Who's Really Running the War in Ukraine?
Putin's authoritarianism is more diffuse than many people realize.
On October 28, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to calls that he negotiate with Russia by asking who is actually in charge in Moscow: "It is increasingly challenging for me to tell who is or what is President Putin," he said to awkward laughs, speaking to an audience at the Yale School of Management. "It looks like a bunch of individuals under the brand of Putin who pursue aggressive steps."
While there is a global perception that Putin rules with a detailed master plan, the reality is more complex. Indeed, he is the ultimate decision-maker and the agenda comes from him. However, the details of governance are often left up to lower-level officials who pursue what they think the Kremlin wants. The 2016 U.S. election influence campaign is a case in point: U.S. intelligence concluded Putin ordered it, but many of the details were left up to various officials.
This style of governance is evolving to become a key factor in how the Kremlin conducts the war in Ukraine. Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkaylo, two independent investigative journalists writing for the Faridaily newsletter, reported that the war has caused a restructuring away from the Ministry of Defense towards civilian bureaucrats now responsible for mobilizing troops and procuring supplies. They write, "The responsibility for unpopular new measures will be delegated to regional officials. Failure will be punished by Putin himself — by humiliation in front of the TV cameras." (Putin has a history of laying blame for governance failures on bland local officials whom he fires publicly, somewhat like Donald Trump on The Apprentice.)
This reshuffling makes war more likely to continue because criticism can be deflected. Decisions can be blamed on local officials versus Putin's government. Take, for example, the blowing up of the bridge to Crimea. In the new power vertical, that could be blamed on local officials, making the failure more distant to the regime.
These changes came as Putin has faced public criticism for his handling of the war from Kremlin-allied figures with real power. The Washington Post reported that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon and chief of a mercenary army called the Wagner Group, recently vented to Putin about the war's mismanagement. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed strongman ruling over Chechnya, also has criticized Putin publicly over the Ministry of Defense's failures. Both of these men have their own paramilitary forces; in other words, they can't be pushed around like lesser bureaucrats. Were Putin to want to negotiate with Ukraine -- and there are no signs that he does want to -- Prigozhin and Kadyrov would likely oppose that effort, and possibly take up arms against the Russian leader.
For Zelensky, there isn't anyone to negotiate with -- not only because Putin doesn't want to, but because ending the war would potentially cause a power struggle. The Russian government can send its negotiators, as it did in April, even reaching the level of foreign minister, but these officials are merely there to present options for Putin. Continuing the war avoids major recriminations as there is no absolute reckoning so long as the war continues. As Lawrence Freedman, author of the Comment is Freed newsletter, wrote, "Putin has no interest in ending the war soon if this would require him acknowledging that he has failed to achieve his key objectives."
Putin's diffuse authoritarianism gives license for horrible crimes to take place. Atrocities aren't the work of a few bad apples or explicitly directed from Putin himself, but come from mid-level officials trying to fulfill the Kremlin's goal of destroying Ukraine. The Associated Press, in collaboration with PBS Frontline, has reported how soldiers under the command of Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko carried out summary executions and torture of civilians in Kyiv suburbs such as Bucha last March. A soldier named Vadim said in an intercepted phone call with his mother, “We have the order: It does not matter whether they’re civilians or not. Kill everyone." Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the AP, “Those orders were written at Chaiko’s level. So he would have seen them and signed up for them.”
The order to launch an unprovoked invasion came from Putin, full stop. And he alone could end it. But the horrific nature of the war and its neverending quality are features, not bugs of Russia's diffuse leadership structure.
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