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Putin is considered a strong president. Probably, many Duma members who voted for war-related laws did so because Putin wanted them to. But even strong people may be influenced by others.

Are there "strongmen" (or strongwomen) in Russia, such as: politicians, oligarchs, military officers, etc., who have an interest in the war in Ukraine, and who -

  • Pushed Putin towards invading Ukraine?
  • Push Putin now towards continuing the war?
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It's going to be incredibly difficult to disentangle exactly what went into this piece of decision-making.

You have basically have 3 different models to look at:

  • "Yes men", with the top leader having pliant underlings who meekly go along. Putin making decisions solo and imposing them onto others. The oft-reported episode of his spy chief getting told to "speak plainly" plays into that view. Note however that by its nature, a position like Putin's, or any singular leader (as opposed to explicit group leadership), slots neatly into that role: a leader is expected to lead.

  • "Eminence grise", or the "ones really pulling the strings" where there is the power behind the throne who "influence"/"convince"/"make the decisions". That's one possible way to take this question.

  • "Group think", where a small group of like-minded people exhaustively dissect the options, all the while ignoring the input of people holding different opinions. That's the other role for strongpeople ... with who have an interest in the war in this question.

Now, let's take the US's invasion of Iraq in 2003. All 3 are candidates, having been cited by different people at different times:

  • Bush goes to war because Saddam went after daddy. Everyone else goes along.
  • Cheney was the one who was the biggest, most forceful, hawk and imposed the decisions on the rest.
  • The Bush team, while not intellectually lightweight, was incredibly cohesive in their worldview, from Condoleezza Rice to Rumsfeld to Cheney... The only one with a diverging outlook was Colin Powell and he got sidelined.

Twenty years after the war, it is still hard, with the degree of transparency found in POTUS archives and the publication of numerous books, to disentangle how the decision to invade was arrived at.

It's probably not Bush imposing on others, at least outside the bounds expected of POTUS leading, and it's probably more group think than Cheney pulling the strings, but...

Attempts to do this in real time in 2022 with Putin, from openly available sources are just going to reflect the biases and hypothesis of whoever writes up the analysis.

That said, we can look at some things we do know:

  • This playbook has been in play since 2008, when Russia backed separatists in Georgia, so whatever is influencing Putin is not new. So it can't be solely due to new guys. The Russians in country X are getting mistreated and therefore justify our interfering in that country is old, old, old. In fact, as old as Estonia in 2007.

  • A number of his close cronies are from his St. Petersburg days. These are people who were pulled up by him. They are more likely to be "yes men" or participants in a "group think" phenomenon than pulling the strings. One of them was Naryshkin, Mr. Public-Dress-Down.

The armed forces can't be too influential or else they would have told Putin not to invade with troops that had only been told to prep for an invasion the day before. That's basic military 101:

Mr Putin's initial military plan looked like something devised by a KGB officer, one Western intelligence official explains.

It had been created, they say, by a tight "conspiratorial cabal" with an emphasis on secrecy. But the result was chaos. Russian military commanders were not ready and some soldiers went over the border without knowing what they were doing.

So I would hazard to say that it's Putin's decision and mostly just his, reached in a context where only people liked by Putin are asked for their opinion. Sure, some of the people listed are going to be hawkish, but their presence is because they are agreeable to Putin, not because they are directing his decision making process. Putin also has a history promoting ex-body bodyguards and the like, hardly people who will direct him. And he seems to fancy himself a historian, which points to independent thinking to convince others, not the other way around.

For people to have had any direct influence on this particular decision, now, requires them to be part of the inner circle of decision makers who planned this. As opposed to merely people whose worldview agree with and have shaped Putin's own worldview. That's a limited circle, which does not necessarily include people who hold influential, but peripheral, positions.

But... if we don't really know all that much about Bush-Iraq 2003, how are we going to know Putin-Ukraine 2022, now?

Sources: DW and BBC. Guardian A 2017 version by CNN.

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    Reasonable answer until the "P.S.". Women in those circles whould not behave differently. Putin comes from a mindset and generation where women weren't seen as decision makers, yes. In general, authoritarianism in every culture and time leans to strong (male) leaders. But the reason for this is deeply psychological and by no means because "women don't have the bad sense to associate themselves with this ship of fools". As if women would not gladly wear blood diamonds; they just don't want to be seen killing. Mar 21 at 9:28
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    @EliasNicolas I do remember, I did protest back in the day my government support of the invasion of Iraq, and I fully support my government sanctions of Russia today even if that hurts my wallet, and ask the military aid that they are providing. So, you are wrong. Whataboutism is a puerile argument, nobody is above criticism (especially if you consider international politics) but that does not mean that everybody is equally bad or that we should do nothing.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 21 at 14:50
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    "The Russians in country X are getting mistreated and therefore justify our interfering in that country is old, old, old. In fact, as old as Estonia in 2007." -- Copied from ole Adolf's playbook, chapter "1938 -- Czechoslovakia". I can't help but think that Putin actually believed he'd be given his own version of Appeasement by a war-wary Europe afraid of going too far with sanctions in fear of hurting their own economies.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 21 at 16:13
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    Slight nitpick: in the invasion of Georgia, Russia was coming to the "defence" of Ossetians and Abkhaz, not ethnic Russians.
    – llama
    Mar 21 at 18:26
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    @EliasNicolas What SJuan76 said to which I will add: was the press allowed to call it a war? Did protesters get arrested en masse? 15 year jail terms handed out to anyone? Nobody remembers anything. Odd on this answer, given that I specifically used the Iraq War to make my point about decision analysis risks. Mar 21 at 19:48
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There is, for instance, Aleksandr Dugin, who complained that Putin didn't do enough for Ukrainian separatists in recent years. Are people like him whom you are looking for?

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    I'd think people will find this interesting - this thread might explain Dugin and Putin connections
    – kK-Storm
    Mar 23 at 10:56
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Dmitry Rogozin actually fought in Transnistria as a separatist before leading various parties. His was seen as a nationalist counter-candidate to Putin at one point (over a decade ago) and by some intrigue whose details escape me, he eventually joined Putin's party. Some observers attribute a shift to a greater emphasis towards nationalism in Putin's policies and positions to those events, i.e. Putin neutralizing opposition from the right by shifting his own positions.

Edie: Zhirinovsky was even more firebrand, but was usually regarded as a clown, at least in the West (he made various outlandish calls like to use nuclear weapons in Chechnya and on Istanbul, and "often blustered about occupying Ukraine" etc.), but Putin made a surprise rare public appearance at his funeral, a few days ago. (Unlike Rogozin, Zhirinovsky kept his role in the formal opposition, but [according to DW] his party was basically voting in line with Putin's on most things.)

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    The same person throwing his fist in the air while the people around him do the "Sieg Heil" move on a rally against naming a street after Kadyrov (not sure which one) in Moscow in 2007. Mar 20 at 21:17
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    Zhirinovsky was not some random dude, he was a leader of one of three "pocket opposition" Duma parties, for thirty years - so it's totally expected he will show up.
    – alamar
    Apr 8 at 21:03
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If you want to identify the strong men the best approach is the old Roman way. Asking cui prodest?

The Donbas Region that is experiencing the bulk of the Russian attacks has enormous coal reserves. Even though many countries in the world pledged to stop the use of coal for energy production, coal will remain a fundamental resource for the steel industry. It didn't happen by chance that the region is also the base of the Ukrainian steel industry.

In the future the combination of integrated coal and steel production combined with low labour cost could turn the region in a major player in the steel market. So, I can repeat the beginning in the American language, if you want to find the strong men follow the money.

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Tangentially, (and anecdotally) Mr. Putin's doctor may have something to do with this.

The back story is of course that Putin believes the breakup of the Soviet Union to be a tragedy. He hasn't done a great deal to modernise the economy of Russia, so perhaps he believes in Communism/planned economies or perhaps not, but he seems to believe that Russia should be or can be a colonial power over at least a few other nations. It could be argued that (say) Belarus is already a colony of Russia, and of course Crimea and Donbas are Russian controlled, and part of his "empire" in all but legality.

To summarise, he could be a man who believes that Ukraine (and others) simply should be part of Russia, or at least under Russian control.

Back to his doctor. I can't find a rock-solid source, but there are reports that he may be battling with cancer and/or Parkinsons. Regardless of the exact diagnosis, coupled with his age, he may have come to the conclusion that his time is limited and he's unlikely to be able to see-out the remainder of his years in luxury in one of his palaces (if indeed, as noted in comments, he ever thought this was possible - particularly as he's already around the Russian male life expectancy). It's also not clear that history would remember him very fondly - for longevity yes, but what really has he achieved that would cause streets and apartment blocks to be named after him?

We have since heard that he expected the conquest of Ukraine to be easy and that his troops would be welcomed with flowers. If this was genuinely believed in Moscow, then it would appear to be a perfect opportunity to re-unite Russia with a colony, for Putin to be remembered as the man who managed to do it and for his legacy to be sealed.

With all that, the reasons for doing anything in Ukraine, and more particularly to do it now and in this manner become all the more pressing if you're not likely to live much longer. So perhaps it was Putin's doctor who (perhaps) told him that he doesn't have decades, or even years to live - raising the urgency to build his legacy.

I should remind anyone reading this far that none of the above can really be corroborated very strongly by anything like decent evidence. As described in other answers, we know very little about historic things that have been published in quite some detail, and so we really know very little indeed about what's going on in Putin's government, let alone his own head.

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Mar 22 at 11:42
  • "Anecdotal" is usually a bad place to be. You do a decent job of linking elsewhere, so I'm not voting to remove the question, but as noted by the other comment, this could be improved. Mar 22 at 17:23
  • I do take issue with he's unlikely to be able to see-out the remainder of his years in luxury in one of his palaces.. He has never seemed to want to vacate his role, therefore the I doubt he would ever use those luxuries he is said to own. I'm also sure he is looking to who could take over from him, and he sees no one. There is a huge danger that his family will lose everything when he dies as others grab what they can. His family, I believe, will not come of of this in a good place.
    – Bib
    Mar 22 at 17:36
  • This is the conspiracy theory I actually feels the most sense to. The man looks ill, and has trouble walking Mar 23 at 9:51
  • To those seeing the "anecdotally" side of my answer: I appreciate it is unlikely to be "correct" - and mark it carefully as such. However, whilst other answers are able to give some solid information around the subject - none of that actually answers the question either. Thus, I'd argue that no answer here is ever likely to be "correct" - just that some offer more verifiable related information than others. Mar 23 at 16:22

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