Putin’s technocrats are having an attack of loyalty. And fear

The technocrats in the Russian government are both obedient and effective in their job of keeping Vladimir Putin’s economy at war with a neighboring country. In recent weeks, they even have reason to be optimistic: they count on points in the departmental competition for the president’s favor after the rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who revealed confusion in the security forces.

But at the same time, they are afraid of the forces that the war and the campaign of the military group against Moscow have awakened.

Wagner’s performance in late June consolidated the technocrats around Putin, says Mikhail Komin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Immediately after the revolt and again in July, Komin spoke with 12 senior officials from ministries, departments and the Bank of Russia. And while earlier the technocrats showed “negative loyalty”, that is, despite the rejection of the war, they worked for the regime due to the lack of alternatives, now its support among them has even strengthened, Komin writes in a report for the council.

Prigozhin’s insurgency “revealed significant weaknesses in the regime Putin built,” CIA Director William Burns said last week:

For many watching Russians, accustomed to the image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question arose: the emperor is naked, or at least why did he dress for so long?

Also in ministries and departments, they were initially disoriented and thought primarily of themselves. Of the 12 Komin interlocutors, only two remained by the time the revolt ended in Moscow. According to some, ministers of economy and digital development advised workers to decide for themselves what to do.

In the first days after the revolt, officials believed that it exposed the regime’s weaknesses and feared that similar events would be repeated in the future. An employee of the government apparatus called the situation “a stress test that passed only by luck.”

But already in early July, during the second round of communication, the position of most respondents changed. Many began to say that the president “successfully” emerged from the crisis, avoiding bloodshed and armed conflict on the outskirts of the capital.

Now technocrats are waiting for personnel changes – but not in their environment, but in law enforcement. They believe that it will be useful to them, although they will have to work harder. According to one of the state officials, dismissals – in the Ministry of National Defense, intelligence agencies and other ministries – will start in September; until then, so as not to give the impression that Putin complied with Prigozhin’s demands. But resignations will force everyone to more actively demonstrate their efficiency and competence. “Boss [министр] he brought us together and said we have to work harder now,” a finance ministry official told Komin. Several of the expert’s interlocutors even canceled or postponed their holidays.

The current situation, the technocrats hope, will allow them to score points in the bureaucratic struggle. “We have not betrayed the president,” says one senior central banker. According to this person, no one in the economic bloc can be accused of supporting or sympathizing with Prigozhin, unlike law enforcement officials. A crackdown has already begun on some of the latter: dozens of high-ranking officers have been detained, questioned or released.

Some technocrats, on the other hand, hope that they will be rewarded for their loyalty and that their bloc’s position in the power structure will generally be strengthened. Such sentiments, according to the respondents, were already observed at the Bank of Russia Financial Congress on July 6-7. They describe the atmosphere of the congress in terms of “fighting spirit”, “much better than SPIEF” (an economic forum in St. Petersburg in early June), “a level of optimism that has not been seen for a long time”.

However, this optimism cannot replace the growing fear related to the emergence of an increasing number of armed groups – private military companies, militarized organizations created by state corporations or regional leaders. Officials are concerned about placing soldiers with combat experience from such groups “closer to Moscow” and that large companies will decide to “arm their services” after the mutiny.

There is a hidden conflict in the Russian political system between elites who want to end the war and those who want to continue it, notes Ilya Matveev, a visiting researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and founder of the New School of Political Science. The first path is unacceptable to a large part of the elite, but suitable for the oligarchs, who see it as the key to reintegration with Europe, lifting sanctions and restoring the pre-war status quo. If something happens to Putin, “it will not just be a division of the inheritance after Putin, but a division of the inheritance in revenge,” says Matveyev:

Prigozhin has his army, but Kadyrov also has his, and Wagner is not the only PMC fighting in Ukraine. State corporations have their own PMCs, regions have their own battalions. Everything can happen according to a completely uncontrollable scenario.


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