Systems Maketh the Man: How Putin is Building Networks to Outlast Him

More than the man: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his Security Council on 19 October 2022. Image: / CC BY 4.0

By granting broader powers to regional governors and organisations such as the All-Russia People’s Front, Putin is attempting to construct a political system for the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest speech to his Security Council, in which he introduced martial law in the four recently annexed regions of Ukraine, was widely reported in the global media. The most significant takeaways from the speech were not about the war itself, however, but instead related to Russian domestic politics. Putin’s granting of additional powers to his regional governors, and to organisations such as the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), demonstrates the kind of system he is building to execute Russia’s most important policies.

Systems Matter

In his speech, Putin introduced an executive order that gives all regional governors the authority to protect Russia’s critical infrastructure – including nuclear power stations – maintain public order, and boost manufacturing to produce goods for the war effort. Specific headquarters are to be set up to coordinate this, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been tasked with coordinating the governors’ work with Putin’s Presidential Executive Office. This order is important for several reasons.

First, it indicates the importance of systems in Russia. Although the war has rightly returned discussions about Putin’s future to the fore, no less important are the networks and systems that he is trying to build, which are likely to outlast him. Wrapped up in a set of beliefs that include the importance of history, somewhat challenging values, and Orthodox Christianity, the main executive aspects of the system are fulfilled by Russia’s regional governors, who are responsible for the implementation – and often interpretation – of Putin’s plans.

In the past, regional governors were often seen as toothless acolytes, with limited power to affect policy. But since Putin’s resumption of the presidency in 2018, he has placed the burden of the fulfilment of his national projects – 12 priority areas for the Russian economy including health, education and housing – squarely on the regional governors, as well as his Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. These projects have been widely criticised for their vagueness and the difficulty of determining successful outcomes. At a cost of RUB25.7 trillion, the national projects are considered the cornerstone of the Russian economy, and were supposed to be completed by 2024. But in 2020 Putin announced that he had extended the deadline for implementation until 2030; this means that in some parts of Russia residents will be waiting another six years for broadband internet. He blamed the State Council (upon which all regional governors sit) for the delay.

Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, Putin gave the regional governors carte blanche to decide whether or not their regions would enter lockdown, as well as the extent of public restrictions. Putin was reluctant to be the leader to shut down the Russian economy, and left it to the governors to decide whether to close local businesses, being careful never to suggest a nationwide lockdown.

Although the war has rightly returned discussions about Putin’s future to the fore, no less important are the networks and systems that he is trying to build

The same hands-off approach to uncomfortable situations has occurred during the recent mass mobilisation for the war effort. Regional governors are responsible for overseeing the recruitment campaign, and were reprimanded by Putin for their failings. Putin was content to permit Kremlin-friendly media coverage that detailed the failings of military commissariats and governors, as long as it did not criticise him personally – although on occasion the line between criticism of the policy and criticism of Putin has been increasingly blurred.

All of this is not to say that the governors have been accorded greater power – rather, they have greater responsibility. With this responsibility comes the prospect of punishment for executive failings. But the governors are more than just convenient scapegoats for when the system goes wrong. They are also an important link between the president and the people, and a facilitator for other politically important organisations such as the ONF, which was briefly name-checked in Putin’s Security Council speech.

The Cuddly Face of United Russia?

The ONF was established in 2011 as a pseudo-think tank to support Putin’s presidential bid and offer up policy ideas for United Russia – he officially leads the organisation. The ONF’s visibility briefly declined around the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2018 it has seen a resurgence.

In his speech, Putin specified that the ONF would be instructed, alongside the governors, to support families whose men have been mobilised. While this may seem a throwaway point, the ONF has slowly been increasing in power for the past decade, and seems to be positioning itself as a sort of civil society organisation that could one day become an important political party in its own right.

Following the regional governors’ failings, the ONF was tasked in 2020 with helping to coordinate Russia’s national projects, highlighting not only the organisation’s closeness to Putin, but also its growing influence. It has played an increasingly important role acting as the bridge between an unpopular United Russia and the people – it presents itself as a public service and its members are called ‘activists’, creating a veneer of grassroots direct action, even though its activities are expressly approved and often dictated from above. Putin’s request for the ONF to ameliorate the governors’ failings around mobilisation indicates its growing political and security importance, and is likely an attempt to position the organisation as more caring and civic-minded than United Russia, instead of trying to revamp the party itself.

Identifying the politicians rising through the ONF’s ranks may offer clues about what the Russian political system of the next decade might look like

The ONF also has a youth wing in an attempt to encourage younger voters to engage with it, in a country where many people are by choice and conditioning relatively unengaged in politics. This new tactic from United Russia, to encourage some kind of public response to the party, may be part of a quest for legitimacy – after all, United Russia still requires a reasonable turnout for elections. As the recent September regional elections showed, turnout remains a problem: in regions such as Tver it was as low as 12.4%.

The ONF also plays a role in reaching directly into the public domain, and trying to gauge (and feed back to the Kremlin) the public mood across the country. The ONF does occasionally conduct polls to determine the public’s reactions to the government’s performance – as it did during the pandemic – which offer useful data points for the Kremlin and likely impact on some aspects of policymaking. The ONF has also been dealing with the fallout from the mobilisation and presenting itself as the friendlier side of the government. In Yaroslavl, a town close to Moscow, the ONF has established itself as an appeals point for men who were inappropriately called up, such as those with young children or disabilities. In the Ukraine war, the ONF is involved in what Russia refers to as the ‘humanitarian response’ and is often filmed in widely publicised videos handing out aid in the annexed regions.

But aside from civic activism, the ONF is also playing an influential political role in the annexation of the four regions of Ukraine. Senior members of the ONF are thought to have been appointed to work with the Ukrainian public and Russian-appointed leaders, acting as their informal political representatives and as a link to the Russian parliament. This suggests a turn towards more direct policymaking on one of Russia’s most sensitive security issues.

The ONF’s broadening remit means that it is being set up to function in a number of different ways: as a source of voter information gathering; as a public engagement organisation; and as a political mediator. All of these functions could provide the roots of a future political faction in its own right, and identifying the politicians rising through the ONF’s ranks may offer clues about what the Russian political system of the next decade might look like.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Emily Ferris

Senior Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security

International Security

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