Understanding current Kremlin intrigues calls for tactics similar to those used during the Soviet period. Because Russia is more open than the Soviet Union, more pieces are visible, which can either confuse or help Russia experts. Today's Kremlinologists still study official meetings and personnel shifts in government posts, particularly changes in who oversees the most influential government institutions and businesses. With the fall of the Soviet Union, ownership or influence over both state and independent assets became crucial. Assets and companies give the elite not only tools to shape policy but also sources of profit.
Many Kremlin factions still use particular media outlets for their preferred leaks, agendas and gossip. For example, the Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly uses Itar-Tass, Izvestia and Sputnik (formerly RIA Novosti) to leak information and push its agenda. It also uses Russia Today to spread propaganda. The elite tied to Russian natural gas firm Gazprom subtly spread information via Echo of Moscow, one of the last independent media firms in the country. Russia's more liberal opposition groups go to Novaya Gazeta or Moskovsky Komsomolets, and anti-FSB members of the elite reportedly push their leaks through Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
An additional tool for watching members of the Kremlin elite is social media, particularly VKontakte, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Most of Russia's top leaders do not use social media, though there are some important exceptions, such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov. Watching the family members of the Kremlin elite on social media is another way to gather hints.
Current Kremlin Elite
In studying the Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Stratfor has seen many iterations of who and what are considered the most powerful elite and institutions because Russia's political cycle is directly tied to the country's overall cycle of power and stability. Putin came to power on the heels of Boris Yeltsin's disastrous presidency, which left the country economically weak, regionally fractured, socially disillusioned and politically disorganized while facing a major security problem in Russia's North Caucasus.
Putin's ascent did not eliminate the elite who were in place before he became president. He had to contend with countless factions vying for power: Yeltsin loyalists, oligarchs, Communists, liberal parties, the FSB, St. Petersburg politicians who bled into the FSB, Chechen clans and more. While Putin was still Russia's FSB chief and prime minister, he began collecting loyalists who later helped him consolidate power during the first few years of his presidency. As he designed his power base, Putin stabilized Russia economically and regionally and clamped down on the North Caucasus. He centralized political parties, various institutions, assets and businesses under his new government.
During the stabilization process, Russia caught two lucky breaks. First, the West and particularly the United States became preoccupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, oil prices skyrocketed, giving the Kremlin a massive financial windfall. Both of these expedited the Kremlin's ability not only to consolidate power within Russia but also to begin its resurgence in the former Soviet space and beyond.
By the mid-to-late 2000s, the most powerful influencers and institutions in Russia began to settle into place. These are not the richest or most vocal Russians, nor are they necessarily connected to Putin, but they are the parties that can change Russian policy and strategy and make decisions for the country both internally and abroad. Though hundreds of players and institutions in Russia could be considered influential, approximately 18 personalities and 19 institutions currently stand out.
The power of these influential people and institutions rises and falls, as it did during the Soviet period. Putin is also constantly adjusting the influence they hold to create a balance of power beneath him and to address different situations inside Russia and abroad.
Thus far, Putin has acted as the grand arbitrator among these power players, and he has had the final say in struggles between them. His personal position has rarely been called into question during the first 15 years of his leadership, and no single actor has had the clout to potentially challenge Putin or his presidency.
It was fairly easy for Putin to manage the competition among the elite while he was very popular and while Russia was experiencing growing wealth, sufficient assets for each member of the elite, a return to the international stage and stability in the North Caucasus. However, this period of harmony has ended for both Putin and Russia.
Russia's Turning Point
The crisis in Ukraine has proved that neither Russia nor Putin are the unstoppable forces they appeared to be after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Since then, Western powers have teamed up against Russia by cutting their large investments into the country and levying a series of sanctions that are picking away at the Russian state and its banks and major firms. The West has turned Putin into the new international pariah, and the Kremlin is being forced to bail out many of Russia's large businesses and banks. Oil prices have dropped, biting into the Kremlin's revenues, and the Russian economy has plummeted into its second recession in six years. The Russian people are more concerned with the state of the economy than any other issue, including Ukraine. Moreover, Russia is losing Iran, one of its tools against the United States, as Tehran and Washington engage in negotiations.
All of these crises naturally affect the Kremlin in several ways. Members of the elite are blaming each other for failures in Ukraine. Moreover, there is less money to go around, and Western sanctions targeted many members of the elite or the institutions they control. This has led to increased infighting among the most influential players in Russia. Although there are always disagreements and power struggles among the elite, the current circumstances have made the competition more difficult to contain. Putin's ability to remain arbitrator among these dueling factions — and Russia's unchallenged leader — is becoming increasingly uncertain.