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How the War in Ukraine Became a Magnet for Russia’s Career Politicians

For members of the Russian ruling elite, aspiring to the top, the war in Ukraine is an unexpected new career lift. The presidential administration, always sensitive to the whims of President Vladimir Putin, is increasingly keen to reward veterans of the conflict.

However, preference is not given to real combat veterans, but to officials and politicians who went to the front lines to take pictures and used them to demonstrate their radicalism. Such demonstrations are well-received in the Kremlin, regardless of the consequences for the quality of government or relations among elites, many of whom want things to simply go back to how they were before the invasion of Ukraine.

Elites have been dressing for this role since the beginning of the war, when First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Sergei Kiriyenko and General Secretary of the ruling United Russia party Andriy Turchak launched the khaki fashion in the newly occupied territories of Ukraine.

In the summer, careerist politicians, including State Duma deputies Vitaly Milonov, Sergei Sokol and Dmitry Khubezov, became more frequent at the front. Currently, there is even a special reserve unit, consisting of deputies, which is called “Cascade”.

Others also joined the action. Alexander Sapozhnikov resigned as mayor of Chita as a volunteer for the war. The trenches were visited with pleasure by the governor of Primorye, Oleg Kozhemyako. Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of the Roscosmos state corporation, also put on his uniform and went to the front.

Whether any of them took part in actual combat operations is unclear. But they have fully embraced the combatant label, and it looks like that bet has paid off. These days, Putin is constantly talking about the valor of the participants in the war and even delivered a New Year’s speech in front of men and women in uniform.

Against the backdrop of such scenes, the radicalization and militarization of Russia’s ruling elite continues in full force. The governor of the Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, openly says that he was trained by the famous mercenary Wagner; Turchak casually alludes to the sledgehammer with which the defector Yevgeny Nuzhin was executed in November last year; and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the RT propaganda machine, praises Wagner and its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Thus, the players within the system are signaling to Putin that they are not only for the war; they are real radicals.

This outpouring of zeal is not accidental. Putin expects that “the soldiers will delight us again and again with the results of their work,” and for its part, the presidential administration is ready to do everything possible to give him people who will make him proud. For example, in this year’s regional elections, she will promote war veterans and encourage governors to visit the front. Particular attention will be paid to those who heed his advice, as well as to the Cascade group of deputies, who, unusually for ordinary parliamentarians, managed to get meetings with both Kiriyenko and Turchak.

However, the Kremlin has faced obstacles to subduing internal system politicians, including some of its own creation. In recent years, independents have been allowed into various legislatures so as not to anger voters hostile to the increasingly unpopular United Russia. He extended his patronage to the regional elites, guaranteeing them representation in the legislature and demanding relatively little in return: namely, a promise to support the Kremlin governors and not go into opposition. Today, the stakes associated with maintaining loyalty are much higher, and the cost is too high for some.

Let’s take Maxim Vasiliev, a Kursk deputy who went to Mexico for the New Year holidays and was criticized by Turchak. Vasiliev comes from a family of large landowners and developers and was elected to the regional legislature as a self-nominee in a single-member constituency. He responded sharply to Turchak, and this, it would seem, was the end of the story. There will hardly be any consequences for the deputy, since it will be difficult to deprive Vasilyev of his chair, and the Kursk elites will not agree to sanctions against one of their own.

Then Vologda People’s Deputy Denis Dolzhenko, who met the new year in Dubai. Turchak demanded that he be expelled from United Russia, but found that he was a self-nominee representing a single-member constituency.

Such public disclosures, especially from lesser authority figures, only add to the tensions within the elite. However, this did not help soften the demands of the Kremlin. If a year ago it was considered disloyal to protest against an invasion and then remain silent about the conflict, today a lack of zeal for war is suspect.

The presidential administration is unlikely to make real soldiers and officers into managers and legislators, with the exception of a few symbolic cases. Therefore, the most cunning careerists assign themselves the label of “veteran”, earning it with trips to the front, lasting only for a photo shoot. If earlier careerists were trained as governors and competed in the Leaders of Russia competition, now the career pipeline passes through Ukraine.

Meanwhile, politicians who are slow to be radicalized will increasingly be sidelined. At first, this will manifest itself at the regional level, but it is possible that the vacated seats in the State Duma and the Federation Council will be filled by veterans, and their promotion is not due to their suitability for the position, but to Putin’s preferences.

This is how the division of the lower and middle elites of Russia into “veterans” begins, for whom many doors will be opened and jobs guaranteed, and everyone else. The first will rise at the expense of “civilians”, and many will come to power solely on the basis of wartime service, which can exist only in photographs.

The systemic façade of political and managerial competence will irreversibly give way to a motley patchwork quilt tailored to the president’s fickle tastes. Next to the “veterans” will be young technocrats and the remnants of graduates of the coalition of the All-Russian Popular Front. This will be tantamount to an exercise in negative selection, from which only those who are willing to do anything to get the attention of management will come out, while the system continues to degenerate.

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The views expressed in the opinion articles do not necessarily reflect those of The Moscow Times.

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