Nikolai Petrov’s weekly bulletin
January 30 - February 3, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
A short summary of the most important political developments by Nikolai Petrov.
Almost one year since the start of the war

Late January-early February has been rich in terms of events in Russian domestic politics. Though they might not have been eye-popping, they brought some things into focus.

In his public appearances, Putin looked like an assiduous baron, taking on everything from legal affairs (meeting with Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov on January 31) to the rebuilding of residential infrastructure destroyed by shelling in areas bordering Ukraine (meeting on February 1) to the resettlement of a snow leopard in the Russian Far East (meeting with Sergei Ivanov on February 1). The main event of Putin’s week was a trip to Volgograd, which was again officially renamed Stalingrad, as it is for certain commemorative dates each year (starting in 2013). The reason was the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad on February 2.

The government was busy with day-to-day work: the role of the state in the economy is set to increase (VTB is to be recapitalized; Rostelecom is looking to acquire Megafon); social payments and benefits are being indexed; “social gasification” (hooking up homes to gas) is to be carried out; and support for Far East residents, the radio-electronic industry and IT-specialists was announced. In addition, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin received a detailed brief from Alexei Likhachev, the head of Rosatom, one of Russia’s largest chaebols, which besides its core sphere, also operates the Northern Sea Route, cleans up pollution and manages the Vladivostok port.

The biggest personnel news was the departure of Yuri Averyanov, first deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, as well as the still-unclear replacement for Alexei Kudrin at the Accounts Chamber – first Duma Deputy Speaker Alexander Zhukov was rumored to be the favorite, then Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Dmitri Kozak, and now it is Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko.

The repressive machine kept humming, hitting both the public (publicist Alexander Nevzorov was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for a post about the shelling of the Mariupol maternity hospital) and elites (the former vice president of Russian Railways Mikhail Akulov was arrested).

In news you might have missed, we note the release of The Economist Intelligence Unit Global Democracy Index and the latest Minchenko Consulting Governor Political Survival Ranking. In addition, Rosaviatsiya head Alexander Neradko gave a long interview for the first time since the extensive sanctions against the Russian aviation industry were announced a year ago. The abovementioned rankings deserve a more detailed analysis, to which we will devote one of the following editions; however, in this bulletin, we will focus on the reshuffle at the Security Council and the state of the aviation industry.

Moves at the Security Council

The departure of the 73-year-old Averyanov, officially the second-in-command at the Security Council, drew fresh attention to this institution, which though under the radar, many consider to be very influential. Recall that the Security Council convenes the top Putin elite for weekly meetings with Putin, while its apparatus produces all sorts of initiatives and strategies. However, the idea that it is “Putin’s Politburo” seems like a stretch: recall the infamous February 21 meeting that preluded the war, when Putin forced each member to sign off on recognizing LPR and DPR on camera. The role of the Security Council as an ideological hub, if it was such before the war, has now seemingly been done away with.

The position of secretary of the Security Council – held by Nikolai Patrushev since 2008 – is one that has neither administrative or armed resources, and whose power is based on personal proximity to Putin. Note that Putin himself was secretary of the Security Council for several months in 1999 – he was the only one who had his own armed resources, as he was also the director of the FSB.

Averyanov – practically the same age as Patrushev (already 71 years old), and most of the other members of the Security Council – an army staff general, had been first deputy secretary for 10 years, having replaced FSB General Vladimir Bulavin (who was appointed head of the Customs Service). Averyanov’s replacement has not yet been appointed, though gaps of several months between the resignation of one and the appointment of another figure are not uncommon at the Security Council.
The departure of the elderly Averyanov seems to mean little and say little. However, it could portend the end of the Patrushev era, as he will turn 72 in a few months, or the Security Council permanent member, 70-year-old Sergei Ivanov, who, simultaneously with the departure of Averyanov, had his civil service term extended by a year.

The aviation industry and sanctions

Given the debate about the effectiveness of sanctions, it is useful to look at the situation in Russian aviation, an industry hit by sanctions earlier and harder than others – if not to say killed by them. We can judge by Neradko’s recent interview, as well as the recent presentation of the industry flagship Aeroflot’s strategy.

Sanctions against the industry were announced as soon as late-February 2022, with one of their key elements being the demand to return most long-range Airbuses and Boeings leased by Russian airlines. Other elements included an embargo on spare parts and consumables, as well as the refusal to service aircraft including preventive maintenance and software updates.

The Russian government, of course, did not return the planes – otherwise there would be nothing to fly (the lion’s share of passengers fly on foreign-made planes) – and will never return them, as all sorts of maintenance standards and regulations have been violated. A small part of the leased fleet was managed to be bought out, though that has not helped the problems with maintenance and spare parts.

Half of the heads of major airlines, including those of Aeroflot and its low-cost carrier Pobeda, left either right after February 24 or throughout the year. Some left for ideological reasons, but others had quite pragmatic reasons: their business projects, which before the start of the war had been competitive and very successfully developed, were completely wiped out.

The government plugged the biggest holes facing the industry, and in June adopted a Comprehensive Air Transport Development Program until 2030, which entails replacing the breaking-down Airbuses and Boeings with domestically produced aircraft – with new ones, those not yet existing or existing in small numbers, or modernized Soviet aircraft. Meanwhile, the stocks of many consumables like tires, special oils, anti-icers, etc. have already come to an end and they are looking for ersatz products. There are also no spare parts, and to get them aircraft have been “cannibalized,” which Neradko speaks about in the abovementioned interview as a normal practice used since the Soviet era.

The program, complete with beautiful tables showing how many domestic aircraft will replace Western ones each year, is absolutely unrealistic both in general and in terms of the given timeframes, which is understood by every expert, including those in the government. The only scenario detailed in the program is an optimistic one, which serves as the base line. This is not a strategy at all, or rather one of hoping that the problem takes care of itself.

And it’s not even a lack of money, but the failure of the very concept of “technological sovereignty” as Putin understands it. Import substitution has been hyped up in Russia since 2014 – only it was understood until the start of the war in Ukraine to mean domestic production of finished products, with potential imports of components. Yet no matter how much the authorities talk about the Iranian model, it is impossible to combine a subsistence economy with modern industry.
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