Putin at the crossroads: the opposing centers of power in the shadow of the Kremlin

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
24/02/22

As the crisis in Eastern Europe deepens from week to week, and is likely to reach its peak in the next few days, all eyes are now on the man whose decisions will turn events: the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir. Vladimirovich Putin.

A former KGB man and then director of the FSB, Putin has remained at the top of power in Russia for 23 years and throughout this period he has tried to shape the country in his image and likeness, succeeding well in some areas and a great deal. less in others.

Today Putin is considered both the architect of the current crisis in Ukraine and the one who holds in his own hands the political levers to be able to resolve it. But is it really so?

Since, by definition, omnipotence belongs only to divinity, we can already say without a shadow of a doubt that, net of what its numerous "admirers" affirm, "Vova" is not omnipotent and indeed, during his decades-long career as a statesman, he made mistakes and hesitated just like any other great or small leader. In a nutshell: he too has "fenced off".

Nonetheless, as the leader of the country whose interests are most at risk in the Ukrainian crisis, and having himself much (if not all) to lose in this match, Putin now finds himself at an uncomfortable crossroads that will surely affect the rest of his career. politics (short or long) as well as the image that he will pass on to posterity.

To begin with, it is necessary to understand, first of all, what kind of position Putin holds within the galaxy of Russian power. Contrary to what many may think, the Russian system of government is not and has never been of a truly "monarchical" type.

Regardless of the official title adopted according to the historical epochs ("grand prince", "tsar", "emperor", "party general secretary" or "president"), the so-called "supreme leader of the country" is actually a sort of "Maximus inter pares", to use a term dear to the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great, who indeed occupies a position of pre-eminence, but who, in order to exercise it fully, must be able to be the "mediator" between the instances of the various centers of galaxy of power.

Some examples of such centers of power are: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the whole that groups together the various intelligence and security agencies, the big banks, the business sectors that see the greatest presence of oligarchs, the Gazprom, etc ...).

As hard as it is for those who are not well informed to believe, the influence that resides in each of these centers is such that it can put even the most resolute and despotic Russian leader on the ropes. Here some examples are needed:

- The 13 of October 1552, the just 300-year-old Tsar Ivan IV led his soldiers on the front line to conquer the Tatar city of Kazan, ending more than 51 years of Mongol-Tatar supremacy over the lands of Russia. In recognition of the great victory obtained, his veterans (men much older than him who had served under his father Vasili III) raised him on their shields carrying him in triumph in the manner of the ancient Slavic peoples and proclaimed him "Grozny", an appellation that in Russian medieval was not translated "The Terrible" as we erroneously do today, but as "The Courageous". Despite the fame and undisputed prestige thus obtained, Ivan IV remained for most of his long reign (XNUMX years, formally) at the mercy of the machinations of the "Boyars" (the great landed and warrior nobility) who, in agreement with the Church Orthodox, for a short time they forced him to retire to a monastery, being subsequently forced to put him back on the throne under threat of impalement by the people and, above all, by the merchants who had found their "champion" in Ivan IV who could protect them. from the oppression and extortion of the "Boyars";

- In the 1698 Emperor Peter I the Great, who had already begun to enjoy widespread popularity thanks to his progressive reforms, had to face a dangerous revolt by the "Streltsy", the military elite of the "old army" of Russia for over 150 years. Although the revolt was promptly quelled, Peter the Great never trusted this institution again and in 1721, at the end of the "Great Northern War" against Sweden, the "Streltsy" were suppressed;

- The March 23, Prince Alexander Petrovich, became emperor with the name of Alexander I right in the midst of the chaos of the "Napoleonic Wars". Of liberal tendencies, personally hostile to Great Britain and sincere admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander would not have wanted even so secretly that the Russian Empire and the newborn French Empire became true allies in a sort of "diarchy" that could have changed the destiny of the continent European. However, the stupidity of Napoleon, who wanted to be stubborn at all costs on the "Polish question", exposed Alexander to the internal fringe of the great nobility and military elites, who precisely in the constitution of a new "Free Poland" (the Napoleonic "Duchy of Warsaw ”) Saw an unbearable threat to the security of the Romanov Empire. And so it was that the most liberal Tsar that Russia has ever had was forced, in the name of what we would now call "reason of state" and "national interests" to wage war and contribute to the final defeat of the very one to whom he had himself inspired;

- In the 1904 and again in 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet headquartered in the fortress of Kronstadt, located on the island Kotlin, near Petrograd (St. Petersburg), until then considered the elite of the Armed Forces of the Russian Empire, rebelled several times against the established power becoming a sort of "vanguard of the Revolution" that would soon bring the Bolsheviks to power. Such was the role played by the sailors of Kronstadt during the "October Revolution" that Leon Trotsky himself defined them "ornament and pride of the Revolution". Yet, in March 1921, those same sailors, now hungry, tired and disillusioned by the failed policies of "War Communism" rebelled against Soviet power demanding an end to these wicked policies and the restoration of civil liberties. The Kronstadt rebellion was brutally repressed in blood, however Lenin recognized the validity of the rioters' claims and paved the way for the period of the NEP characterized by cautious openings towards the market economy and an improvement in living conditions in the country;

- in the'August of the 1991, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeevič Gorbačëv had to face a coup attempt by the leaders of the most extremist wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who, feeling threatened in the management of power by the reform program some energetic leader tried with this act to derail the "train of history" but were crushed by their own attempt;

- The 31 December of the 1999 the first president of the modern Russian Federation, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, announced in the course of the "New Year's speech" his decision to step down and hand over the functions of head of state to his prime minister, the then obscure Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Yeltsin's decision to "leave the scene" was only partly dictated by his health conditions, as stated in the official version. In fact, since the events of the Kosovo War a few months earlier, and even more so after the invasion of Dagestan by the Chechen Islamist rebels in August of the same year, within the military elite and intelligence agencies of the Russia had formed an obscure yet powerful faction of power which, deeply disappointed by the inability of the old and sick president to defend Russia's interests in the international arena and to guarantee the security of the state itself, had begun to press with ever greater insistence that Yeltsin was replaced with a younger, energetic and less supine figure in the interests of the oligarchs.

These are just some of the many examples that dot the entire history of Russia that show us how power in Moscow (or St.Petersburg) never really resides in the hands of a single man and in the end, as in any other country, even in ' last "classic empire" left in the world when the time comes for the so-called "irrevocable decisions" (as the man said in 1940) the concept of "reconciliation of interests" is at home there as well.

Let us add immediately, however, that this factual reality is of little use to us if it is accompanied by the stupidity on the part of a large slice of both the political elites and the intellectual world that here in the West systematically approaches Russia as if it were a civilization that, regardless, it is inferior and must be only and systematically undermined, marginalized, demonized and attacked in order to subdue it or, worse, destroy it. Also in this case, history should be for us "magistra vitae" in reminding us that, although Russia is not truly "invincible" as some of its propagandists want to portray it (according to my calculations, Russia has lost a good quarter of all wars in which was involved!) it is equally true that whenever the country has been attacked in its fundamental interests and the enemy assault has succeeded in provoking in the Russian people a wave of rejection and patriotic pride towards the enemy of the moment , although apparently weak and decrepit Russia has always managed to unleash a reaction force that amazed the whole world.

On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the attempted invasion of the Soviet Union by the Third Reich, the German dictator Adolf Hitler, referring to the Soviet Union, uttered the fateful sentence: "Just give the door a good kick to bring down the whole rotten hut!". It is at least since the "Crimean War" of 1853-1856 that the West bombards itself and the whole world with proclamations announcing "The imminent end of Russia and its disappearance from the geographic maps of the world".

Against all these odds, Russia is still here with us and, despite 1.160 years of history behind us, I am willing to bet that it will continue to exist for another 1.000 years, whether we like it or not.

That said, it is now necessary to ask ourselves: in the current geopolitical crisis with Ukraine as its focal point, how do the interests of Russia's "strong powers" interact and how will they ultimately condition the decisions of the modern "tsar"?

As for Putin himself, we can assume with a certain degree of fairness that, while looking in the mirror the morning after washing his face with cold water, he would gladly do without the Ukrainian crisis because it is going to crack his relationship of "Collaboration" with the world of the "oligarchs". The main problem that “Vova” and the Russian and post-Soviet oligarchs inside and outside his circle face when they approach the “Ukraine dossier” is the fear of sanctions and the damage they can do to their pockets.

In 2014, after the unilateral annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the Donbass conflict, the package of Western sanctions then approved, and never removed, affected the assets of the oligarchs in a way that was anything but painless. Although none of the names that matter were spared, it seems that the portfolios of members of the Rotenberg family, who have always been close to the Kremlin leader (Boris and Arkady, the two "founding" brothers of the dynasty, have been training since young people with Putin in the same martial arts school). To meet the oligarchs, Putin hastily passed a bill that gave them the opportunity to be compensated by the Russian state for the losses suffered as a result of Western sanctions. Needless to say, once the collective hangover over the annexation of Crimea subsided, the Russian people did not take it well at all. However, despite popular anger, in that historical moment the fact of not having to lose the consent of the "super rich" was of vital importance to Putin.

Today Vladimir finds himself in a similar situation but this time there are other centers of power that "pull the jacket": the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under the wise leadership of the "two Sergeys" (Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoigu respectively), the MID and the MO (Foreign and Defense respectively) have seen their importance greatly increase, especially in light of Russia's newfound assertiveness on the international scene in the aftermath of Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War (September 2015). The Russian military in particular is experiencing a genuine revival both inside and outside the country and enjoying a newfound pride after decades of heavy frustration following the fall of the Soviet Union, the cuts in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, and the conflicts in Chechnya.

The demoralizing effect that the "end of their world" has had on "men in camouflage uniforms" can only be understood when compared with the trajectory undertaken by the men of the former KGB. Instead of sinking into the darkest demoralization, the "siloviki" (the "men of force") quickly recycled themselves as "fixers" and "businessmen", often in collusion with the criminal world, literally putting their hand to resources. economic aspects of the defunct "Red Empire".

Now the situation has reversed and the military is once again a pillar of society as it was in the days of the Soviet Union while the "siloviki" are struggling, having been precisely their shortcomings in monitoring the geopolitical situation that prepared the ground for the disaster of Euromaidan.

However, even the hyper-activism of the military has brought its fair share of problems. Currently, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are engaged in 3 conflicts at the same time: in Ukraine since 2014, in Syria since 2015 and in the Central African Republic since 2018 (this without counting the wars in which Russian mercenaries belonging to more "companies" are involved. or not linked to the Kremlin power structures, such as the now famous Wagner). While it is true that, from an economic point of view, the cost of these wars is relatively low for Moscow compared to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for the United States, nonetheless the time is approaching for public opinion. Russia will start clamoring for a clear resolution of each of the aforementioned dossiers.

This partly explains the reason why in each of these operational theaters there has been a dramatic increase in Russian military and diplomatic activities in recent months (to tell the truth not always noticed by Western chancelleries).

At this moment in Ukraine we are witnessing not only a battle between Russia and the United States for the achievement of supremacy in that important but tormented nation, but also yet another chapter of the internal feud that perennially opposes the different centers of power in the shadow of the "Throne of the tsar".

In light of the latest developments on the ground, it seems that the tandem formed by the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense has finally managed to force Putin to follow his own line of action ("preservation of national security interests") against that advocated by the oligarchs but also from the more progressive centers of economic power and with a less opaque past history ("preservation of economic ties with the West").

In the near future it will be good for all of us to continue to monitor these processes because their final outcome will be, in 2024, nothing less than the designation of the next "supreme leader of all Russia".

Photo: Kremlin / web