A string of failures which have recently blighted Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrate that when it comes to Russia’s executive function, the rot in Russian society starts at the head.
Everything is a system. No matter the field of study, a person will encounter complex networks of interdependency, and what happens when kinks in those webs create problems for the whole.
Just look at the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons and scores of internal structures, all of which perform a series of vital cognitive and/or physiological functions. Damage to one part, no matter how small, can spell disaster.
Take the cerebellum, or “little brain”, which plays a vital role in motor control.
Unlike the motor cortex, the cerebellum is not an agent of volition. Rather, it takes signals from the central nervous system and fine tunes them, especially as it relates to the coordination, precision and timing of specific movements. In the event that there is a mismatch between intended and actual action, the little brain that could is able to correct for them in real time.
Likewise, there is a type of movement disorder stemming from damage to the cerebellum which throws the above corrective feedback loop out of whack.
In the words of neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, a person could “attempt to touch her nose, feel her hand overshooting, and attempt to compensate with an opposing motion, which causes her hand to overshoot even more wildly in the opposite direction.”
This disorder is called an intention tremor.
In politics, there is an analogue to intention tremors, which likewise afflicts the executive branch of government.
One primary cause of an intention tremor stems from “corruption-based dysmetria” — a lack of coordination of movement between government bodies. The government, by its own design, is incapable of executing its goals, and often acts against them.
This brings us to modern day Russia, where people have long said fish rot from the head. Even a cursory glance of its political system shows that something is indeed rotten in the Kremlin.
In theory, the Russian president is not part of the executive; it is not their job to determine long-term domestic policy objectives. Much like the cerebellum, the president positionally sits apart from the primary body of executive function, acting as a constitutional corrective for the laws and regulations of the Russian Federation.
In practice, of course, Putin has usurped the executive, bringing the Government of Russia under his direct control and violating the very constitution he is tasked with defending. The system he has created is ultimately hollow, with Potemkin courts and legislatures stripped of their powers. Corruption, meanwhile, is no longer a byproduct of his rule, but rather an intended goal.
Consequently, when Putin actually does attempt to act in earnest, the coordination of movements between state organs is permanently skewed, with no viable means of correction. Signals sent down the power vertical fail to create the desired response. Putin, in short, cannot act against the internal contradictions of his own order.
Take the case of Boris Kolesnikov, an anti-corruption crusader and police general whose tragic story was recently recounted by Joshua Yaffa. Kolesnikov, the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department, was imprisoned, beaten and allegedly driven to suicide for failing to stitch up his boss and Medvedev-appointee Denis Sugrobov.
The case proved one reality: seemingly honest cops who investigate members of the security services for their role in multi-billion dollar “dark money” schemes are jailed for doing their jobs. Their anti-corruption department is labeled an “organized criminal organization” by actual organized criminals in the FSB. It was the same with the late Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who implicated government officials in a $230 million tax fraud scheme. After being wrongfully imprisoned and ultimately killed, he was ghoulishly convicted on trumped up tax evasion charges in the first posthumous trial in Russian history. Gogol surely rolled over in his grave.
Such instances, however, might not represent intention tremors at all; they may very well happen by design.
A less ambiguous case was the Second Chechen War, which was undoubtedly waged to bring the restive republic under Moscow’s thumb. But how does a country without rule of law reintegrate a lawless place? Putin did the only thing he knew how to do; start a brutal war and then hand the reigns of power over to a well-subsidized and slightly unhinged megalomaniac who, incidentally, has succeeded in creating a gross caricature of the Russian system.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov operates with impunity, including the right to build a 20,000-strong army, set up his own tax system, allegedly murder opposition politicians (and personal enemies) on the streets of Moscow, assassinate other rivals abroad, threaten to kill Russian cops on the streets of Grozny, and make polygamy legal. In a bid to reintegrate Chechnya into Russia, Russia has merely subsidized what is independence in all but name.
Another example is Russia’s recent saber rattling over Ukraine. In 2014, NATO was forced to scramble its jets on 400 separate occasions to intercept Russian military aircraft. But while Moscow’s intention was to show its military might, massive weaknesses were revealed in the Russian Air Force, which is reliant on massively outdated Soviet stock. Since June, seven Russian military aircraft have crashed in as many weeks, prompting an investigation by the Defense Ministry. In an attempt to keep NATO on its toes, Moscow revealed its own feet of clay.
Russia’s covert war in Ukraine has equally revealed that the country lacks sufficient numbers of well-trained troops capable of waging “hybrid war” on a long-term basis.
Likewise, no military reforms will stop barracks from collapsing on their soldiers, or keep overtaxed soldiers from deserting to avoid being forced to fight and die as “volunteers” in Ukraine as long as every institution in Russia puts the needs of corrupt officials first, and the ostensible purposes of those institutions second.
Putin has risked global isolation to keep Ukraine in the fold, only to lose Ukraine, possibly forever. He has further sacrificed Russia’s economy, introducing austerity cuts across the board, while vowing increased military spending to sustain he latest adventures. And yet some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death knell for the country’s military reforms as well.
During former-president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 inauguration speech, he said that Russia “must overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development.”
He rightly noted that the battle against legal nihilism was essential for economic and social development, fighting corruption, and making people feel safe. Medvedev further said such reforms were vital to boost Russia’s global influence, and to be taken “as equals with other peoples.”
His words are telling. Those at Russia’s helm recognize their system of rule undermines their credibility as equals in the international arena, although such parity (or a lack thereof) is an obsession of Putin’s. A fake president delivered a speech saying the very mechanisms of power which had resulted in his candidacy were scuttling his country’s hopes for a better future.
The irony is palpable. Putin was brought to power to raise Russia from its knees. In the process, it just might end up on its face.