The gradual disintegration of central authority in Russia continues

I wrote about the astonishing attack (so far, verbal only, but still very public) by a regional governor (Kadyrov), two private citizens (Prigozhin and Strelkov) on the top brass of the military, and the subsequent tepid response from the Kremlin (and slightly more combative one from the military).

Kadyrov can afford to talk like that because of his private army (unswervingly loyal to Putin as long as Kadyrov wills it) and because of his position in Chechnya, where he is nominally a regional governor but where he sure looks like an independent ruler being paid, handsomely, by Moscow to keep the Caucasus quiet.

Prigozhin can afford to talk like that because of his private army — literally private, in fact — that is also loyal to Putin as long as Prigozhin is, and which has been the main attacking force in Ukraine.

Strelkov can afford to talk like that because the might of the FSB stands behind him, so he’s really a mouthpiece for the agency rather than some random individual on Telegram.

The common thread in all three, of course, is that they all either have or represent organizations that have coercive powers delegated to them by the Kremlin. In other words, Putin does not have exclusive control over the instruments of coercion in Russia, and — this is more important — whatever control he has had, is slipping due to the exigencies of the war in Ukraine.

As usual in these circumstances, as the government gets itself in trouble in times of war, it starts casting about for ways to fund the continuing war effort. This almost invariably requires the devolution of central powers to those elites who are able and willing to provide the necessary support. Since these elites are not usually after money in these situations (because financial concessions can be quickly withdrawn afterwards and wealth accumulation — reversed), elites tend to seek more permanent guarantees to whatever privileges they manage to amass during the moment of weakness for the central government. And so, the government has to offer permanent concessions, exemptions, and rights — that is, it has to devolve some of its powers to these elites.

The worse the situation on the front is, the more desperate the government becomes for support, and the more willing it is to allow individuals to privatize its authority.

This process, already well underway in Russia, is accelerating. Take, for instance, the announcement the government made just yesterday. The new regulation allows the “executive subjects of the Russian Federation” and “organs of local self-governance and municipal organizations” to purchase goods, including dual-use goods, drones, communications equipment, electronics, night-vision apparatuses, and so on by using their budgets. These purchases must be upon request of the Ministry of Defense.

Although the press release is telling you how the government permitted such purchases, implying that this was something the “executive subjects” were itching to do but were prevented from doing by prior legislation, the reality is that government is forcing them to use their budgets to satisfy the needs of the Ministry of Defense. In other words, the central government, finding itself incapable of financing the war though its budget, unloaded the problem on the regional and municipal authorities, and told them to do whatever is necessary to provide the military with what it needs. Since these budgets are fixed, spending on military items will significantly eat into expenditure on other goods and services. The federal government has devolved some of its fiscal responsibilities and forced others to make the painful choices.

This will also have predictable effects. Some places would be loath to make the necessary cuts to accommodate these demands, and so resistance to the continuation of the war will increase. Others may want to do it but will quickly find that the cuts are deeply unpopular locally, which will put them in a very uncomfortable position having to mediate between “external” demands and “internal” disturbances. Yet others might be quite willing to do it but in some cases (e.g., Chechnya), the local leaders might develop property rights over whatever it is that they are buying.

In all cases, the regions are strengthened at the expense of the center — a classic case of a ruler in dire straits making concessions to relevant elites to keep the war going but in the process losing control of the state apparatus. Rights and privileges given like that are quite difficult to claw back after the war is over, and attempts to do so usually lead to open conflict that the ruler might not be able to win. Expecting that they might not be able to subdue elites with entrenched privileges, the ruler might not even try, which in turn contributes to the longevity of these devolution arrangements.

The Russian Empire, due to its internal weakness, seems to be undergoing precisely this sort of devolution of authority. The centrifugal forces this unleashes may well topple to ruler in the Kremlin even though he was the one who started it all.

2 thoughts on “The gradual disintegration of central authority in Russia continues

  1. Thanks once again Dr. Slantchev for your incision. I have found these recent postings incredibly helpful for clarifying where this thing is likely headed.

    What would you say to someone who argued: Putin isn’t really being pushed around and respected less by people who represent the coercive organs. Rather, he’s just a clever theatrician who understands that if things keep going wrong, appearing to be pushed around by advisers can serve as evidence in support of an alibi. He still has total mastery, he just wants to open up space for an “if only the Tsar knew!” defence by appearing a weaker and more consensus-bound leader than he actually is.


    1. Hi. I would say that this isn’t likely to work. Feigning weakness — a subject I happen to have written about albeit in a different context — is very difficult to pull off. In the context of Russian power politics, weakness is fatal. They have a great expression, a quote from Kippling actually, “Akela missed”, which means you are only as good as your last shot. The moment they conclude that Putin has missed, he’s toast. His best shot now is to side with some factions and throw the blame on someone. It looks like the someone will be the military high command.

      Liked by 1 person

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