Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
On February 25, barely 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces reached Kyiv. Even accounting for Russia’s vastly superior firepower, the speed of the military advance has been startling. But it also has highlighted something else: the extent to which the Kremlin’s entire pressure campaign on Ukraine has been driven by the Russia military. In contrast to many previous efforts by Moscow to achieve political goals in the West—or to exact retribution on a perceived enemy—the Ukraine offensive has not been driven by the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s security agency, which has often drawn the lion’s share of Western attention. Instead, it has been shaped from the outset by old-fashioned military power projection: first by amassing an overwhelming force on the border and then, with the world watching, quickly and efficiently putting that force to use.
In giving the military such a decisive role, Putin is consolidating a dramatic shift that has occurred in the Kremlin’s security hierarchy over the past decade. Whereas in earlier years, the army was not involved in Russian policymaking and was kept subordinate to the security services, from whose ranks Putin himself came, in recent years, the army has taken on new importance, not only in Russia’s interactions with neighboring countries but also in how policies are shaped. At the same time, the military has gained new public support at home. Previously regarded by many Russians as poorly run, underfunded, and backward, it is now equipped with a new generation of technology and supported by a military-industrial complex that has growing reach in Russian society. And with its newfound political clout, it has emerged as one of the most important institutions in Putin’s Russia.
Leading this transformation is one of the most ambitious members of Putin’s inner circle: Sergey Shoygu. Although he has received relatively little attention in the West, Shoygu is a longtime Kremlin insider who became the defense minister in 2012. Moreover, in contrast to the FSB, which has suffered a series of setbacks and embarrassments in recent years, Shoygu’s military has enjoyed almost unbroken success going back to the capture of Crimea in 2014 and the intervention in Syria a year later. Anyone seeking to understand why Putin was willing to unleash Russian troops, tanks, and planes in a hugely risky invasion of Ukraine must look first at the transformation of the Russian military under his powerful defense chief.
For nearly two centuries, the Russian military, despite its importance in Russian society, was rarely involved in political decision-making. Under Soviet rule, the streets in some districts of Moscow and in other big cities were dominated by men in green uniforms. Military service in Russia traditionally conferred a degree of social prestige. In the later decades of the Soviet era, the Kremlin promoted a mythology about the armed forces shaped around Russia’s heroic defeat of the Third Reich in World War II. Yet through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the military never enjoyed much of a voice in government. The last time the Russian military played an independent part in politics was probably in 1825, during the failed Decembrist revolt against the tsar in which several elite regiments tried to start a revolution. During the Soviet era, the government was wary of the danger of the military gaining too much power, and the KGB kept it under a watchful eye.
When he first came to power, Putin, a former KGB officer, stuck to Soviet tradition and promoted the security services above the army. His first war, the one that began in Chechnya in 1999, was run by the FSB, the successor to the KGB. The war was presented as a counterterrorism operation, and the military was subordinated to the security service. Meanwhile, Putin continued to rely on the FSB for keeping his elites under control and suppressing dissent, both in the country and abroad.
In the past, Putin privileged the security services over the military.
By contrast, the military enjoyed little prestige. During those early years of Putin’s rule, Russians remembered too well the failures in Afghanistan, as well as two messy and bloody wars in Chechnya that the army fought with outdated Soviet-era military equipment. The younger generation made every effort to avoid conscription. As a result, many Western analysts did not spend much time scrutinizing the Russian military: to understand Putin, it was assumed, one needed to fathom the inner workings of the security services. In 2012, however, Shoygu was appointed defense minister, and the fortunes of the military quietly began to change.
A veteran member of Russia’s political elite, Shoygu has had a notably durable career among the highest echelons in Moscow. Arriving in the capital from Tuva, the region on the border with Mongolia, just in time for the breakup of the Soviet Union, he rapidly rose to prominence in the early 1990s as an all-around troubleshooter, becoming the minister of emergency situations, a cabinet-level position that he himself invented.
In the 1990s and the following decade, he cultivated an image as a brave and energetic official who frequently visited the sites of natural disasters and terrorist bombings with an elite professional rescue team; he even led some rescue operations himself. At the time, it was highly unusual for a member of the post-Soviet elite to wear a field uniform and talk to victims of a flood in Siberia or a bombing in Moscow, as Shoygu did. His rapid-response team—spearheaded by an airborne unit of professional rescuers who were always ready to jump on a plane and go to any spot in the world where they might be needed—brought him popularity both in the Russian leadership and among ordinary Russians.
For Putin, Shoygu’s successful record and large public profile made him a natural ally, and he quickly found him useful to the Kremlin beyond his emergency missions. In 1999, Putin picked Shoygu to be one of the leaders of his party, United Russia, giving him the opportunity to tour the country and build a political base. More surprising, however, was Putin’s decision in 2012 to make Shoygu the minister of defense. An engineer by training, Shoygu had never served in the army, and he did not have a reputation among the military hierarchy. Nor did his blunt leadership style endear him to the old guard.
Consider Shoygu’s approach to uniforms. According to sources in the military, shortly after he became the defense minister, Shoygu was walking along the corridors of the general staff headquarters in Moscow on Arbat when he spotted a colonel in a gray suit. According to the old tradition, the officers of the general staff wore suits, not military uniforms, but the practice irritated Shoygu, who felt that officers should dress for battle, not for the office. He confronted the colonel and told him to report for duty the following week in a regiment in Siberia. Only good connections saved the colonel, but everybody got the point: Shoygu was serious about uniforms and the suits had to go. Nor did he stop there. In 2017, Shoygu changed the army dress uniform to make it resemble the Soviet uniform of 1945—known in the military as the winner’s uniform. The new design became his uniform of choice when he inspected military parades on Red Square; it also, not coincidentally, made him look like Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s vaunted field marshal during World War II. (In another potential nod to history, Zhukov is remembered not only as the Soviet Union’s most successful and ruthless commander but also as the man who helped get rid of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s much-feared chief of the secret police, after Stalin’s death).
Far more important, though, is Shoygu’s approach to military strategy and battle readiness. He has embraced high-tech innovation, forming a cyber-command and merging the air force and the space force into the new Russian Aerospace Forces. He has also increased salaries for the officers’ corps. At the same time, he has made it almost impossible for Russian youth to avoid army service. Yet above all were two early military successes, which sealed Shoygu’s reputation with the Kremlin and helped give the military new status within the government.
Shoygu showed that the military could succeed where the FSB had failed.
Shoygu’s first military success, notably, came in Ukraine. In 2014, when the Euromaidan revolution erupted in Kyiv against Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Putin’s first instrument of choice was the security services. As per usual practice, Putin dispatched the FSB to Kyiv, where it was supposed to help local forces quash the uprising. But the FSB failed to stop the protesters or prevent Yanukovych from fleeing the capital. As a result, Putin turned to the military, and under Shoygu’s command, Crimea was swiftly and efficiently annexed. Shoygu had demonstrated that the military could succeed where the FSB had failed.
Soon after, Shoygu had another opportunity to show the military’s strength—this time, in a conflict much farther away. In the initial phase of the Syrian civil war, Russia’s ally, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, seemed to be rapidly losing ground, and Putin’s diplomats were not making much progress in saving the regime. Once again, the army came to the rescue, carrying out a decisive military intervention in September 2015. At a relatively low cost to the Russian troops themselves, the military quickly turned around the course of the war, putting Assad back on track to survive and ultimately triumph. It almost looked like Shoygu’s old rapid-response airborne rescue unit had rushed in—although now, it was fixing Putin’s political problems rather than helping people on the ground.
So successful and popular was the Syrian intervention that in 2019, the Russian army arranged a huge traveling exhibition of tanks, guns, and other military hardware seized from Syria. It was transported by train to 60 different stops across the country from Moscow to Vladivostok, including Crimea; at many stops, it was met by jubilant crowds. In the wake of the successes in Crimea and Syria, popular support for the military grew.
Meanwhile, Shoygu began to enjoy a bigger military budget and a growing profile in the Kremlin. In fact, the successes in Crimea and Syria had another important consequence: it brought the oligarchs closer to the military and helped jump-start a new Russian military-industrial complex. Paradoxically, this effect was driven by the Western sanctions imposed on Russia’s elite following the annexation of Crimea. Because of these penalties, many oligarchs were losing money and contracts in the West; to compensate, the Russian state rushed to help them by providing their companies with huge military contracts. For example, before the sanctions were imposed, Siemens, the German company, provided engines for the Russian navy; today, the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, a Russian firm, holds that contract. Buttressed by this combination of rising popular support and powerful ties among the Russian elite, the military had emerged by 2017 as one of the most powerful institutions in Russia.
Over the past year, as Putin began to plan his campaign in Ukraine, it was clear that he was no longer going to look to the FSB for leadership. Instead, Shoygu and the newly revamped army would lead the way. Notably, when the Russian Security Council met on the eve of the invasion, the army seemed much closer to Putin than his intelligence officials did. After Putin announced his decision to recognize the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the chief of foreign intelligence struggled for words, and the FSB director and the foreign minister acted as if they were automatons following commands. By contrast, Shoygu, having spent much of the past decade building up the military into a powerful political force, sounded confident and ready to lead Russia headlong into battle.
In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, many analysts doubted that Putin would actually launch such a large-scale war of choice. But the militarization of Russian society and the remaking of the military under Shoygu provided Putin with an overwhelming temptation, one that could not be slowed by intelligence misgivings or diplomatic considerations. And now that the assault is violently under way, the full implications of the Kremlin’s new military strategy are becoming clear. Not only is the campaign being shaped by an army that has openly embraced war—the bigger, the better. It is also being led by Shoygu, a man who has so far experienced only successes and who lacks the proper military training to understand that a battlefield victory, no matter how impressive, can sometimes lead to an even larger political defeat.
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