Протестующий с плакатом, призывающим освободить Алексея Навального; Sergei Korneev, CC-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protester_on_the_pro-navalny_action.jpg

This is a summary of the discussion at the most recent of the online Russia Hybrid Seminar Series (RHSS) webinars held on 16 March 2021 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The speakers were Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence/UCL/RUSI and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, and the discussion was moderated by Graeme Herd of the GCMC

RHSS#3 Summary:


The questions pursued in RHSS#3 presentations and subsequent discussion were inter alia: Have protests reshaped the political calculus of the presidential administration and the ‘securitocracy’’s attitudes to the use of force within? How might the management of protests ahead of the September Duma elections change, as protest shifts from a ‘battle of maneuver’ to a ‘battle for position’? Does internal instability have a foreign policy consequences?

Late Putinism – the nature of the state

Putin came to power in 1999-2000 and assumed a legal-rational (‘dictatorship of the rule of law’) legitimation of his political authority.  By 2011-2012, a shift was underway, from legal-rational to historical-charismatic (“No Putin, no Russia”) legitimation.  By 2020-21, Putin legitimizes his political authority increasingly through national-patriotic mobilization and coercion, and Putin presides over a fully-fledged authoritarian regime and police state.  Core characteristics of the regime include:

  • an absence of a rotation of power and the presence of an imperial bureaucracy and enlarged military and security service sector;
  • a lack of any liberal or democratic impulses or even an authoritarian modernization project, i.e. late Putinism lacks a vision of the future;
  • a marketing of external and internal threats to bind a passive, conformist, indifferent and apathetic majority of the population to the state to legitimise the regime and keep it safe;
  • the all pervasive presence of the state which manifests itself by praetorian guard capitalism, an economy marked by a low dynamic, reflecting the lack of a law-based state, high levels of raiding, and a disproportionate allocation of resources for prestige state projects;
  • securitization of the political space and civil society, resulting in generational gaps where the views of active 18-24 year olds on Navalny and ‘foreign agents’ differ from those − more passive and conformist − in their 50s and 60s, but conservatism is a dominant trend in both generations; 
  • shrinking opportunities for change in the name of stability, characteristics include the lack of a positive agenda, which is a problem because repression of the opposition and wider civil society is not the same as mobilizing supporters around a compelling vision of the future.

Civil Society

  • The regime has criminalized not only political, but also civic activity.  As a result, civil society is being politicized, with Navalny a symbol of moral resistance to the regime.
  • A broken social contract and high levels of corruption drive the opposition and animate civil society protest.  Although Levada surveys indicate that 41% of respondents in 2017 wanted radical change and that in 2019 that number had risen to 57%, this indicates a declaration of a desire for change but  not the expectation that change will be forthcoming.
  • The State’s response is to try and make Navalny a person of the past by keeping him incommunicado and arresting team Navalny and other non-systemic opposition soft targets. Calibrated responses by the authorities attempt to manage the situation and prevent a mobilization, hardening and crystallization of the opposition.
  • Pensions and pandemic (but not yet Putin) rather than economic mismanagement elicit a psycho-emotional opposition to the regime. Putin the president remains, in the eyes of “his” majority, the unquestioned symbol of national unity; Putin the politician—i.e., the specific actions that he takes and the officials whom he appoints—is perceived as fallible. Nevertheless, ‘rational conformism’ results in the Putin majority voting for Putin approved candidates.
  • In the upcoming September Duma elections, ‘smart’ voting (direct votes to whichever candidate can beat United Russia) will have the unintended effect of giving the impression of political pluralism in Russia, whereas in fact all systemic opposition parties (and only these parties will be registered) are controlled by the state. 


  • This strata of law enforcement agencies, prosecuting bodies and the security service are not a monolithic bloc but one within which fluid alignments and rivalries proliferate:
    • Institutional factional rivalries exist, for example, between the Interior Ministry and police who resent OMON and the National Guard (NG) – the police resent having had to clean up after NG deployments and having been provided early access to vaccination and preferential equipment; 
    • The temporary alliances are formed.  For example, even alliances forged between NG and FSB, who are in the vanguard of repression, have their limits. An example of this is the FSB’s veto of the NG’s attempts to create its own investigation committee, as this was perceived to encroach on the power of the FSB;
    • The newly appointed first deputy director of the FSB, Sergei Korolev, has a very unsentimental view of those above him in the chain of command.
  • The Orthodox chekist mindset of the securitocracy is one of defensiveness, ever more repressive and non-responsive to public opinion.  The managers of the authoritarian system, including or above all the siloviki, do not fear a radical democratic breakthrough resulting from mass protest, but worry about the accumulated friction and costs imposed on them in their role as managers of stability.  They feel embattled and defensive and so embrace entrenchment. Managers want to hold on to power and money (not just control but continue to own the country’s resources) at all cost.
  • Reforms or any kind of modernization (even economic) are not possible under Putin; any modernization puts in question the very foundations of his system. Only small changes are possible from within with the help of relatively young appointees − technocrats controlled by the siloviki, who formulate real political priorities. As Putin has completed the nationalization of elites, technocrats are beholden to and hostages of Putin. Take, for instance, the example of Sergei Kiriyenko, leader of the political bloc and first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration – he is now bound to Putin for the rest of his career. As a result, an elite conspiracy in the shape of a ‘palace coup’ against Putin is not possible. As the breakup of the FSB would be one of the first reforms in a democratic break-through scenario, Bortnikov, Ivanov and Patrushchev (current and former FSB directors) will resist any regime change until the end.  
  • Disruptive unknowns include regional debt defaults; technological breakthroughs that can undercut Russia’s commodities export business model; and political blunders (such as the Navalny botched Novichok assassination attempt).

Foreign Policy Implications

  • Navalny and protests in Russia undercut Putin’s attempts to ease Lukashenka out of power under the cover of constitutional change and reform. Putin is hostage to his rhetoric on western containment and protest as ‘color revolution’.  Lukashenka instrumentalises this to his advantage (‘we can’t bow to the street and western security service manipulation’).
  • Generally, foreign policy has lost the ability to unify and animate Putin’s majority, but under some scenarios we may see foreign adventurism, especially those involving reactions to perceived external threats:
    • If Kyiv launched a military campaign to retake the Donbas, Moscow would feel it had no option but to punch back and that it could use this opportunity to push further. This would be another example of ‘offensive defensiveness’ in response to a perceived existential challenge to Russian credibility.
    • If the Belarus opposition turned violent Putin could and most likely would intervene militarily.
  • In general, however, there are likely to be only low cost moves useful for public consumption. An example would be Russian anti-piracy operations off the coast of Sudan to demonstrate Russia’s global role. 
  • Russia is not so ‘post-post imperial’ as Dmitry Trenin and Vladimir Frolov have suggested, focused on rational, non-ideological, pragmatic costs/benefits calculations.  Russia is still imperial in outlook. Putin perceives himself as Tsar of Eurasia and seeks to create a quasi-empire out of the non-recognized states on Russia’s periphery.
  • Confrontation with the U.S. is the norm; relations with the EU have deteriorated to a record low and will continue to remain there; and offensive cyber operations as well as active measures will continue.  Offering concessions to Russia in the name of pragmatic and flexible cooperation will not alleviate Russia’s narrative of western encroachment, encirclement and containment. The West does not have to confirm Russia’s claim to Great Power status as it defines it. Russia’s placing of its own interests above the sovereignty of neighboring states is neither aligned with Western national interest nor its democratic norms and values.

Critical Thresholds and Drivers of Change

As Russians are habituated to the circumstances and rules of an authoritarian political regime, a democratic breakthrough precipitated by street protests is highly unlikely.  It is still possible to envisage a more practical and realistic evolution of change – one that can be termed: ‘Medvedev 2.0’, that is, the attempt to achieve  authoritarian, top-down reform efforts, but without Medvedev as the post-Putin president. These could be set in motion by:

  • a realization within the regime that the absence of reforms creates more instability than stability and that, therefore, reform is needed for regime continuity.  Given that the siloviki are rich, cynical, pragmatic and determined to hold onto power, if reform and change is the means through which they think that they will stay in power, then they will go for it.
  • fear of trade-technological dependence on China and loss of strategic autonomy as this would  restore or enhance pride, prestige, status and power. Reform in such a context would be a means to preserves Putinism and resists Xi-ism.
  • intra-elite struggles and factional infighting as the competitive goals of key factions clash: reforms enable a re-division of resources and power.
  • generational developments within the siloviki. The current seniors have very different horizons than the 50-something-year-old colonels who now do the heavy lifting in the system, but still have up to 20 years in active service. These younger mid-level managerial strata are all members of the Russian middle class; enjoy stable incomes and predictable career trajectories.  They have incentives to undertake reform to maintain their consumption habits and status.
  • gradual loss of active support of the population. Reforms could provide safety valves, and new political narrative that can bind Putin’s passive majority to the regime and encourage conformism.  The performative politics involved in anti-corruption show trials, for example, can be the answer to the demand that ‘something must be done’.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Graeme P. Herd and Andrei Kolesnikov) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.