Russian elites, reform, and the West

January 4, 2022

I have made my position on “off ramps” for Putin very clear since the very beginning: there should be none.

But for the Russian elites, the story is more complicated. Putin’s rule depends on internal conflicts among the so-called “Kremlin towers” — that is, among elites organized by various “clans”. Putin’s strength derives from this conflict: he depends on them for the administration of the state and they depend on him balancing among them so that none threatens to become dominant and wipe out the others.

It’s a difficult thing to manage, politically speaking. If the conflict becomes too big, the system is paralyzed because everyone is working at cross-purposes. If the conflict is eliminated, then the elites could replace the ruler.

It is this symbiotic system that the war is threatening. With Russia’s mounting losses, finger-pointing has escalated as well. It has now bubbled to the surface and become more or less official, with media accusing the military of incompetence, the military blaming the mobiki, and the imperialists demanding everyone’s head.

Putin’s problem is that it is impossible to reform the system without destroying it. As the French Crown found out in the 18th century, any reform that threatens the elites would be short-lived even when implemented, reversed at first opportunity to restore privileges, and so on, until the system collapsed. In that case, it was the fiscal exhaustion from supporting America against Britain in the Revolutionary War that provided the final crisis that led to the calling up of the Estates General, but even then the Revolution came as a shock to everyone involved.

The situation is more complicated in Russia since elites do not have truly independence sources of wealth, as every oligarch who crossed Putin individually has been able to discover. On the other hand, being individually stronger than anyone does not magically enable Putin to force the elites to do his bidding collectively. If he tries for wholesale reform, he would provoke an entirely different collective reaction because if there’s anything that will unify the towers, it’s the threat to their privileges.

Putin is also limited in how much he can just blame one of the towers for everything since the attempt to eliminate one would make him even more dependent on the remaining ones. It does no good to throw the Generals under the bus only to find oneself at the mercy of the FSB tower. He can’t easily replace the leadership of any of these clans either, no matter how grossly incompetent it proves itself to be.

The imperialists can scream themselves hoarse on social media, but the reality is that there can be no meaningful reform of the Russian system without destroying it, and nobody would countenance that. This is good news for Ukraine though, because it means that Russia will not be able to “learn” and improve in the war. I mean, learning is definitely happening, and locally commanders have already done many things to fix earlier mistakes. But the reform does not “travel up” the chain, and lies, misinformation, and obfuscation still appear to be the only things that get stovepiped to the Kremlin. Nobody wants to admit mistakes, and Putin might not be especially keen on learning about some mistakes since they would require him to act, and on some matters he clearly prefers not to.

The implication for us is to somehow avoid forcing the towers to coordinate with Putin. If it appears to them that the West would punish Russia wholesale if Putin loses the war, then they would have no choice but throw in their lots with him. This would be their only way to preserve their wealth and privilege, and damned be the lives lost in the process. And when they coordinate so, it would not be to replace Putin — what would be the point in that? — it would be to help him avoid defeat.

This is then another reason we should shelve all talk about destroying the Russian Federation. (The other being that I do not think it would happen anyway, not anytime soon.) While the war does not affect the elites directly — and it does not, not yet anyway — and while they have some hope of a postwar future that looks a lot like their prewar one (at least to them, again, not the country in general), then there is no pressing need to empower Putin. This is because doing so is fraught with danger — he might become a real dictator like Stalin rather than the simulacrum of one that he is now. It is this fear that we should be nurturing rather than replacing it with a different one, the fear of the consequences of defeat.

This is not pleasant, of course. It is these very elites that have contributed to the organization of the system that produced this war. They deserve their just punishment.

But I would rather that some of them retain their yachts than tens of thousands die so the world can have the satisfaction of seeing them at The Hague.

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