Russia Direct lists seven players who have a hand in shaping how Russia behaves with regard to the outside world.
Rosneft’s Head and a Kremlin insider Igor Sechin. Photo: ITAR-TASS
World news about Russia tend to present it as a monolithic entity with a clear-cut global agenda, a sort of neo-KGB empire of President Vladimir Putin bent on restoring Soviet global influence while annoying the heck out of Western democracies.
This is, of course, pretty far from the truth: There are other policymakers than Putin and other agendas – mainly domestic ones – that have an impact on Russia's foreign policy.
While Putin remains Russia's most influential policymaker, Russia Direct lists below seven other influences who will shape Russia's geopolitical strategy.
The Three Heavyweights
1. Igor Sechin, oil industry
On a good day, he outperforms Putin in global influence ratings (Sechin made the 2013 Time Top 100, Putin didn't).
Deputy Prime Minister Sechin, 52, a former KGB officer, has been overseeing the oil sector in the Kremlin since the early 2000s and is the head of the state-owned Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil company, which is on track to becoming a monopoly within the next 10 years, according to Forbes Russia. Given that petrodollars are the foundation of the current Russian regime, Rosneft, along with gas giant Gazprom, is the most important economic entity in the country.
Sechin is perhaps Putin's most loyal ally, but he largely gets free rein when it comes to his domain, which presumes extensive foreign contacts. Rosneft's oil has been a major factor for the Russo-Chinese alliance – Russia is exporting 15 billion tons of oil a year to China, and counts on an advance payment of an impressive $65 billion from China National Petroleum Corporation in exchange for future supplies.
Rosneft is also busy luring Western oil giants into partnerships on the Arctic shelf – a move that has environmentalists foaming at the mouth and could actually impact world climate in case of a major Deepwater Horizon-style spill.
Rosneft also plans to invest $35 billion in oil projects in Venezuela, which would give the opportunistic friendship between Moscow and Caracas a solid economic footing.
A position of similar importance is held by the head of Gazprom, Alexei Miller, but he does not have comparable clout in Putin’s inner circle, which limits his influence, according to a much-cited study by Minchenko Consulting political consultancy in January.
2. Sergei Chemezov, arms exports
Former KGB agent Sergei Chemezov. Photo: Rossiyskaya Gazeta
Russia is the world's second-largest arms exporter with sales of $15 billion in 2012, according to the SIPRI arms trade watchdog. Though the Russian military-industrial complex is a Gordian knot of various arms makers’ interests, all of its exports are controlled by state monopoly Rosoboronexport, which is, in turn, controlled by another member of Putin’s inner circle, Sergei Chemezov, and his aide-de-camp Anatoly Isaikin.
Its clients are many and prominent, including India; Pentagon, which bought Russian Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan despite an outcry in the Senate; Iran, which still hopes to get advanced anti-aircraft systems it paid for in 2007; and, of course, Syria, which is pending delivery of S-300 missile systems that would make Western suppression of Bashar al-Assad's air force unfeasible.
3. Vyacheslav Volodin, Kremlin's ideology
Last year, he successfully dethroned Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's seemingly invincible “gray cardinal,” to take over control of domestic politics and propaganda – a trying task in times of grpowing public discontent.
Kremlin's ideologist Vyacheslav Volodin. Photo: Rossiyskaya Gazeta
This job is supposed to be as far removed from foreign affairs as possible, but isn't, because the Kremlin’s ideology under Volodin places a lot of emphasis on criticism of the West, which is depicted as godless, debauched, prone to doublethink and plotting to bring about Russia's downfall – evils from which only Putin can save the nation, or so state media claim.
The alarmist rhetoric is intended for domestic consumption, but convincing a nation of 140 million that the developed world is its ideological enemy is bound to have repercussions.
4. Vladimir Popovkin, space industry
The head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Vladimir Popovkin, does not have the lobbyist power of Sechin or Chemezov, but Russia remains one of the leaders of the space race, and that counts for a lot.
Head of Russian Space Agency Vladimir Popovkin. Photo: ITAR-TASS
Russia maintains a segment at the International Space Station, co-staffs the station and provides the sole means of reaching it for humans, the Soyuz spacecraft; it also conducted 30 percent of all world space launches in 2012, bringing to orbit 11 foreign satellites along with a domestic payload.
5. Alexander Bastrykin, chief investigator
The Investigative Committee, subordinate directly to Putin, has risen to become his own secret police, trusted above all other law enforcement agencies. It is mostly involved in domestic affairs, such as the crackdown on the opposition, whose leaders battle highly questionable cases from Bastrykin's agency.
But it has also worked on cases with international exposure, such as those against exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky or the inquiry into the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison.
Russia's chief investigator Alexander Bastrykin. Photo: Rossiyskaya Gazeta
The long leash on which the Kremlin keeps its investigators already impacts the investment climate as well: A deal between Intel and Moscow’s hi-tech hub Skolkovo worth 1 billion rubles ($30 million) fell through because of a politically motivated shakedown at the hub, in which a hapless Intel representative was briefly caught up in April, the Kommersant daily claimed.
The hive mind
6. The liberals
A group of government and Kremlin officials centered around president-turned-Prime-Minister Dmitry Medvedev have pushed for better ties with the West, both in politics and in the economy.
Medvedev was behind the 2010 New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States and Skolkovo, Russia's attempt to create its own Silicon Valley/MIT hybrid with the help of Western experts.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Moscow. Photo: ITAR-TASS
However, it remains open to debate to what extent the “liberals” have been playing the good cop to Sechin's bad one under Putin's supervision – and in any case, Medvedev's clan is now on the defensive in an ongoing turf war with Sechin's and Volodin's power groups.
7. The officialdom
Deny it as they might, most Russian lawmakers and officials have huge interests abroad: They own real estate in Florida and Dubai, send children to Oxford and Harvard, vacation in the French Riviera, keep money in Swiss banks and illegally run businesses in Russia through firms registered on Cyprus.
This means that Russia's ruling elite, despite the loud public West-bashing (see #4 above), is really very much interested in keeping relations with the EU and the United States from going completely belly-up – as best evidenced by the panicked reaction to Washington blacklisting some Russian officials with the “Magnitsky list” last year.
Official Russian response was nothing short of hysterical, and only abated after the United States indicated the scope of the blacklist is limited – i.e. that Russia's establishment has been spared from their worst nightmare, or the inability to go West whenever they please.