Despite being isolated from the world for his attack on Ukraine, President Putin hardly seems shaken. In fact, he has imposed export bans to counter sanctions placed on Russia. Though some oligarchs have spoken against his invasion, it is too early to say that his support base has eroded substantially. Though there are protests within the country and ordinary Russians are said to oppose the war, the autocratic President’s inner circle, mostly comprised of the Russian elite, holds an entirely different view.
The founder of political analysts, R.Politik, Tatyana Stanovaya, opined that the Russian elite could be seen as technocrats and the siloviki. The former dominates the government but “have no remit to interfere in security matters.” But it is the latter group that "dominates the agenda, fuels Putin’s anxieties, and provokes and escalates tension."
Siloviki, also referred to as “securocrats” by political scientists, are people with a background in the silovye ministerstva or “the ministries of force.” These are people who have served in various security and law enforcement organizations, including the military, the Federal Security Service [FSB], interior troops, police, and others. The bloodless siege of Crimea in 2014 is said to have increased their hold on power and solidified their position as the Kremlin’s inner circle. Like the oligarchs of yore, who had access to the innermost annals of power in Moscow, today, the military-security establishment enjoys Putin’s ear and has a hand in shaping Russian foreign policy.
The siloviki have gained political clout since Putin came to power two decades ago. It is unclear who influences whom. But, the siloviki certainly share President Putin’s views on the lost glory of Russia, and a significant portion of them support his militant plans to restore it.
These powerful men, like Nikolai Patrushev (head of Russia’s security council), Sergei Naryshkin (head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service), Alexander Bortnikov (head of Russia’s FSB), and others in similar positions, subscribe to President Putin’s notion that Russia is a nation that was intentionally held back from progressing after the breakup of the USSR by the West. The powerful elite believe that Russia is constantly under threat from Western powers and must be equipped to defend itself at all times. This belief has spurred them to gear up Russia’s post-cold war rearmament agenda and modernize its forces.
An analytical report based on a prolonged survey supervised by Sharon W. Rivera and William Zimmerman sheds light on the core beliefs of the siloviki. It is easy to draw parallels between Moscow’s actions and the Russian elite’s interests. According to the Survey of Russian Elites, 1993-2020, an overwhelming majority of the siloviki primarily want Russia to become a supreme power respected and feared by the world. A majority also favor increased military spending, believing that being a military power would garner more respect on the international stage than an economic power.
Such thinking amongst his coterie is likely to have encouraged President Putin to pursue a robust and aggressive foreign policy across the board, be it with the erstwhile members of the USSR, Syria, or Africa. The influential men of Moscow rank the President highly for his foreign policy achievements and efforts to restore the motherland’s lost glory.
Unfortunately for some of its immediate neighbors, restoring Russia to its heydays, in President Putin’s view, would mean returning to the fold and surrendering its sovereignty. The attack on Ukraine has heightened tensions in the region, especially among the Baltic States. Probably their best armor against the Russian ruler is their NATO membership.
The notion that the U.S. is a constant threat, to the nation and the government, seems to be entrenched in the psyche of the Russian elite. The eastward expansion of western influence, especially in the U.S., is seen as a menace that must be checked. Desirable partners to pursue growth and modernization are the EU and the Asian giant, China.
President Putin's and, in effect, Moscow's foreign policy trajectory is unlikely to change unless the non-siloviki elite and ordinary citizens who desire economic progress over the military might make their voices heard and step up the pressure. This is no easy task given the regime's hold over the media and its repression of citizen voices. As long as the siloviki offer unwavering support to the President, it is unlikely that this ill-fated invasion of Ukraine will end Putin's reign.
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