The War is Less Important than Keeping the Regime Going
June 12, 2024
  • Ekaterina Schulmann

    Political scientist
  • Ilya Davlyatchin

Political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann explains what the Kremlin’s main goal is, as well as what the recent government reshuffle was about. She also shares her outlook for the war in Ukraine.
The original interview in Russian was published on Tochka. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.

Do you think the recent government reshuffle is primarily related to the war?

My impression is just the opposite. I have been following these bureaucratic moves with interest, as they very clearly illustrate the principles by which an authoritarian political regime operates. An autocracy is concerned with maintaining power, everything else is secondary.

No conquests can be the goal. The goal is maintaining power. To maintain power, it is important that the interest groups that make up an authoritarian political machine are balanced among themselves, that no one becomes too powerful, that no one completely displaces everyone else and that no one group defeats all the others.

Among other challenges that autocracies deal with – assuming it is not a military junta (and in Russia it is not) – there is preventing the emergence of political agency in the army. The army, generally speaking, is an entity that is dangerous for personalist autocracies, which are statistically more likely to fall victim to intra-elite coups than, for example, mass protests.And for an intra-elite coup, of course, you need arms.

For almost the entire post-Soviet and indeed the entire Putin period, military men have not been ministers of defense, and public activity on the part of the military has been suppressed. Moreover, the military men who became public politicians have suffered early and hard-to-explain deaths.

In the third year of the war, the regime is still successfully preventing the emergence of any and all popular military leaders.

[Historically] the victorious become the favorites of the troops, and later or at the same time become the favorites of the nation. This is a clear and repeated pattern. [Yet] nothing like that is happening here.

Moreover, in the midst of what appears to be a Russian offensive, not only is the defense minister changed, but also a fairly broad and high-level repression is being carried out at the Ministry of Defense.
In other words, we see that the offensive is not the most important thing, that there are more important things – like, saving money allocated from the budget.
Or weakening the group that previously defeated, dismembered and swallowed another group – Wagner – and became too bloated.

At the same time, having removed an unpopular minister, you must make sure the new one will not become popular, even for a minute. That, in fact, would be natural: if the army did not love his predecessor, then it will be ready to love almost anyone, simply because it is someone else.

But this must not be allowed to happen, so it was not enough that a civilian was appointed to head the armed forces, but he was given the mission of cleaning the Augean stable and punishing graft. This means it will be hard, maybe impossible, to love him.

This is what actually occupies the authoritarian government, not other things that are usually attributed to it. If you see this core, everything else becomes quite transparent.

Sergei Shoigu, the old defense minister (2012-24) who managed the army amid steadily increasing defense expenditures. Source: Wiki Commons
Is it true then that Putin has no real military goals, like winning real victories at the front, strengthening supply lines and so on?

If the new minister of defense does what he knows how to do, i.e., reorganize production and economic processes, not command troops, then the results, if he is successful, will appear and be visible in the next 3-5 years.

This is exactly the kind of reform or “reorganization” of processes (in Russia they do not like the word “reform”) that in the short term leads to chaos, as it tears down what was more or less working and establishes something new. But in the medium term, it can lead to cost optimization, less graft and improved supply lines.

If in five years we get an army that does not depend on supplies from abroad and where not so much is stolen, then theoretically it will be capable of fighting a big war. It is worth taking into account demographic waves, in particular: now, we have a minimal number of young people, but after some time, when the “maternity capital kids” born in 2006-16 grow up, there will be a bit more of them.

But no one knows what will happen in three years or five years. In the immediate future, the replacement of the defense minister, simultaneously combined with arrests and talk of imminent arrests within the Ministry of Defense, of course, will not make it easier to coordinate work.

Let me remind you of one more indicator, more or less public, by which one can judge how the Russian leadership sees the immediate future in the defense sphere. Against the backdrop of the appointment of the new defense minister, both the president’s press secretary and the president himself talk quite a lot about how high our military expenditures are and how they are basically reaching late-Soviet levels. The upshot being that we should spend this money wisely.
Andrei Belousov, the new defense minister (May 2024-) tasked with making the army more efficient. Source: Wiki Commons
So, in the budget for 2024 we see a significant increase in both expenditures and revenues. The year 2024 is a fiscal anomaly, in comparison with 2023 and 2025.

If we look at the budget planning of the Ministry of Finance (which, of course, is notional), we see that after 2024, expenditures and revenues of the federal budget as a whole, including defense spending, should return to levels seen in 2022 and 2023. This year is set to be a “one-off.”

When this budget was being considered in the Duma, we said that the Ministry of Finance was sending a message: there is money for your geopolitical ambitions, but only for a year, and after that it is better for us to let some air out and [bring the budget back] to a more appropriate size.
In this light, the appointment of a defense minister [like Belousov] looks quite logical. Simply put, the previous leadership was good for the fatyears, but now, for the lean years ahead, we need new people.
So, Putin does not actually harbor ambitions to get to Kyiv and install, say, Medvedchuk there in the near term?

It’s difficult for me to comment on military matters. Neither I nor you know what anyone’s intentions are, but we see actions, and they reflect a certain logic. We see that no one is making a career directly on the war. We see that no military man is allowed to gain popularity anywhere.

Especially considering that our leadership, generally speaking, comes from the KGB, and the KGB and the army have always been institutions hostile to each other. So, you can talk about military brotherhood and generally praise “our guys” who are doing “heroic work,” but under no circumstances should [military men] be allowed into power.

Does the leadership want Medvedchuk to rule in Kyiv? It probably does. But even more than that it wants to rule in Moscow. This is the main thing. Everything else is either an obstacle or a tool for maintaining power. If something gets in the way, it will be thrown to the side. If something helps or at least does not interfere, then it can stay. A victorious army is a political problem for the country’s leadership.

You mentioned a big war in the next 3-5 years. So, they do not exclude the possibility that they will have to wage war with a more powerful enemy?

To recognize the logic, we need to see what the new minister will do. But if the issue of resources was identified as the main and most significant one, this means that the idea of the country as a “bottomless barrel,” with plenty of everything – people, money and production capacity – is for the masses, while inside there is concern about the supply of resources.

If the new minister is successful in solving this conglomerate of problems, then, indeed, in the next 3-5 years we may get a more fine-tuned and effective, in a broad sense, military machine. Whether it will be needed for a war, or by that time there will be no one to fight, or the international situation will change so much that it will cease to be relevant, we cannot know.

But how [the new defense minister] will cope with the need to rebuild an extremely stagnant, conservative machine remains to be seen.

I insist on my thesis that these personnel changes will cause chaos in the short term but might boost effectiveness in the medium term.
Evacuation from a flooded area. Orenburg Region. April 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
Do people in the system even think about the citizens when governors are changed, or do they not care about them at all?

That’s a great question. To be honest, I do not see any connection between the mood on the ground and the career prospects of governors. There were big problems with flooding in Orenburg Region (political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov wrote about the official response for Russia.Post here). Kurgan Region saw the same thing and continues to. The governors there were left in place.
It was not the outperforming governors who were recently promoted to Moscow.
The promotions included a governor who had been Putin’s bodyguard, a governor who is married to Putin’s niece and a governor who is the son of Putin’s doctor (see political scientist Nikolai Petrov’s take on this and the reshuffle in general on Russia.Post).

When Wagner was still a political factor, I followed two governors: Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, who refused to have anything to do with Wagner, and Kursk Governor Roman Starovoyt, who, on the contrary, was very friendly with them and hosted their training facility. Wagner is no longer there, [Evgeny] Prigozhin is gone too, but Starovoyt has been promoted.

The country is watching two figures: Nikolai Patrushev and Dmitri Medvedev. Patrushev is now in charge of shipbuilding, and Medvedev is a particularly interesting story because he is now in charge of the same thing as Shoigu, and they are both on the Security Council. What does this balancing of players tell us?

Patrushev, having taken over the Security Council in 2008 as secretary, whose powers were not so clear, made it a post similar to the secretary for ideology in the CPSU Central Committee, and in this capacity he was sinister, powerful and influential. He prepared strategic documents, those development strategies based on which legislative acts were then developed – federal laws and by-laws.

The fundamental power of the Security Council rested on two things: firstly, that its permanent members met once a week and met with the president, and secondly, that the Security Council apparatus prepared strategic programs and concepts.

Later, in the preamble of all laws introduced by the government we saw references to these strategies. These were documents defining policies in various areas. Will the new secretary of the Security Council take on these functions or will he come up with others? Or will [the Security Council] wither and start gathering dust? We had periods in the development of the Security Council when it really was a settling tank for retirees.
To understand who is the boss and who is not quite the boss, you need to look at who controls what resources.
Map of the war in Ukraine as of June 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
Medvedev’s example shows us what can be done without resources. Here is a person who only has a telephone, internet access and a Telegram channel. With this he has managed to create something like a political niche. As we see, he is alive, vigorous and being quoted. Not in a pre-trial detention center, which is also possible.

The appointment of Sergei Shoigu as secretary of the Security Council is a certain guarantee that he will not be arrested. Detaining and arresting the secretary of the Security Council would mean that sedition, treason, cowardice and deceit had crept very close to the sovereign, and that would be improper.

Note that only one of the “presidential” security ministers was replaced… In fact, we see changes at the Ministry of Defense and on the Security Council. That is it, in fact, and the rest is of little significance. There was talk that the minister of foreign affairs would be replaced, that the minister of digital development wanted out. In the financial and economic bloc, in the end, not a single hair fell from anyone’s head, nothing moved.

Such conservative therapy has one effect: if you stick to your guns, then you win. This also applies to Medvedev. Nothing new was given to him, but nothing was taken away either. With other people you see what bad things can happen, but everything is OK with him.

I would like to clarify one thing: do I understand correctly that this war is needed not as a way to achieve something or conquer some territory, but just as another way for Putin to remain in power?

Yes, this is my position, and I have held it from the very beginning. It is based on political science. I have not seen anything yet that would refute it.

Recall how more than two years ago, when the war began, there was a lot of talk that we had incorrectly assessed our system of power as a kleptocracy. Wait a second, they say, it turns out that the main thing for [the regime] is not money – they are ready to sacrifice money for an idea. Almost three years have passed. Please tell me who sacrificed what money? Everyone has become incredibly rich. This means that the kleptocracy is still the same as it was.

I continue to think that they started the war by mistake, based on incorrect information. This happens with autocracies: an information bubble forms, they live in it, they encourage loyalty over competence, good news is brought to the boss and he thinks that now is the right time to do Crimea 2.0, only even bigger and better, with a mighty strike on foreign territory.

When this did not work out, they got stuck in a war that turned out to be much bigger and much more expensive than expected, but they have managed to survive in these conditions. Now, after two years of this war, they are thinking about how not to spend too much money on it and how to avoid strengthening the army in wartime.

If, so as not to waste unnecessary financial and political resources that they themselves need, and to prevent the army from getting too powerful, the war needs to be wound down, believe me, it will be wound down.
I definitely do not share the view of many observers linking victory in the war with the survival of the regime or, conversely, defeat in the war with the death of the regime.
These are not directly related things. The concept of victory and defeat is extremely blurred in the information age.

If you control the public space, you can sell literally anything as a victory. What defeat might mean is also unclear.

We have seen how brilliantly the system is able to shift public attention. Russians will be happy to forget about the war.

The war ceased to be popular by the end of 2023. Most Russians are waiting for it to end, but they want that end to be comfortable for them. Let’s put it like this: the end should be better for them than if the war keeps dragging on. That’s it.
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