Why does the Putin regime tolerate its radical conservative critics?
December 15, 2022
  • Jules Sergei Fediunin

    Postdoctoral researcher, EHESS (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales), Paris
Jules Sergei Fediunin explains why Russian warmongers get away with their angry criticism of the course of the war and the army’s poor performance, even though a newly adopted law explicitly bans criticism of the Russian military.
Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial” mobilization and the annexation of four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions signaled the Kremlin’s alignment with the positions of a loose coalition of far-right ideologues, warbloggers (voenkory), veterans of the 2014 Donbas War and individual propagandists. All of them had been calling for months for a large-scale mobilization to win the war, destroy Ukraine, and halt NATO expansion on the battlefield. These conservative and nationalist-minded warmongers, galvanized by military escalation and the killing of Darya Dugina, a fierce backer of Russia’s aggression, have demanded the deployment of every resource (military, human, economic) the Russian state can muster. Their conception of the war implies the involvement of the whole society, as they experience it as an existential crisis.

But it is precisely this type of mass involvement that the Kremlin cannot count on. Many Russians have strongly supported the “special military operation” as long as it was carried out by regular armed forces, reinforced by volunteer battalions and Wagner mercenaries. Even among Putin supporters, anxiety about a new round of mobilization, as well as fatigue from the protracted war, is tangible, while their support seems to be mere lip service and adaptation to the wartime reality. Meanwhile, the morale of Russian troops is low amid the continuing Ukrainian counteroffensive and vague war goals. The “partial” mobilization has already brought the war into the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians, who are called upon to sacrifice their lives. At the same time, a comparable number of potentially mobilizable men left Russia to dodge the mobilization.

Putin and his inner circle are certainly aware of this. Therefore, the Russian leadership keeps a certain distance from illiberal actors who sound more radical than the regime and are often very critical of the Russian military command (if not of Putin himself).
But why does the Kremlin tolerate a broad range of national-imperialist, fundamentalist, ultraconservative and other radical voices instead of inculcating a single 'correct' way of thinking in wartime?
Konstantin Malofeev is known for financing numerous radical right organizations, in particular the Tsargrad TV channel. Source: Wiki Commons
Several related factors – some structural, others situational – help explain the regime’s attitude. 

Is the Kremlin looking for coherent “true teachings?”

Since Putin’s accession to power, official ideological production has remained vague enough to reach different segments of the population. Gradually, two ideological pillars – conservatism and anti-Westernism – became central to the official rhetoric. 

In 2020, conservative values, like patriotism, belief in God and the definition of marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman, were enshrined in the Russian Constitution. Parallel to this, the Kremlin has sought to craft a “state-civilization” based on non-Western/non-liberal values.

In this undertaking, the Putin regime was assisted by para-state actors who already had strong ideological views to share. These include “systemic opposition” parties (like the Communist Party and the LDPR), the Russian Orthodox Church and other “traditional confessions,” and individual actors like “Orthodox businessman” Konstantin Malofeev. The latter is known for financing numerous radical-right organizations, from the Tsargrad TV channel to the Katekhon think tank steeped in mysticism and conspiracy theories.
After the Ukrainian army retook Kherson, philosopher Aleksandr Dugin called for a "people's war.” Source: Wiki Commons
Long before Putin, actors like Alexander Dugin and Natalia Narochnitskaya depicted Western liberalism as inherently “Russophobic” and hostile to Russian national interests. Putin’s stance on Ukraine as an “anti-Russia project” is also inspired by radical nationalist discourse. For instance, Oleg Nemenski, a nationalist pundit and expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), a think tank affiliated with the Presidential Administration, has been claiming for years that the Ukrainian national project is the “negation of Russianness.”

The same pattern characterizes the state-sponsored ideological production after the “special military operation” was launched in February. In addition to recycling tropes of Soviet propaganda (e.g. the association of any expression of Ukrainian nationalism with Nazism), the Putin regime reinforces its image as a guardian of “traditional values” in contrast to the “corrupted” West. In early March, Patriarch Kirill framed the “special operation” as a “holy war” against Western civilization as symbolized by pride parades.

Seven months later, the Duma unanimously passed a law banning “LGBT propaganda” for all ages (on December 5 President Putin signed it into law), on the grounds that “LGBT today is an element of hybrid warfare” against Russia. Meanwhile, Putin accused the West of “Satanism,” which he understands as tolerance of sexual minorities and gender diversity. Finally, the regime has resorted to recycling the Soviet anti-colonial discourse as a weapon against Western “imperialist” hegemony and a soft power tool targeting South America, Africa and Asia.

All these ideological products have been developed by experts close to the Kremlin, like those from the Social Research Expert Institute (EISI). This think tank, affiliated with Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, has been charged with shaping Russia’s “post-war image” to depict the country as a “continent of freedom” for right-wing conservatives. Those experts are also planning to design a college course on Russian “core values” (also called “pentabasis” or “Russian DNA”) and Russia’s resilience against foreign threats. The course would be mandatory for all university students, along with the “patriotic” indoctrination of children.

Despite these ideological “upgrades,” the Putin regime is still hesitant to embrace more radical ideas, like those used by nationalist and conservative vanguards such as the ultraconservative “Front Philosophy” or the Izborsky Club’s apocalyptic “Ideology of Victory,” both of which call for total war against the West.

Overall, the regime has shown itself to be dependent on ever-more conservative and nationalist agendas, which it readily recycles. But in doing so, the Kremlin has not yet managed to craft its own coherent “true teachings.” While excluding pro-Western liberalism from the public space, it didn’t completely suppress ideological diversity – a task that would otherwise be hard to achieve.
"Rather, the regime has sought to maintain control over the nationalist and conservative camps by borrowing from their rhetoric and interacting with the various radical forces – sometimes through repression, sometimes through co-optation."
Separating the “bad” from the “good” (and useful) radicals

The Putin regime has gradually crafted a strategy to separate the “bad” from the “good” radicals. In the 2000s, it tolerated radical nationalist organizations, including the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which capitalized on the rejection of “culturally alien” immigration and mushrooming neo-Nazi skinhead groupings, responsible for murderous attacks targeting “non-Slavic” people across Russia. Moreover, the Kremlin manipulated neo-fascists from Russian Image (Russkii Obraz).

But after the nationalist opposition rally which took place in Moscow in December 2010, the regime hardened its attitude toward these actors and banned their organizations for “extremism.” In the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin launched a new wave of repression targeting radical nationalists. Many of them found themselves behind bars, while others left Russia, mainly for Ukraine, Baltic states and elsewhere in Europe. Overall, the state’s repressive policy has succeeded in forcing most radicals back into the shadows.

Simultaneously, the Putin regime chose to link up with, and rely on, a series of nationalist organizations with “patriotic” (statist) overtones. These include the abovementioned Izborsky Club, launched in 2012 by Alexander Prokhanov, an advocate of pro-Soviet imperialist nationalism, and the National Liberation Movement (NOD). The latter organization was founded the same year by United Russia Duma Deputy Yevgeny Fedorov with the slogan “Fatherland, Freedom, Putin” and proclaimed its goal to be the liberation of Russia from “US colonial domination.” Numerous actors with diverse ideological orientations – including neo-Eurasianists, fundamentalists and “patriotic” bikers from Alexander Zaldostanov’s Night Wolves club – came together under the common banner of “Anti-Maidan.”

Over the past decade, the Kremlin has reconciled itself with the growing ecosystem of radical and militaristic actors who nevertheless declare their loyalty to the regime. Some, such as the numerous patriotic militias, have benefited from their connections within the state apparatus (especially the military, security and intelligence services). Others, such as ideologists around the Izborsky Club, have been financed by the authorities.
Igor Strelkov, an army veteran, gained high popularity for his role in the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. A fierce warmonger, he has harshly criticized the incompetence of the Russian military in the current war in Ukraine. Source: Wiki Commons
How the Kremlin benefits from radical criticism

These complex relations have suited the Putin regime in a few ways. First, the loyal but partially autonomous radical actors have provided ideological content that has contributed to renewing the regime’s repertoire of legitimacy against a backdrop of economic stagnation and President Putin’s protracted rule. The role of this ideological content has increased considerably in wartime since it helps generate the “rally-’round-the-flag” effect while explaining to Russians why this war is worth fighting.

All pro-Putin nationalist organizations have enthusiastically supported Putin’s decision to wage war against Ukraine and actively participated in justifying the war inside Russia. Some surviving opposition nationalists – including groups like the neo-Nazi-inspired Rusich and individual actors like Igor Strelkov, the most famous separatist warlord from the 2014 Donbas War – have gone back to fight in eastern Ukraine.
"The Putin administration keeps a handle on what it wants to incorporate into its official rhetoric and how to use it. In other words, the final decision belongs to the administration’s clerks, not to the ideologists and propagandists."
That is why the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti could green-light the publication of a paper containing an incitement to genocide against Ukrainians, while the state-directed RT banned one of its top propagandists and warmongers, Anton Krasovsky, after he called for Ukrainian children to be burned alive. 

Second, the presence of radical para-state actors in the public space has helped the Putin regime to present itself as still relatively “moderate.” In the past, the increasingly authoritarian and illiberal regime could be viewed by the West and in Russian liberal circles as a bulwark against extremist forces who could rise to power.

Since 2014, Western opinion is no longer relevant to the Kremlin. However, the current stability of the Putin regime, but also its capacity to channel the pro-war illiberal minority’s maximalism, can be taken seriously by Ukraine’s Western supporters. According to some accounts, the Biden administration has privately encouraged President Zelensky’s office to drop its public refusal to negotiate with Putin. Western leaders’ (growing) readiness to negotiate with Putin is also attested by French President Macron’s statements about “security guarantees” for Russia. 

Third, the radical para-state critics arguably help to reach an internet audience that is mostly loyal to the regime but also interested in hearing critical voices, and not (only) state TV propaganda. In this regard, the role of Russia’s very popular voenkory is particularly significant, since the audience of Telegram channels has doubled from 9% in February to 18% in September 2022, according to Levada Center polls. 

While these Russian warmongers express their deep dissatisfaction with limited Kremlin escalation and the Russian Ministry of Defense’s lack of organization, they don’t target Putin as the commander in chief. One exception is Igor Strelkov, though in October he went to the frontline as a unit commander and remained silent for several weeks, before re-emerging as a critic of the Russian military command in early December. Anyways, no pro-war opinion leaders have been censored under the law banning criticism of the Russian military, unlike the opposition media and those who participated in anti-war and anti-mobilization protests.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has recently evolved as a leading figure of Russian radicalism. As a financier of the state-backed Wagner Group, he has been recruiting people in prison who are used as cannon fodder and subject to torturous punishments and executions. According to some reports, Prigozhin may consider launching a “patriotic” movement that would continue cultivating a thirst for revenge and target “disloyal” Russian elites, though not Putin.
"Therein lies the main benefit to the regime of radical criticism. Rather than suppressing it, Putin resorts to the age-old 'good tsar-bad boyar' tradition."
The latter allows him to transfer the responsibility from himself to those tasked with implementing his decisions, i.e. the general staff, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and finally governors, who are in charge of mobilizing recruits and enforcing new restrictive measures. In case his power is threatened, Putin may sacrifice “unpatriotic” elites, making them a scapegoat to be made an example of.


Against this backdrop, the Kremlin would have much more to lose than gain if it decided to suppress the “accepted” radicals, even when they show their dissatisfaction with the Russian army’s failures in Ukraine. Indeed, the Russian retreat from the annexed Ukrainian city of Kherson was particularly badly received. Dugin even accused the Presidential Administration of being afraid of committing to the “Russian Idea” and urged Putin (whom he calls, in a positive sense, “the autocrat”) to do so immediately.
At the same time, the regime is still reluctant to embrace the maximalist agenda of those advocating an all-out “patriotic” war. Putin’s reluctance seems to come not only from the growing social and economic costs of the war, but also from the fear that mass nationalist mobilization may threaten the regime’s stability.

In 2014, the Putin regime ignored calls by ultranationalists to annex eastern Ukraine and cracked down on vocal nationalist activists. Today, the stakes are much higher. Russia is openly acting as an aggressor state, and its belligerence contributes to reshaping the global order. But if the regime remains stable and maintains control over its security services, it hardly needs to fear the threat from the radicals. The question, however, remains: how long will Putin and his associates be able to maintain Russia’s “power vertical” and the loyalty of the population during their increasingly bloody war?
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