Nikolai Petrov’s weekly bulletin
January 23-27, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
Russia.Post is launching a new format – weekly bulletins by Nikolai Petrov. A short summary of the most important political developments will be published on our website at the end of the week.
The last full week of January in Russian politics was rich and diverse in terms of events. The reshuffling of top generals continued. The Kremlin stepped up its propaganda and preparations for elections both this year and next (when the presidential election will be). The government prepared for a meeting with Putin on developing domestic tourism, talked about its success in housing and construction, and was actively engaged in the regional agenda. The Federation Council gave an account of what it accomplished last year, while the Duma was busy dismantling the remaining elements of deputy accountability to citizens. The repressive machine was in full swing, hounding Navalny and shutting down the last cells of civil society independent of the government (the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Sakharov Center, Meduza).

Let's take a closer look at two important stories from this spectrum: the army reshuffle and the regions.

High-level army reshuffle continues. Recall that the moves began two weeks earlier with the appointment of Valery Gerasimov as commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine. On January 23, Colonel-General Sergei Kuzovlev was moved from the Western Military District, where he was commander for just over a month, to command the Southern Military District (MD), where until recently he had been the first deputy commander. He succeeds General Alexander Dvornikov, who at one time was considered a favorite of Putin and who commanded the joint grouping before General of the Army Sergei Surovikin replaced him. Nothing has been heard about Surovikin lately. The two appointments of Kuzovlev within six weeks might look like confusion, though there could be some strategic calculation behind them: in the Western MD and on the territory of Belarus, more than a 100,000 mobilized men were trained in September-October; it seems that they will be attached to the Southern MD for the offensive that, according to many indications, is currently being planned.

Is a new mobilization, or a new wave of the previous mobilization, to take place soon? The answer seems to be yes. Besides the above mentioned moves, preparations for another round of mobilization seem to be underway. First, the Duma is currently considering amendments to legislation that would require people crossing the border by car to pre-book a date and time. Second, a unified information system with the data necessary to update military registration documents is being created. Recall that Putin ordered such a system for military registration and enlistment offices back in November, with a deadline of April – just in time for the end of a potential spring offensive.

Regions in focus. Observers periodically discuss the prospect of Russia's disintegration, though serious experts believe that the Russian authorities still have enough flexibility and resources to maintain full control over the regions and solve specific problems if and when they arise. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to look at how the interaction between the center and the regions takes place on a day-to-day basis.

Last week, the government continued to focus on the regions, both generally and through the deputy prime ministers in charge of regional groupings. In particular, it was the four annexed Ukrainian regions that are being integrated into Russia – above all, the Donbas “people's republics” (the entire government has been engaged, while the Kremlin is involved in planning elections on these territories) – the Far East consisting of 10 regions (overseen by Yuri Trutnev), North Ossetia-Alania (Alexander Novak and Denis Manturov), Kirov Region (Dmitri Chernyshenko) and Tver Region (Denis Manturov).

Putin held meetings with two regional heads – Tatarstan’s Rustam Minnikhanov on January 23 and Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov on January 24.

The report of the veteran Minnikhanov, who has been in charge of Tatarstan since 2010, is interesting mostly because of what he prioritized. First of all, it was Ukraine and the “special military operation,” the city of Lysychansk sponsored by Tatarstan and the two volunteer battalions from Tatarstan. Demography, the economy, digitalization, the social sphere, roads and the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group were also discussed. (The group, something like the Valdai Discussion Club for the Islamic world, was launched by Mintimer Shaimiev and Yevgeny Primakov in 2006, though it did not meet in 2009-14 due to the Arab Spring before being restarted in 2014 by Minnikhanov.)

Note that the meeting was the last one Minnikhanov was attending as president of Tatarstan: the ten-year struggle with the federal center over the status ended when in three readings all at once, the State Council of Tatarstan adopted amendments to the republic’s constitution whereby the new name of the republic’s highest official is “Head – Rais of the Republic of Tatarstan.”

Putin’s meeting with the head of Belgorod Region, which borders Ukraine and has had a “medium response level” regime in place since October, was presented on the Kremlin website in much more detail. This is understandable, as it was about ensuring security, while Putin did not fail to mention that Russia’s air defense is “one of the best in the world” and that Russia produces roughly as many air defense missiles as the rest of the world combined. However, more important than the psychotherapy or propaganda was the account of how the border region, which has been constantly under fire lately, is getting along.

First, according to Gladkov, 4,100 people have been mobilized from the region, which represents a much larger percentage of the total number of 300,000 people called up (according to official figures) than the 1% that the Belgorod Region makes up in Russia's population. The region provides “its own” mobilized men with equipment, cash payments and, thanks to the “consciousness” of their employers, wage replacement. Second, the regional authorities have formed a 3,000-strong territorial militia, consisting of seven battalions, from among men who have fighting experience but are not subject to conscription. The militia is trained in and taught tactics and how to handle copters and mines. Volunteer squads have been created in each settlement in the region to help the police keep order, as have volunteer fire brigades. Fortifications are under construction as well.

Gladkov said there are 6,500 internal refugees from near the region’s border who are being housed in Belgorod hotels, sanatoriums and dispensaries. He said business should take the lead on rebuilding houses and apartments destroyed by shelling, but also asked Putin for additional funding. Presidential Administration Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko and presidential adviser Maxim Oreshkin, along with representatives of federal departments, have previously come to the region to address the issue.

As usual, after leading off with bravura and an account of successes, the governor moved on to problems and requests. Doctors and paramedical personnel are leaving the region, with their outflow amounting to 300 people, while social workers are also leaving. Gladkov asked Putin to establish special bonuses in the healthcare and social spheres.

To conclude, last week the trends that took root at the beginning of the year or even earlier continued. However, one can see that the situation will begin to change in the near future, driven by the war in Ukraine.
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