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.