What was cut out of the transcript from Putin’s meeting with the government?
January 17, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
Nikolai Petrov analyzes a recent meeting with senior government officials in which Putin lost his cool and some discussions were left off the transcript. The backdrop for the meeting was the deteriorating fiscal backdrop and the reshuffle in the command of the Russian military grouping in Ukraine.
President Putin at a videoconference with Cabinet members, January 11, 2023. Source: Youtube
The New Year holiday in Russia did not drag on this year. Without waiting for the Old New Year, Putin reshuffled the command of the military operation in Ukraine and held a meeting with the government.

Discussing the 2023 outlook with senior officials

On January 11, Putin held the first meeting of the new year with government officials via videoconference. It would have looked rather routine if not for two things: first, comments by Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy Tatyana Golikova were not included in the transcript, nor was the discussion of social support for Russians or the organization of cash payments in the four recently annexed regions, despite the fact that at the beginning of the meeting (this remained in the transcript) Putin named this the main issue for discussion; second, Putin squabbled with Deputy Prime Minister for the Defense and Space Industry Denis Manturov about orders for defense enterprises not being given.

The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and the deputy prime ministers – with the exception of First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov – as well as the economic development and finance ministers, who regularly attend such meetings. Also in attendance were the ministers of transport, science and higher education, culture, health, and labor and social welfare, in addition to the head of Russian Railways.

The plan for the meeting looked rather straightforward: Putin outlined six main areas of work for 2023, invited Manturov to speak first and report on the implementation of the long-term programs to update the aircraft and watercraft fleets, and then proceeded to discuss the main areas of work he had outlined.

Later, during the meeting, Putin asked Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak about the situation in the oil and gas sector. Right before, Bloomberg, citing estimates of Finland’s Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, wrote that the price cap on Russian oil is costing Russia $172 million a day, while after the cap is extended to refined products on February 5, the losses will increase to $280 million a day.

Novak took the tack of the socialist realist artist in the Soviet joke who painted a portrait of the one-eyed and one-armed tsar in profile from his normal side. He said that though there are difficulties, companies are not complaining about the high discount on Russian oil, and one can hope that it will be temporary and gradually decrease. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov struck a similar tone.

Minister of Transport Vitaly Savelyev and Russian Railways President Oleg Belozerov reported on the building of new logistics corridors; Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Policy Marat Khusnullin on the development of road and other infrastructure; and Siluanov on strengthening financial sovereignty.

At the beginning of the meeting, Putin gave a numbered list of the issues that were to be discussed. The three speakers mentioned above were to speak on the first, second and fourth issues, respectively. The third issue was expanding the technological capabilities of the Russian economy, for which the absent Belousov is responsible. 
"The issues that Putin named but are missing (were cut out) from the transcript include growth in real wages and incomes of households and a further reduction in poverty and inequality, as well as addressing urgent demographic problems and increasing the availability of modern and high-quality healthcare."
Putin – in front of whom, besides the A8 cards with his own talking points, lay (as far as one could see in the video posted on the Kremlin website) a program with the abstracts of all the speeches – was visibly nervous from the very start. He circled some things and wrote something in the program, and played with a paper clip.

Putin's agitation came out during the speech of Manturov, the least professional of the deputy prime ministers, who nevertheless is known for his ability to please Putin with his reports. After listening to his bravura report, Putin asked about the letter from the governor of St Petersburg and the head of the company that produces the Meteor hydrofoil boats addressed to Putin that he had forwarded to Manturov. In addition, referring to information received directly from directors of enterprises, Putin said that some still did not have state orders, even for the current year. The generic words uttered by Manturov in response did not satisfy Putin, nor did Manturov’s promise to do everything possible during the quarter. He suggested that Manturov “not play the fool” and demanded that everything be done within a month. Manturov, who at first came up with “we will try to do everything possible with the colleagues from the economic bloc,” was forced after a minute to reply in the military way “yes, sir!”

While in his opening remarks Putin spoke a lot about the need to accelerate the integration of the four annexed regions of Ukraine into the Russian socio-economic space, the issue was barely elaborated on during the meeting. Golikova, whose remarks are missing from the transcript, seems to have spoken about this. In any case, at the very end, Putin mentioned the need for additional support for medical workers in the “new territories” to Golikova.

The current situation in which the transcript completely lacks large fragments of the discussion of issues that Putin had designated as the main ones on the agenda looks extremely unusual. The most likely of the possible explanations is the following: it had been planned to announce that the government’s existing social commitments would be maintained or even expanded further; however, with the budget deficit soaring in recent weeks, the government’s ability to deliver on such promises looked questionable at best – this became obvious during the actual meeting, and the corresponding discussion could not be made public.

In the form published by the Kremlin, the meeting generally looked like psychotherapy for both the government and Putin, as well as for interested citizens who might be curious enough to watch a new report on TV about the meeting.
"Meanwhile, two negative factors will largely determine the economic dynamics of 2023: the first, already visible at the end of 2022 and now intensifying, is the sharp deterioration in the fiscal situation; the second is the moving of industry onto a war footing"
which is difficult to realize and wrecks all the previous plans for import substitution and to strengthen the country’s “technological sovereignty.” These two problems converged in Manturov’s update about the production of aircraft and watercraft, as he cited a lack of sufficient capacity and technology to support import substitution in the civilian sector, and the need to work for the war.

Putin's agitation at the meeting with government leaders may also have been attributable to the important decision announced immediately after to reshuffle the entire command of the military operation in Ukraine.
Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff. Source: Wiki Commons
Will a new command mean a new war?

On January 11, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov had been appointed the new commander of the Joint Grouping of Russian Forces in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin, who had led the grouping since October, will become one of Gerasimov's three deputies and remain commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces. The other two deputies appointed were Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Alexei Kim. A day before, General Alexander Lapin – a tank man, like Gerasimov, and his younger comrade and protégé – had been appointed Chief of Staff of the Ground Forces. 

The responses to and expectations from the reshuffle have varied widely. The highest assessment of Gerasimov was given by Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny, who said that Gerasimov was a top strategist and that he had learned from Gerasimov while referring to Surovikin as a “goon” [derzhimorda] reminiscent of commanders from Peter the Great’s time.

Thus, the war in Ukraine appears to be entering a new phase. The previous one, in which hostilities unfolded more along the lines of the Syrian war – a combination of massive air strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure with fierce battles on the ground fought by “Prigozhin's army” – did not bring success, except for the capture of the small town of Soledar, which has a symbolic rather than operational/tactical value. The Russian army will not be able to keep up the same tactics now, if only because of its missile stocks are depleted. 

However, an additional 150,000 men who were mobilized in September-October, having gone through military training and unit cohesion, can now be thrown into a winter offensive. It seems that it was General Lapin who oversaw their training – the mobilization of reserves is the responsibility of the chief of staff of the ground forces at least.
"It seems that Putin, like Stalin in 1941, following a series of defeats, has decided that the war should be led by professional soldiers, and for the first time since last February, he has entrusted them with complete command and strategic planning."
The best case for Putin would entail a breakthrough; at the very least, he needs to ensure that the Ukrainian part of the Donbas is captured and that the Russian army’s positions in southern Ukraine are secure as the war definitively turns into a positional stalemate. 

Whether it will work is a big question. Nonetheless, it is clear that the losses of the Russian army in Ukraine are due to both objective and subjective factors. The appointment of the experienced Gerasimov, who is an authoritative figure within the military, could improve subjective factors like discipline, strategic planning, one-man command, and coordination between military units and military branches. It, however, will not turn the war from one of aggression into one of liberation or solve the problems with the low morale of the Russian army, its provisioning or weapons.
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