Is Putin’s grip on power still as strong as ever? Some observers are beginning to think not, presenting him as some kind of a 'lame duck president', even as he prepares to be re-elected yet again. However, Mark Galeotti suggests such talk misrepresents the nature of power in today’s Russia. 'Power is the capacity to act and get away with it'.

OeljoekajevMoscowTimesRosneft CEO Sechin offered a bribe to minister Uluykayev to get rid of him.... and got away with it. Sentence: 8 years in labor colony

by Mark Galeotti

The recent Ulyukaev case, where the minister for economic development found himself condemned to eight years in prison on a dubious corruption charge, was especially striking as an example of private-enterprise repression. By all accounts and appearances, Rosneft boss Igor Sechin took it upon himself to bring down Alexei Ulyukaev, and used one of his clients, former FSB General Oleg Feoktistov to engineer a frame. The case was almost comically flimsy, but Sechin clearly considered that to be no problem. Indeed, one could suggest that it was part of the point. Sechin was not at any risk from Ulyukaev; rather, at a time when competition within the elite is getting a little more sharp-elbowed, he wanted to demonstrate his power and his ruthlessness.

And Putin let him get away with it. Sechin went out of his way to project an arrogant disregard for even the barest forms of propriety, contemptuously refusing to come testify in court, managing not even to get Ulyukaev to say anything compromising in the infamous leaked conversation. Putin demonstrated a degree of unease with all this, especially when it was raised in his recent marathon press conference, but intervened neither to humble Sechin nor save Ulyukaev.

This was good for Sechin (in the short term: ask NKVD-boss Lavrenti Beria about the potential risks in being too dangerous and too disliked in such circles), but bad for Putin and bad for the system. Ulyukaev was an economic liberal, but also a loyal and well-regarded technocrat, no less but certainly no more acquisitive in his position than anyone else. (Let’s be honest: no senior Russian official lives on his or her salary alone.)

Breaking the social contract

The Ulyukaev case broached several unspoken elements of Putin’s social contract with his elite. First of all, that if they were loyal and efficient, they would be looked after. Of course, Putin’s closest cronies are looked after best, but everyone toiling to keep the machine running would be OK. Even when they had to be sacrificed – such as former defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, dismissed in 2012 – they would be protected and found some comfortable alternative berth. Serdyukov, it is worth remembering, was charged with negligence relating to corruption, yet was never jailed, amnestied by Putin, and then made industrial director of the state arms corporation Rostec. He’s doing fine.

Secondly, a faith that while there would be personal squabbles, factional rivalries, and battles over resources, that Putin would step in before they got out of hand. Indeed, he likely favours some of these internecine spats as a good way of maintaining his own control, but eventually dad would step in and bring peace to the playground before anyone got a bloody nose.

This time, none of that happened, dismaying many within the elite. Inevitably for some, it began to raise questions as to whether the 65-year-old incumbent, whose public performances of late have been marked more by ennui than energy, is losing his touch. Indeed, whether or not he is actually losing control of the hard men around him.

Of course, all power is a matter of performance and belief. If enough people believe Putin is losing his authority, then his authority wanes. But it also raises a fundamental question that is too rarely addressed: what constitutes power in today’s Russia?

Is there any serious question that, had he wanted, Putin could have ensured Ulyukaev’s acquittal or, indeed, have reprimanded or even destroyed Sechin? If Investigatory Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin had been told to arrest Sechin on economic crime charges, or alternatively the decision made to elevate and emasculate him by declaring that he was leaving Rosneft to take up some new position at the president’s personal invitation, it is hard to imagine any public refusal.

Does Putin fear Sechin? It is unlikely, especially when so many equally fearsome people exist in his circle who would have leapt at the chance to bring him down. Rather, it is more likely that he trusts him. After all, Sechin has been with Putin since the St Petersburg years, from the granite-faced gatekeeper and fixer of his private office all the way to running Russia’s most valuable company and largest single tax payer.

The power of the court

The fact of the matter is that, having hollowed out the institutions of the state, Putin has created a situation in which power is the capacity to act and get away with it. Gazprom’s Alexei Miller, for example, would have been unlikely to have been able to pull off a similar stunt, even if it were his style. Money is not power, because even the richest man in Russia (after Putin, we presume…) only holds those resources so long as the state does not take it away from him. Institutional position is not power, because Putin bypasses and duplicates these positions all the time.

Rather, political access, favour and support from Putin and those who speak with his voice are the sole true sources of power. Those who are rich in Russia are not powerful because they are rich, they are rich because they are powerful – which means they have the boss’s favour. A minister may be powerful, or he or she may not; those who are, from defence minister Sergei Shoigu to Maxim Oreshkin (Ulyukaev’s successor), enjoy that status because of a connection with the boss.

In many ways, this has long been the case, with Russia being run by Putin’s court, through the façade of institutions and structures. What seems to be changing in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential elections, is the increasingly blunt and blind elevation of loyalty as the primary attribute for which Putin is seeking. In the past, there were figures such as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who had no real personal relationship with Putin, but had his favour because they were considered competent and unthreatening. Ulyukaev was another such.

Now Ulyukaev is in a strict-regime labour colony, Lavrov is a virtual outsider, and other technocrats, from interior minister Kolokoltsev to justice minister Konovalov see their ministries increasingly sidelined and cannibalised.

Putin has made it clear that he is tired, at least tired of the constant demands of ruchnoe upravlenie, ‘manual control’ of the system. One response would be to revive the institutions, to create a real government able to govern. Instead, it seems likely that Putin’s next term as president will see quite the opposite, an increasing willingness to let those whom he considers ‘his’ people have free reign, so long as they appear loyal. This is the new social contract, trading personal loyalty for freedom to act at will. Putin does not act not because he lacks power, but because he cannot be bothered to use it, an instead is willing to grant more to his boyars, while retaining the right and power to take it back. The façade crumbles, and we see the tsar’s court behind it.