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Through pandemic to war

Putin created new federal coordination bodies, headed by Mishustin and Sobyanin. What will this lead to? Analysis from Tatiana Stanovaya

Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of R.Politik

Mikhail Mishustin, Vladimir Putin, and Sergey Sobyanin. Photo: EPA

The original read was first featured in the biweekly bulletin by R.Politik. Follow this link to view the full bulletin. Novaya-Europe thanks its colleagues for allowing us to publish the part of this bulletin on our website with only minor reductions.

Last week Putin ordered the creation of a coordination centre, to be headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The President also asked Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who heads the State Council working group on state and municipal government, to work jointly with the presidential administration and to oversee the implementation of the special measures in the regions, which are connected to the war reasons. Putin tasked Sobyanin with establishing interaction between regional and federal authorities.

The situation closely resembles that which Russia experienced at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. That March, Putin similarly ordered the formation of a government Covid-19 response centre headed by Mishustin, and tasked Sobyanin with coordinating anti-virus measures alongside the regions as the head of a special working group in the State Council. Putin viewed this experience as a success — and thus decided to adapt this existing system to his new needs during the war rather than invent a completely new one.

Siloviki, led by civilians 

The coordination centre was formed by Putin on 21 October. Mishustin has two deputies — his right-hand man Dmitry Grigorenko as well as Denis Manturov, both deputy prime ministers. Manturov will be responsible for the supply of weapons and military equipment, as well as communications equipment for specific Ministry of Defence tasks. Grigorenko will oversee the regulatory and financial framework, while compiling informational reports.

Manturov, who is also Minister of Trade and Industry, has de facto become a second figure in the Cabinet, overshadowing Andrey Belousov. The latter, who was Mishustin’s deputy in the anti-pandemic coordination centre, has not even been included this time. The new coordination centre includes more of the siloviki, which is logical — Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and Aleksander Linets, the head of the President’s Main Directorate of Special Programs (an indirect descendant (Rus) of the KGB's 15th directorate, which oversaw government bunkers, underground facilities and crisis management in the event of a military attack). Others, such as the heads of the FSB, Emergency Situations Ministry, SVR, Interior Ministry and Rosgvardia, had also been in the anti-pandemic centre.

There are several particularities here.

First, the key powers have been handed to civil authorities, not the siloviki: Mishustin and Sobyanin at the federal level and the governors at the regional level. This is despite the fact that the new security measures primarily concern the interests of the military and security agencies. It seems especially bizarre as both Mishustin and Sobyanin have been so far notably discreet about the “special military operation”.

Some observers considered them to be representatives of a “latent” “party of peace” — their lack of vocal backing for the military operation laying the grounds to suspect them of opposing the war. Such a vision is biassed and political — both Mishustin and Sobyanin are loyal and dedicated Putin yes-men but who, unlike Dmitry Medvedev or Andrey Turchak for example, prefer to avoid political posturing and remain discreet. This is not because they are anti-war, but because it contains fewer inherent political risks (escalatory moves would be harmful for their realms of responsibility) and it helps them to maintain a more comfortable position. This method simply appears safer to them.

Second, similarly to Russia's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, any measures may be introduced on a situational basis, depending on security risks and military needs. The siloviki and military bodies, who are interested in more severe measures and tighter control over decision-making, will retain the initiative. The main intrigue here is whether Mishustin’s coordination centre will be politically strong enough to oblige the siloviki and militaries and secure their endorsement.

The pandemic experience showed that neither the Covid-19 Coordination Centre nor Sobyanin’s working group played a decisive role in the introduction of anti-Covid measures. Most of the initiative came from consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor and regional governors themselves. Hence, Putin’s decrees may create a situation where siloviki and militaries would simply bypass federal bodies to deal with regional authorities directly. The latter are much less politically protected (with some caveats regarding Sobyanin and Kadyrov) and will have to submit.

Sobyanin caught in the crossfire

While the governors played the role of “bad cops” during the pandemic — introducing restrictions to decrease pressure on the health system and coercing the public to get vaccinated (pushing highly unpopular decisions) — they are a priori interested in being “good cops” this time around. Military needs are not their basic priority and they have to care about social and political outcomes.

It is not surprising that the heads of regions with “medium response” and “high alert” regimes have declared that they have no plans to introduce further restrictions. Sobyanin, the governors of the Voronezh, Kursk, Krasnodar and Rostov regions, and others have made such assurances. Regional authorities are interested in avoiding social tension and resentment from ordinary Russians. This means that if the situation demands tighter restrictions, it may create tension between the political authorities and the siloviki.

During the pandemic, despite his ambitions and prominent role in the coronavirus response, Sobyanin failed to become a consistent coordinator of the regions. This could happen again in the current circumstances.

Sobyanin's problem is that he has to compete with two centres of influence.

The first one: Mishustin. Unlike Sobyanin, Mishustin has the leverage to deal with different regions via the ministries’ regional offices. The working group that Sobyanin heads in the State Council has no real power and may only offer its recommendations. Many of Sobyanin’s ideas during the pandemic were rejected. In the “military” coordination centre, Sobyanin is mentioned as a member under a specific agreement — he will be invited if Mishustin deems it appropriate — while in the pandemic coordination centre, Sobyanin was Mishustin’s first deputy.

The second centre of influence is the presidential administration, specifically the domestic policy overseers who displease Sobyanin. Moscow is a city with significant political autonomy and domestic policy overseers have very few chances to interfere in its affairs.

Furthermore, as domestic policy overseers manage the State Council, then in terms of structural organisation, Sobyanin’s working group depends on Putin’s staff. Make no mistake — Sobyanin will not be allowed to use the State Council as a platform to boost his political standing at the federal level. Finally, many governors are jealous of Moscow’s financial and economic possibilities and possess a degree of anti-Moscow sentiment.

Partial and full-scale martial law is being introduced according to the interests of the military and the siloviki. However, Putin has opted to let new initiatives be shaped by the mechanisms handed to the civil authorities: Mishustin, Sobyanin and the governors. Indirectly, this may signal Putin’s concerns that the siloviki could gain too much power, unbalancing the “vertical” and leading to negative political outcomes. Now, the Defence ministry or the FSB must agree whatever ideas that they may have with the governors and the Cabinet. However, the problem with the current management scheme is that all these coordination centres and working groups ultimately create fractures within the authorities, provoking more competition between Mishustin and Sobyanin, Sobyanin and domestic policy overseers, Sobyanin and the governors, the civil authorities and military/siloviki, to name a few.

This may give the latter more room for manoeuvre while making state policy more chaotic and inconsistent — and less surveilled by the presidential administration. The implementation of partial mobilisation shows that in reality, such disintegration means divided responsibilities, which lead to local abuses of power, overreactions and violations of the law.

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