Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting with Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok, Russia, April 2019
Sergei Ilnitsky / New York Times

Who will rule Russia when Vladimir Putin is gone? The Russian president recently reignited speculation about his succession plans by proposing a series of constitutional changes, on which parliament will vote next week, and by installing Mikhail Mishustin, a near-anonymous technocrat who for years headed the country’s tax service, as his new prime minister. Some experts predict Putin will step down before his fourth and final term ends in 2024; others insist he aims to create a new position enabling him to evade term limits and rule indefinitely. Everyone wonders whether Mishustin is the cipher he seems or a successor in waiting. Nobody, to say the very least, has any idea.   

One reason so much analysis of Russia’s future reveals so little is that journalists, businesspeople, diplomats, and scholars—myself included—have too often asked the wrong questions. We focus too much on Putin himself, on his personality, his wealth, his approval ratings, his secret schemes. And we pay too little attention to the institutions that today define the Russian state. Putin’s single biggest achievement in two decades in power—his true legacy—has been to reempower the state bureaucracy. He has paid salaries on time, increased budgets, let the government control a larger share of the national economy, and looked the other way as officials abused their power. No part of this bureaucratic apparatus matters more than the national security establishment—the vast, hydra-headed complex of military, intelligence, and law enforcement ministries. These institutions may well determine not only who becomes the next president of Russia but what Russian politics will look like after Putin. 

REVENGE OF THE DEEP STATE

For decades before the communist order collapsed, Soviet officials assured Americans that the military, intelligence, and law enforcement bureaucracies deferred fully to the “civilian” authority of the Communist Party. It may even have been true. But now that a former KGB officer and head of state security has run the country for more than 20 years, that picture of how the system works badly needs updating. 

Consider what would happen if Putin dropped dead tomorrow. The succession process would at first probably follow the constitution, which says that the prime minister—Mishustin, in this case—becomes the acting president. Within 90 days, an election would be held for a new president, to serve a full six-year term. But that is not all that would happen. Soon after taking over as acting president, Mishustin would be on the phone to some of the people whose help he would need to win the election. Among them would be the heads of what Russians call the “power ministries”—the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the recently formed National Guard, and the intelligence and security services. (Mishustin tacitly acknowledged the importance of these institutions in one of his first actions as prime minister—doubling the pay of law enforcement personnel who deal with public disturbances.)  

To anyone who knows Russian history (or who saw The Death of Stalin, the 2017 comedy about the Soviet dictator’s demise and its aftermath), it may seem obvious that the power ministries will play an important role in any succession scenario. From compromising information and behind-the-scenes threats to truncheons and even tanks, they have a lot to offer a new president trying to consolidate power. But their impact reaches far beyond succession itself: how the Russian system evolves after Putin will depend on whether a new president—regardless of who it is—gets these institutions to do what he wants or whether they get him to do what they want. 

Russia’s power ministries have come to form a kind of “deep state”—in the same sense that Turks, Egyptians, and Pakistanis intend when they use that phrase to capture the outsize role that men in uniform play in their countries. Russians rarely speak of the deep state, but they talk all the time about the siloviki, a term some Western experts translate as “guys with guns.” It refers to a network of institutions whose leaders see themselves as responsible for assuring political continuity and social order (as well as their own privileged positions in that order). The siloviki’s institutions operate with considerable autonomy alongside the democratic play-acting of Russian politics. During Putin’s long tenure, these institutions have claimed, both legitimately and corruptly, a growing share of national resources and wealth. And they are almost never overruled by “civilians.” 

Putin has brought the Russian deep state roaring back to life.

Grasping the role of Russia’s deep state has been made more difficult by competing conceptions of what Putinism is all about. We have been too impressed, for example, by its populist features. Putin is often lumped together with demagogic authoritarians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like them, he appeals to religious and cultural traditions and to national identity. But in Russia, these themes are mostly decorative and have little impact on how the country is actually run. The comparison to Erdogan is particularly inapt. From the moment he was elected, Erdogan saw the secular-minded generals of the Turkish deep state as an unacceptable check on his autonomy. Through co-optation, confrontation, and even imprisonment, he has largely broken their power. Putin, by contrast, has brought the Russian deep state roaring back to life.

Putin has further misled us by claiming to have restored top-down management to Russian state institutions—what he calls the “vertical of power.” He wants credit for the sharp contrast between his management style and the bureaucratic disorder and dysfunction that preceded him. But whether or not full vertical control was ever his goal, it is far from certain that he has achieved it. Empowering bureaucrats at all levels of the Russian state has ended up meaning the same thing it has meant for centuries—abundant opportunities to create self-dealing fiefdoms and ignore orders from above. 

Even Putin occasionally acknowledges the limits of his authority. He spent much of his January State of the Union address—the same speech in which he outlined his plan for constitutional reform—complaining that government ministries had failed to spend enough of the funds he allocated for so-called national projects (big-ticket programs to deal with infrastructure, education, digital innovation, and more). The result was a 2019 federal budget surplus of 1.9 percent of GDP—a mind-boggling amount that slowed last year’s economic growth and made Putin understandably angry. He had told the bureaucrats he wanted a big fiscal stimulus. For whatever reason, they didn’t give him one. 

Putin doesn’t generally complain that the siloviki defy him, of course. That would be embarrassing. But we should wonder about the reach of his power—and what it says about the system his successor will attempt to master. Take the dramatic 2015 murder of the well-known opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on a bridge just outside the Kremlin. Chechen thugs were convicted of the crime, but few, in Russia or beyond, believed they were the real masterminds. At no level of Russian law enforcement was there an appetite to go after those who were ultimately responsible.

Was that, as some Western commentators charged, because Putin himself ordered the hit? Perhaps. But it is more likely that the cover-up reflected the uneasy—and far from secret—mutual accommodation between the Moscow police and various criminal organizations, Chechen mafiosi among them. Russia’s police have a complicated and profitable relationship with organized crime, and they don’t want others—not even Putin—butting in. Seen this way, the next Russian president’s job may be less about controlling the vertical of power than about understanding when it and its many horizontal outgrowths are best left alone.

Whether they are using exotic poisons, stealing emails, or assassinating politicians outside his office, the siloviki know Putin has their back.

Similar questions about Putin’s control of the deep state arise from a strange episode in Russia’s intervention in Syria—a story that still has many analysts scratching their heads. In early 2018, a Russian mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group launched an attack on U.S. and Kurdish units in eastern Syria. In so doing, it crossed an established “deconfliction” line that American and Russian military officers had agreed on so as to stay out of each other’s way.  Finding their own troops under attack, U.S. commanders warned their Russian counterparts that they intended to strike back. But even though the Wagner Group had close personal ties to the Kremlin (its leader is nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” and the company had a Russian government contract for its activities in Syria), the Russian military high command did nothing to ease the confrontation. Punishing U.S. airstrikes ensued. By failing to prevent the killing of many Wagner Group mercenaries, Russian military officers sent an unmistakable message: No matter how well connected they are, other people should stay out of our business.

Once the conflicting interests that animate different parts of Russia’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement complex become clear, many Kremlin actions and choices that have been treated as Putin’s own need to be reexamined. In some cases, the president will be fully involved and in control. In others, he may choose a broad direction but let others handle the follow-through. In still other cases, he may know little of deep state doings until they blow up in the headlines.

Is there any way to know which case is which? Can we say, for example, that Putin ordered the attempted 2018 murder in the United Kingdom of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter? Or whether the Defense Ministry alerted him that the new cruise missile it has been testing over the past decade violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? Or exactly how much Putin knew of the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee?   

Clues of various kinds (and sometimes highly classified intelligence) can help to answer these questions, but usually analysts have to settle for mere guesswork. The enormous size and divergent interests of the power ministries enable Russian officials at all levels to pursue their private agendas. Putin, moreover, has shown that he always stands behind his people. They don’t have to worry about getting into trouble just because they don’t get his approval in advance. Whether they are using exotic poisons, stealing emails, or assassinating politicians outside his office, the siloviki know Putin has their back. They will want the same of whoever succeeds him.

THE STRUGGLE AHEAD

This system—solidly in place after two decades of Putin—could make the coming transfer of power turbulent. Unlike the Turkish, Egyptian, or Pakistani version of the deep state, Russia’s version is too divided to have a single leader or spokesman, much less to install its own man in the Kremlin. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president of Egypt in 2013 simply because he was the army’s senior officer. Russia’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement complex has no senior officer. Yet its pluralism also makes it hard to subdue. Especially under a new president—likely to be weaker than Putin—many different institutions will be able to defend both their turf and the policy control that makes that turf so valuable. 

Competition among elements of the deep state could, in an extreme case, turn violent. But even if the struggle stays peaceful, the price Russia’s next leader will have to pay for the siloviki’s support could be steep. The power ministries may want expanded autonomy, bigger budgets, perhaps even a greater say on issues beyond their existing domains. Mishustin surely knows that his pay increase for riot police won’t be the last inducement he offers the power ministries.

There is a warning in all of this for whoever becomes Russia’s next president. Taking on the deep state will be difficult, but failing to do so will mean accepting strict limits on presidential authority. In dealing with this dilemma, Putin’s successor will have several broad options. He could accept, at least at first, what the power ministries ask of him. He could try to play different institutions against each other in an effort to carve out more autonomy for himself. Or he could pursue some version of the bargain Putin proposed to Russia’s leading oligarchs soon after he became president in 2000: I’ll let you run your businesses, you let me run the country.

A final option would be to challenge the deep state and try to cut it down to size. This approach would be the boldest, the riskiest, and probably the most tumultuous. But it can’t be ruled out. Although deep states last a long time, they are not eternal. Periodically, they fall prey to domestic power struggles, losing their legitimacy, sense of purpose, and autonomy. (Just ask Erdogan’s generals.) 

A less personalized, more institutionally focused public assessment of how the Russian system works won’t just provide a better indication of what the future holds; it can be part of the United States’ policy response. By obsessing so much about Putin himself—who has, alas, usually been the most popular part of his own system—all of us have made it easier for him to persuade his public that Western governments and societies are incorrigibly hostile to their country. If that is what ordinary Russians believe, they will be even less likely to turn against the deep state, even though it is among the least popular—and most predatory—components of Putinism. Only if our objections to Russian policy are taken more seriously by Russians themselves can they help spark the internal debate that will be needed for an eventual change of course. To do that, we need to start with a cool assessment of Russia’s institutions, one that its own citizens can recognize and that speaks to their own concerns. 

  • STEPHEN SESTANOVICH is George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
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