire to leading political roles in any post-Putin Russia, also because whoever dares to disagree is sooner or later the victim of a judicial sentence or sudden and violent death. However, the two names of opponents previously reported could have the possibility of playing a role, should they change the rules in a truly democratic sense. Paradoxically, in fact, both Chodorkovsky, born in 1963, and Navalny, born in 1977, have the credentials to present themselves as new leader Russians, credentials provided mainly by the Kremlin, through what seemed to a good part of the world of political trials, celebrated to get rid of authoritative opponents.
As we have seen, the domestic political situation in Russia is fluid, despite the apparent rigidity. In this context, the inhabitants of the few large cities, even if more educated and informed, have few tools to push towards real internal change. A bottom-up change which, to be lasting, should involve large portions of the population and elite.
In fact, even the great changes, as they at least appear at the moment, if not continuously fueled with ardor, after a lapse of time seem less revolutionary and are gradually led to be reabsorbed in the wake of continuity, even if they still leave something that was not there before . Russians born after the end of the Soviet Union have, in fact, tasted freedom, the internet, the latest fashion, travel without restrictions. It will be impossible to make them forget all these things.
But any change will have to deal with the international isolation to which Putin's wicked choices have forced the country and this will lead severe penalties in the new power arrangements in the Kremlin, when Russia will find some kind of balance after Ukraine (winner or loser is a fact that is in the hands of Jupiter).
Certainly the magic circles around Putin, that dense network of complicity and fidelity created by the tsar with a dynamic that has never changed, and where he has always been the dominant figure, has shown some small sagging in recent months, a sign of a possible repositioning of some players, in view of a showdown that generates many questions about the future of Russia.
The brutal aggression launched by Putin and his circle against an independent and peaceful country, guilty only of claiming its own identity and specificity against its large and cumbersome neighbour, will certainly also have internal consequences.
But the question many are asking is whether Russia, having completed its authoritarian trajectory, will find ways to turn towards the West again. Above all if China, now that the Russian bear is economically dependent on trade with the dragon, accepts that Moscow returns to its own independent foreign policy or wants, instead, that it occupies an international role subservient to its interests.
The Russian political landscape is being populated by actors who are growing in popularity and whose real ambitions Putin no longer controls. In the workshop of Russian politics, therefore, the current head of the Kremlin no longer appears as the only craftsman at work. He increasingly needs to secure the loyal support of those apparatuses that benefit from his power but are now questioning it. In this context, the conservative and ultra-nationalist forces are certainly a support for Putin's aggressive policy but they also represent a further strong pressure against any form of politics that could be perceived as a defeat, capable of fueling a crisis of the regime. A extremely intricate situation that is becoming more and more tangled.
Whoever will be Putin's successor, when this happens, will have to take into account many components and many players, not all with clear and obvious interests.
Waiting to see what will happen to the Kremlin, the swirl of pressure, interventions, statements and more or less transparent power games, to ensure a prominent place in the starting grid. A race that has as its stake a large country, rich in energy resources and valuable raw materials, but which a senseless policy of conquest risks reducing to sparring partner of richer and more cynical countries. A country whose population does not deserve to remain a prisoner of bloody ambitions of grandeur that are now anachronistic.
i Victor Violier, Façonner l'État, former ses serviteurs : la reconfiguration de la politique des cadres de la fin de l'Union Sovietique à la Russie de Vladimir Poutine, these de doctorat en science politique under the direction of Béatrice Hibou and Frédéric Zalewski, Université Paris Nanterre, 2021
ii See the recent resolution of the UN General Assembly (May 2), which explicitly refers to the "…aggression of the Russian Federation of Ukraine…". The resolution was also approved with the favorable votes of China and India, so far opposed to condemning Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine.
iv Statements made when the town was not yet under complete Russian control, so much so that it was immediately denied by the Russian Defense Ministry, which claimed victory two days later.