|Putin’s Reformist Government—Will It Work?
|Vladimir Putin first became Russian president in 2000—appointed by then–head of state Boris Yeltsin to succeed him. Last March, Putin was reelected in a landslide—winning over 76 percent of the popular vote (Interfax, March 19). On May 7, he was inaugurated for six more years as president. The same day, Putin reappointed longtime trusted cohort Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister. Medvedev served as Russia’s essentially pro forma president from 2008, but dutifully stepped down in 2012, allowing Putin to legally move back into the Kremlin, circumventing the constitutional restriction forbidding two consecutive presidential terms.
Constitutionally, the prime minister in Russia is also a vice president of sorts, immediately taking over as acting president if the latter cannot execute the duties and responsibilities of the office. That was how Putin became president after Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999. A snap presidential election must be held within three months after a prime minister takes over the Kremlin to confirm him or possibly elect someone else. This constitutional arrangement has made the post of prime minister a hotspot of Byzantium-style intrigue in Moscow. The presidency carries practically unlimited power in Russia, but the boss in the Kremlin could always suddenly be removed and replaced. Medvedev seems to pose a minimum threat by being sufficiently unpopular, shunned for timidly surrendering the presidency without any attempt to run for reelection. Medvedev was promptly confirmed as prime minister by the Duma on May 8, 2018. Putin attended the session and announced the main task of the new cabinet: to realize the special presidential ukaz (directive) signed on May 7, spelling out an ambitious six-year program of social and economic development, or national “breakthrough” as Putin tends to label it. This social and economic “breakthrough” must turn Russia into a modern and rich country with Western standards of life expectancy, education and medicine as well as a thriving economy. The reforms require an investment of some 25 trillion rubles ($410 billion), of which some 8 trillion ($131 billion) is additional expenditure, the source of which must be “found” (Interfax, May 8).
Other cabinet members in Russia are appointed by the president, they do not require parliamentary conformation and cannot be dismissed by the legislature. Under existing law, a new government must be put together a week after the confirmation of a new prime minister, but this did not happen by May 16. Only the revised structure of the new government was decreed by Putin, whereas a full list of cabinet member names was not (Kremlin.ru, May 15). Putin, his administration and Medvedev had months to figure out the new team; they did not need to worry about confirmation hearings or the opinions of a nonexistent opposition or the public, which has no say in matters of state. But still the wrangling has dragged on. Of course, eventually the new cabinet will be installed, but the continuing delays expose apparent deep internal divisions within Putin’s regime. A loose coalition of diverse interest groups seems to be pulling Russia in opposite directions.
The task of leading the planned social development “breakthrough” has been tasked to Tatyana Golikova (52), a former deputy finance minister under then–finance minister Aleksey Kudrin. The latter is apparently the main ideological force behind the proposed radical social, administrative and financial reforms. In the past, Golikova had also served as health minister, Putin’s aide in the Kremlin administration and, until May 17, 2018, as the chair of the Accounts Chamber—a parliamentary budgetary watchdog. Golikova is slated to become a deputy prime minister in charge of the social, medical and educational ministries and departments of government. Even without the cabinet fully formed, the government is planning, this week, to announce a highly unpopular social reform move—to begin substantially increasing the retirement age in Russia, which at present is set at 55 years for females and 60 for males. The retirement age increase has been strongly advocated by Kudrin and his think tank, the Center of Strategic Research (TsSR), which has been writing reform plans for Putin’s present six-year term (see EDM, May 3). The retirement age hike could help streamline the government-run pension system and decrease the need for budgetary pension subsidies, thus freeing money for “breakthrough” reforms (Kommersant, May 17).
The other potential source of additional income for the “breakthrough,” according to Kudrin’s reform plans, is a substantial cut in defense spending. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov (55), another former Kudrin deputy, is being promoted to become first deputy prime minister in the new cabinet while continuing as minister of finance—thus becoming a financial tsar of sorts. Siluanov has openly clashed with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu—the designated leader of the so-called “party of war” in Moscow—attempting to curtail the spending demands of the powerful Russian military-industrial complex. In October 2017, Siluanov, in a public lecture, warned that overextended defense spending, combined with a fall in oil prices, led to the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991. He implied that present-day Russia may suffer comparable “serious consequences” (see EDM, October 26, 2017).
Kudrin has called for a de-escalation of the present confrontation with the West and cuts in defense spending as the only way to kick-start substantial economic growth in a stagnant economy. He has been advocating a substantial one-third cut in the number of state bureaucrats he believes are inefficient and corrupt. Kudrin has accepted Putin’s unofficial offer to take over the Accounts Chamber vacated by Golikova, which may give him an independent capability to oversee administrative, financial and social reforms. The chair of the Accounts Chamber is nominated by the Kremlin out of candidates provided by the Duma (lower house of parliament) and then approved by the lower house. The ruling United Russia faction in the Duma apparently does not agree with any of Kudrin’s reform plans, but can be expected to rubberstamp his appointment anyway, as ordered by Putin (Gazeta.ru, May 14).
The Kudrin-led reformers seem to simultaneously be taking on the impoverished masses by hiking retirement age, the military-industrial complex by defense spending cuts, and the all-powerful bureaucracy. It looks like a cavalier charge doomed for failure. As oil prices inch toward $100 per barrel, the need for painful, but overdue reforms may fade away as state coffers once again overflow with petrodollars. But without systemic economic restructuring, the next unexpected sharp oil price slump could end up knocking down the regime permanently.
Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capability: Training and Procurement
Electronic Warfare (Radioelektronnaya Borba—EW) capability is playing an increasingly prominent role in Russia’s efforts to adopt and integrate Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capacity in order to offer effective means to counter a high-technology adversary. EW has therefore featured in Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and Syria, with lessons drawn from its operational experience in these theaters built into future modernization planning (seeEDM, April 17). Indeed, the recently passed State Armaments Program (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) for 2018–2027, places emphasis upon EW assets as well as developing and further strengthening high-technology precision-strike systems. Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the focus of the GPV to 2027 “on equipping the troops with high-precision air-, land- and sea-based weapons, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], as well as equipping servicemen with the latest reconnaissance, communications and electronic warfare [systems].” EW capability will continue to receive strong state support as military modernization continues (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 11).
Many Russian EW systems have been deployed and tested in Ukraine and Syria. However, unlike in Ukraine, their use in Syria has afforded some opportunity to test these tools and weapons in the context of high-technology opponents. Russian EW systems, for example, use passive tracking to build a database of coalition aircraft. Reportedly, the United States’ AC-130 and the EC-130H Compass Cell EW aircraft have experienced jamming of their communications and GPS. The proof that Russian EW can effectively jam enemy GPS came in January 2018, when EW was used to protect its bases from an attempted UAV swarm attack; the EW and air-defense assets protecting the bases functioned as part of an integrated defense. Moscow has used the operations in Syria to test such systems and as a training mission for its personnel, including its specialist EW troops (Vzglad.ru, April 26).
An important insight into the role of training personnel for EW missions was recently offered in an interview by Colonel Yuriy Gubskov, the chief of the Electronic Warfare Troops’ 1,084th Inter-Branch Training and Combat Employment Center (MTsPBP). Russian military personnel refer to the MTsPBP as the “cradle” of EW. Gubskov noted that Russia’s EW capability can impact on the C4ISR of all foreign states’ militaries. On training, he claimed there is no difficulty in finding suitable personnel to develop as specialists, though he added that the center prepares both conscripts and contract personnel. Each trainee needs to have a basic education before completing courses in the center, though advanced specialist training is targeted to exploit more highly educated contract personnel. Gubskov said, “With respect to mathematicians, physicists and radio technicians, there is a scientific company at the center, the screening into which is conducted from among technical VUZ [higher educational institution] graduates” (Izvestia, April 27).
On the future procurement priorities for the EW Troops, Gubskov asserts that Russia’s EW systems are qualitatively changing: “They are becoming more mobile, highly intelligent, and automated. A gradual transition is occurring from narrowly specialized to multifunction complexes, which permit the disruption of the functioning of various types of electronic systems—radars, radio communications, navigation and others. The development of information technologies and their use in electronic warfare hardware permits us to talk about the possibility of the development of robot complexes with elements of artificial intelligence in the near term. The new systems will be able to effectively accomplish missions in a complex electronic situation without human participation” (Izvestia, April 27). The EW emphasis in the GPV to 2027, therefore, is likely centered upon automation, mobility, and exploiting AI and robotic complexes.
To illustrate the likely future shape of EW procurement, the EW Troops are set to receive a new strategic-level system this year known as Divnomorye. Designed to jam enemy radars and satellites, Divnomorye seems likely to be the longer-term replacement for the Moskva, Krasukha-2 and Krasukha-4. The new system suppresses on-board radio-electronic systems of aircraft, helicopters and UAVs and can also interfere with satellites and operate at distances of several hundred kilometers (Ura.ru, May 4). Divnomorye can simultaneously serve as a high-technology command post, radio-technical intelligence station, as well as a powerful means of suppression against enemy targets. These functions were previously conducted by the Moskva, Krasukha-2 and Krasukha-4, meaning that the advance marked by the introduction of the Divnomorye lies in integrating these functions (Izvestia, May 4).
Additional reported features of the Divnomorye are worth noting. It will act as a protective shield for command posts, troops and valuable critical infrastructure; the complex will be able to offer resistance to enemy ground and airborne detection capacity in order to afford an additional layer of force protection (Ren.tv, May 4). The new complex is mounted on one vehicle on an all-terrain chassis, making it highly mobile and increasing the difficulty for enemy forces to detect and locate this asset. It can be activated within minutes of arriving in a designated area; and after carrying out its EW tasks, it will leave the area. Assuming the system lives up to its reported potential, this marks a step forward in Russian EW capability: fewer numbers of personnel are required for its operational use, it can suppress a wide range of targets, and it is able to act autonomously and with high mobility (Topwar.ru, May 4).
Since the reform of Russia’s Armed Forces initiated in the fall of 2008, significant advances have been made in building a credible EW capability, including force restructuring, training and procurement. Based on how these systems function in operational environments, it seems EW procurement priorities are switching toward greater automation and mobility. The latter point is invaluable, since EW was an important feature of the strategic exercise Zapad 2017. During that exercise, teams on opposing “hypothetical” sides rehearsed jamming each other and conducting operations in an EW-contested battlespace. Some foreign specialists noted that the Russian units had effectively “jammed themselves.” Nonetheless, the example of mobility denoted by Divnomorye may suggest that such systems would only briefly come into play at decisive moments in any kinetic exchange between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some of these EW jamming systems would target enemy C4ISR for brief periods, to disrupt and confuse, in order to minimize impact on Russian forces in the theater of operations. As a result, as the military modernization continues in the GPV to 2027, it seems that shift will be away from platform-based approaches to warfare and toward further development of stand-off capabilities. A high premium will be placed upon force multipliers and forces enablers, with EW set to further benefit.
Kremlin’s Increasing Reliance on Cossacks Reflects Weaknesses of Russian State
Few recent events have alarmed Russian society as much as the on May 5 Cossack whip (nagaika) attacks in Moscow on street demonstrators who had been organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The incident had obvious echoes of the tsarist government’s use of Cossacks to suppress demonstrators and attack Jews and other minority groups. But in addition, it illustrated the threat such irregular forces inevitably pose to civil society, allowing the Kremlin to utilize them to carry out tasks it does not want to take responsibility for and then to disown those groups if it comes under too much criticism (Graniru.org, May 7; Vedomosti, May 6).
In fact, this Russian government use of Cossacks is nothing new. Moscow has been employing nominally Cossack units in the North Caucasus to back up the local police for at least four years. And they are being utilized across the country both to provide security as well as to perform other government tasks such as fighting fires in Siberia. The latter has proven particularly important after Moscow stripped that region of much of its fire-fighting capacity in order to send planes and personnel to cities that will soon be hosting the World Cup (Ekho Moskvy, May 10;Sibreal.org, May 12; and Newsru.com, May 13).
Yet, it seems the Kremlin has crossed a Rubicon of sorts by using Cossacks to attack protesters in Moscow. Many Russian liberals in the past had approved the use of Cossacks outside the capital but are now expressing outrage that they are being deployed against their fellow residents of Russia’s largest city. Of course, their incense inadvertently underscores how socially removed Muscovites are from the rest of the Russian Federation (Kasparov.ru,Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 13).
Some opposition figures are talking about this in apocalyptic terms: One commentator, for example, described the Cossacks used on May 5 as “bandits” and declared that “when a state gives power” to such people, it is “doomed” to failure and collapse (Afterempire.info, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 7). Such hyperbolic language is unlikely to be appropriate for the immediate future, but there are three reasons why Moscow’s use of Cossacks highlights the weakness of the Russian state and threatens to mobilize more Russian citizens, including many Cossacks, against it in various ways:
First, by relying on non-government actors like the Cossacks, Moscow has undermined the principle that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Not only does that raise the possibility that it will eventually lose control of such empowered groups, but it unwittingly encourages others, including those it has attacked, to consider arming themselves to defend against similar attacks in the future (Kasparov.ru, May 13). That raises the specter of clashes between various factions in the streets of Russian cities—recalling the street fights between the left and the right in Weimar Germany. Such a possibility is less unlikely than many assume given rising levels of gun ownership in Russia (Svoboda.org, May 15; see EDM, April 11, 2017)
Second, by using Cossacks as its private force of paramilitary enforcers, the Kremlin is unintentionally calling Russians’ attention to something it almost certainly would prefer to keep under wraps: namely, the regime’s coercive resources are not unlimited, and in many cases are insufficient to pursue President Vladimir Putin’s coercive domestic policies. Indeed, despite the expansion of the siloviki (special services personnel) over the last two decades, internal government forces are incapable of responding to all the challenges the state faces if it is going to continue to try to rely on coercion alone. The illusion of total control may further slip if, in response to this display of the regime’s weakness, Moscow’s opponents in the North Caucasus or elsewhere decide that they can act against it with impunity if they come together in large enough numbers. Putin has been fighting those attitudes since 1999: his decision to deploy the Cossacks show how far from victory he remains.
And third, the Kremlin’s use of one group of Cossacks in Moscow has had the effect of highlighting divisions within the broader Cossack community in Russia. In particular, it has led some Cossack factions to demand their own territorial autonomy or even independence as a separate nation. Most discussions about the Russian government’s use of Cossacks on May 5 have treated that group as a single whole. But that is a fundamental mistake. Three distinct sub-groups of Cossacks now exist in the Russian Federation, and each of them further divides in various ways as well. First, are the traditional Cossacks—the descendants of the pre-Soviet Cossack hosts largely destroyed by the Communist system. Then, there are the neo-Cossacks—groups that have taken up Cossack ideas even though they have no clear ties to the pre-1917 tradition. And finally, the third sub-group includes government-organized Cossack organizations like the ones that were deployed in Moscow on May 5. Notably, that latter grouping was led by a “retired” Federal Security Service (FSB) general. The exact size of each of the three sub-groups is in dispute, as there is no good census data. The first has perhaps a million members; the second as many as three million; and the third may number several hundred thousand at most. Relations among them are often hostile, as reactions to the May 5 actions exemplify.
Traditional Cossacks and many of the so-called neo-Cossacks disowned the nagaika attack and insisted, given the government’s failure to do so, on punishing those who took part. In at least one case, the traditional host members gave the Cossacks who attacked the Navalny demonstrators a taste of their own medicine by whipping them as well (Mbk.media, May 7; Kasparov.ru, Sobkorr.ru, May 16; Versia.ru, May 17).
This response is likely to renew demands by traditional Cossack groups that they be recognized as a nation and not “a stratum” of society as the Russian government insists, that their territories in the southern portions of the country be recognized and given autonomy, and, in at least some cases, that Moscow acknowledge their right to seek independence under the principle of national self-determination (Apn.ru, July 3, 2015) For all these reasons, the Kremlin may ultimately rue the day it decided to use Cossacks against demonstrators in Moscow.
Mayoral Campaigns in Moldova’s Two Largest Cities: A Preview of Next Parliamentary Election
This Sunday, May 20, Moldova will hold early mayoral elections in the capital city of Chisinau, the second-largest city of Balti, and five other small localities. The mayoral seats in the two largest cities became vacant after the resignation of Balti mayor Renato Usatii, on February 13, and Chisinau mayor Dorin Chirtoaca three days later (Europalibera.org, February 16). Both municipal heads were facing criminal charges. On May 25, 2017, Chirtoaca was arrested for passive corruption in public procurement, while Usatii was charged, in October 2016, with ordering an assassination attempt on a controversial businessman in London, in March 2012; Usatii evaded arrest by escaping to Moscow (Publika.md, May 25, 2017; Prime.md, September 11, 2017). Both politicians have a questionable track record, but they deny the charges and accuse the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, oligarch Vlad Plahotiuc, of politically motivated prosecutions (Realitatea.md, September 6, 2017; Agora.md, January 24, 2017). These concerns are shared by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Coe.int, October 19, 2017).
Despite, Chirtoaca being pro-European and Usatii being pro-Russian, both men became a problem for Moldova’s most powerful billionaire because they stood in the way of his power consolidation. Chirtoaca’s legal troubles began soon after his Liberal Party left the ruling coalition in disagreement over the change of the electoral system, while Usatii, according to polls from spring of 2016, was the most trusted politician in the country and a front-runner in the presidential race (Inprofunzime.md, April 12, 2016). In fact, the actual killer allegedly hired by Usatii confessed, in an interview on camera from his prison cell in Romania, that Plahotniuc had ordered the assassination in London, not Usatii (JurnalTV, November 2, 2017;Adevarul.md; November 3, 2017). So far, neither Chirtoaca, nor Usatii have been convicted, nor are they likely to find themselves in prison. One could argue that Plahotniuc has already achieved his goal of chasing the two mayors from their positions of power. The next objective is to ensure that the mayors to be elected on May 20 will not challenge Plahotniuc’s authority. According to polls, the top three contenders in the Chisinau mayoral race are pro-Russian Socialist Ion Ceban, Plahotniuc-backed independent Silvia Radu and a pro-European opposition candidate, Andrei Nastase (TV8.md, May 15). Whereas, in Balti, Usatii’s successor, Nicolai Grigorishin (Our Party) is competing against another Socialist, Alexandr Usatii (no relation to the previous mayor, Renato Usatii).
The importance of the mayoral elections, particularly in Chisinau, is hard to overestimate as the capital city comprises a third of the country’s population and almost two thirds of its GDP. The mayor enjoys a national political platform, which historically helped propel the opposition into power. Realizing this risk, Plahontiuc orchestrated an elaborate stratagem to replace Chirtoaca with an unelected acting mayor—Silvia Radu. Benefiting from the administrative resources of the incumbency and the generous free publicity granted by Plahotniuc’s media conglomerate, Radu became a serious contender. In order to shield Radu from Plahotniuc’s toxic image, the ruling Democratic Party insists it has no links to the acting mayor, despite evidence to the contrary. The Democratic Party paid for political advertising promoting Radu, who appointed Plahotniuc’s people to lead key departments in the mayor’s office (Newsmaker.md, April 10; Zdg.md, May 10).
Yet, the front runner is a Socialist member of the City Council and presidential spokesperson Ion Ceban. He can count on the Russian speaking minorities and the older generation nostalgic for the Soviet past. Having almost no competition on the left, the Socialist candidate would win if the election was decided in a single round, as is the case with single-member parliamentary districts, under the controversial new electoral law. Yet, the left has a long history of defeat in Chisinau, and Ceban is likely to lose in the second round either to Silvia Radu or the unified pro-European opposition candidate Andrei Nastase. With a high voter turnout, Nastase would be well positioned to enter the runoffs. Nastase enjoys the support of all three Moldovan political factions belonging to the European People’s Party (a pan-European umbrella grouping, drawing together the continent’s Christian Democrat and center-right political parties). Apart from Nastase’s own Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), he is also backed by the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM) and the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), the most popular political party in the capital region. PAS leader Maia Sandu is vocally campaigning for Nastase, who backed Sandu in the 2016 presidential race. This unity of the pro–European Union center-right parties presents a challenge to Plahotniuc. Akin to Sandu’s 2016 experience, Nastase is being targeted by a massive disinformation campaign, ironically with the same plot of having invited large numbers of Arabs to Moldova. Not just local but also US and European watchdogs have identified it as a deliberate disinformation campaign (DFRLab, May 13;Euvsdisinfo.eu, May 15); but the damage is done.
This avalanche of disinformation spells serious trouble for the pro-EU opposition in the year-end parliamentary elections, which, coupled with questions about the integrity of voters’ lists and rampant use of administrative resources, may cast a shadow over the fairness of the election results, particularly under the controversial new electoral system (see EDM, January 10; Promo-Lex, April 19). The European Union recalled, during the recent Moldova Association Council meeting, “that transparent, inclusive and credible elections at central and local level are of key importance” (Consilium.europa.eu, May 3). The ruling party responded by setting up a legislative working group to address these concerns. Yet, just as the Democratic Party, together with the Party of Socialists, changed the electoral system to their advantage despite vocal criticism from Brussels, if the mayoral campaign is any indication, the parliamentary elections will be fought tooth and nail with little regard for democratic principles and European values.