The limits of Kremlinology

As I struggle to complete an article about Russia’s objectives in Ukraine, one of the problems I confront is that we have only a slight understanding of how decisions are made in the Kremlin. British academic Richard Sakwa comments that Russia has a dual power structure: on the one hand, there are the formal institutions of the state; and on the other hand, there are the informal contacts and mechanisms through which many decisions are actually made. To a certain extent, this is true of all states, but the division between the two structures is probably wider in Russia than in most Western countries, and because the informal system is hidden from sight we have only the faintest idea what is going on.

To make up for this deficiency of knowledge, analysts resort to a modern form of Cold War style ‘Kremlinology’ – that is to say, they draw sweeping conclusions from little facts which they think reveal something about the goings on behind the scenes.

Last week, for instance, police raided the apartment of Egor Prosvirnin, editor of the nationalist Russian website Sputnik i Pogrom. As Anatoly Karlin explains, Prosvirin has been a fervent supporter of the rebellion in Donbass. He is also vehemently ‘anti-Putin’ and has repeatedly claimed that Putin is preparing to betray the rebels. The raid on his apartment can thus be seen as proof that the Kremlin is clamping down on the rebellion’s supporters within Russia. This in turn can be interpreted as showing that Prosvirnin is correct – that the Russian government is distancing itself from the rebels and preparing to abandon them. As Karlin says,

If that is indeed the plan, to decisively close up the Novorossiya project, try to make amends with the junta, and hope they and the Western ‘partners’ forget and forgive Crimea, this is pretty much what I’d be doing in Putin’s place: Harassing and seizing the computers of Novorossiya supporters, using that to build criminal cases against them, discrediting them in the media, and sending them off to prison.

But then again, Karlin admits, the ‘likeliest scenario is that both Prosvirnin and I are overanalyzing things, that the case against Egor is just what it says on the tin (alleged hate speech in one of SiP’s articles), and that nothing particularly radical is happening.’ In other words, the event doesn’t actually tell us anything about the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine at all.

Here we confront an immediate problem with Kremlinology – it rests on the assumption that the Kremlin is behind everything which happens, and that even small events thus contain hidden truths about state policy. But this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes an investigation into hate speech is just an investigation into hate speech – nothing more.

Another problem with Kremlinology is revealed by a different case which caused some excitement a couple of weeks ago: the dismissal of the speaker of the parliament of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Andrei Purgin, and his replacement by Denis Pushilin. Some Russian nationalists view Pushilin as the stooge of important Kremlin functionary Vladislav Surkov, who supposedly leads the ‘doves’ within the Russian government. For instance, former rebel commander Igor Strelkov claims that ‘Pushilin fulfills all Surkov’s instructions’, while Surkov himself is allegedly doing all he can to stab the rebellion in the back and betray it to the Ukrainian government. For Strelkov, Purgin’s ouster is proof that the Russian government is preparing to sell the DPR down the river.

New York University’s Mark Galeotti has a different explanation. He links the event to a shifting power balance in the Kremlin between Surkov and Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin. According to Galeotti, the Purgin story:

may also thus signal not just a change in policy but also another swing of the pendulum as authority for the ‘Donbas adventure’ is exchanged between the more straightforward and bullish Volodin and the more subtle, if sometimes too smart for his own good Surkov. … I suspect we are seeing another step towards the ‘Transniestrianisation’ of the Donbas.

Here we see the second problem with Kremlinology: the facts being analyzed are so scanty that the same event can be interpreted in entirely different ways – in this case, either as evidence that the Kremlin is preparing to surrender the rebels to the Ukrainian government, or as evidence that the Kremlin is preparing for ‘Transniestrianisation’, which is a very different outcome. And neither may be right. The Purgin-Pushilin story may just be another example of the apparently interminable power struggles within the Ukrainian rebellion, and have nothing to do with Moscow at all.

Kremlinology is like reading tea leaves. Its value as an analytical tool is very limited. But, given the lack of transparency in Russian government, we are probably stuck with it. We wish to understand events, and so clutch at whatever fragments of information we happen to find which might help us to do so. I don’t propose that we abandon Kremlinology entirely. But analysts (including myself) need to be rather less categorical than they often are, and should be clearer in separating fact and opinion in their analyses, while also highlighting just how speculative the opinions actually are. The reality is that we don’t actually know what is going on.

8 thoughts on “The limits of Kremlinology”

  1. I am trying to stay out of Kremlinology (because there are too many “unknown unknowns” and basically “guess” on the following assumptions:

    -Putin is a rational operator
    -Putin likes having choices, and explicitly views the quantity and quality of the choices available to him as a pretty good proxy for his actual “power”.
    -Putin wishes to maximize his/Russias power.

    I am a theoretical biophysicist by training, my thesis was partly on evolutionary tradeoffs, and I think a Kremlinology avoiding way of reading the situation is too place yourself in his shoes, consider all options available and value their respective drawbacks and benefits, as in, tell me the tradeoffs as they are perceived and I can guess what they will do.

    Strategically speaking, they dont have too many distinct options, so it is easiest to simply assess each of those and prepare for them.

    Concerning options, Putin preparing the groundwork for an option does not mean that this is the option he is going to take.

    I could well picture that, in a behind close doors meeting, some technocrat Kremlin officials will present western counterparts with a list of the “hotheads” they have meanwhile removed, and then ask while “hotheads” on Kievs side who are far more aggressive are still in power. The big thing here is that reigning in his right is far easier for Putin then for Poroshenko (because he is weak) or for the west (because they lack local knowledge or believe their own propaganda about Euromaidan). The second big thing is that we are talking about some harassments, or perhaps a pretty judicial imprisonment or two, on the Russian side.
    Reigning in Right Sector and other Freikorps will be considerable amounts of bloodshed.

    Should Putin be capable of moving the conflict in Ukraine into a “who can reign in his hotheads better” competition, this would be a playing field were Russia is far superior.


  2. Dear Paul:
    I think your main point is über-valid, namely that Kremlinology is, in and of itself, a completely mystical pseudo-science, like astrology. I don’t mean that what happens inside secret meetings in Kremlin is “unknowable”; in theory, it would be knowable; but is rather “unknown”.
    As for the Donbass rebels, I am betting money that they go the “Transnistria” way. Not because I know anything, but just that way seems more logical to me. (After following Abkhazian politics for several agonizing years.)
    A rule of thumb is: Russia readily betrays individuals, but does not betray GROUPS of individuals, once those groups show some real gumption.


    1. The fact that the DPR and LPR have announced local elections which are to be held according to their own laws not Ukrainian law, suggests that the much heralded ‘betrayal’ of the rebels by Moscow is indeed unlikely.


    2. “A rule of thumb is: Russia readily betrays individuals, but does not…”

      Ha, but have you followed the story of Mr Eston Kohver? An Estonian officer, he was captured somewhere near Russian-Estonian border, convicted of espionage, sentenced to 16 years in prison. Some say (and rather convincingly) that the whole thing was engineered by the Russian intelligence services.

      A few days ago Mr. Kohver was exchanged for Mr. Dressen, convicted (before the Kohver affair) as a Russian spy in Estonia, sentenced to 16 years.

      Seems like a rather complex and costly operation (if that’s what it was, and it seems likely) to rescue just one individual, Mr. Dressen…


  3. In fairness to myself, I would note that in that piece is full of “mays”, “ifs” and “coulds”, while even that final opinion of mine that you quote was prefaced by an “I suspect.” If you want to use my post as a case study of why analysts “should be clearer in separating fact and opinion in their analyses, while also highlighting just how speculative the opinions actually are” I’d be grateful if you could specifically note how within it I _don’t_ do that.


    1. Mark, the point about analysts having to be clearer about the speculative nature of their comments was a general one, not one directed against your piece specifically. (And I will confess to having been guilty of over-categorical statements myself on occasion, so in part this was an exercise in self-criticism.) My point in quoting your article was just to contrast it with a different conclusion about the same subject to illustrate how the same thing could be interpreted in entirely different ways. I am sorry if this was not clear.


  4. Well, the extreme case was, of course, all those wild speculations some months ago, of Putin being removed from power, or kidnapped, or killed, or god knows what else – when he wasn’t on TV for about a week or so. Also, I’ve seen a bunch of Kiev’s media announcements that he’s terminally ill and has a few weeks left to live.

    But seriously, I don’t see how “betraying the rebels” would be possible without a massive unpredictable reaction inside Russia.

    I don’t know, maybe decisions in Russia are indeed made via informal contacts and mechanisms – though, I’d argue, to a lesser extent than, say, in the US, with 100,000 lobbyists, spending $10 billion annually – but these mechanisms can only steer the ship of state a little bit, within narrow boundaries. Unless they want to risk wrecking it. But why would they want to do that?


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