Russia’s Way of Managing Responsibility or Why the Kremlin Will Have To Escalate in Syria
(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Maxim Trudolyubov- November 9, 2015)
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily.
The cause of the most terrible plane crash in Russian history has not yet been named. Officially, there is still a possibility that the crash of the Russian passenger plane that went down on the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, on October 31st was due to a technical failure, not an act of terror. But still, there is a responsibility to be assumed: either for aircraft maintenance or for Russia’s role in the Syrian war. The two types of responsibility are vastly different, but they both involve holding state officials accountable for protecting citizens’ safety.
I do not expect anyone high-placed to admit guilt for what happened in Egypt two weeks ago. One thing to understand about Russia is that responsibility does not work in our country the way it does in many other places. If a Russian politician does something that leads to a disaster, he or she would work to change the narrative, not to change the policy, let alone assume responsibility and quit.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta of Romania resigned a few days ago after a fire at a nightclub killed 32 people and triggered a wave of protest against corruption. Martin Winterkorn stepped down last month as the CEO of Volkswagen over the emissions scandal at the German automaker. John Boehner resigned as Speaker over political turmoil in his own party and left the U.S. Congress in October. Not all of those who should leave office actually do so. Not all of those who leave do it in good faith. But still, even cynical politicians and rampant careerists sometimes assume responsibility and make an exit.
Moves like this are extremely rare in our country. In Russia, people don’t quit voluntarily. When they do, we remember it for years: these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999 is probably the best-known and highest-level retirement throughout the post-Soviet years.
None of the terrible accidents, corruption scandals, or cases of gross mismanagement that I can think of ever caused voluntary resignations. A deadly fire in a nightclub where more than 150 people died in a stampede (Perm, 2009) did not lead to a resignation. A special forces operation that lead to 130 civilian deaths (the Dubrovka hostage crisis, 2002) did not either.
I actually don’t even mean this as social or political criticism. We have seen so much of this kind of official behavior in Russia that it is probably time to recognize it as the norm. One might even call it a tradition. “As personal servants of the Tsar, officials of the Imperial civil service stood above the law,” Richard Pipes wrote in his book on the Russian Revolution. “A chinovnik (official) could be indicted and put on trial only with the permission of his superior.” (Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. P.63)
An official is accountable to his or her superior, not to voters or society in general. This is a tradition that persisted throughout Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. The Kremlin does sometimes fire and even prosecute government ministers and regional governors, but this usually happens a year or two after exposure so it can’t be said that these people were dismissed as a result of popular indignation. The Kremlin doesn’t want ordinary citizens to develop a sense of being able to influence political outcomes.
But how about the Kremlin itself? How does presidential responsibility work? The current rules of the political game in Russia tell us that the incumbent has to keep the upper hand in all situations. This means the supreme leader is infallible in policy matters. The Kremlin will do more of what it is doing now, not less.
The wrong logic, from the Kremlin perspective, would be to let everyone think that Vladimir Putin led the Russian military into Syria to help out the embattled Bashar al-Assad and to undermine American strategy in the Middle East, and that this resulted in 224 innocent deaths. The Kremlin will have to inverse the logic of cause and effect and make sure the terrorist act is seen as a reason for Russia to fight terrorism in Syria. Russia, almost surely, will now ramp up its troop deployment in Syria.
And it will likely cause cheers domestically. In today’s Russia, every reaction goes through the filter of emergency, because Russia exists in an unannounced emergency situation fueled by television and the general influence of the Kremlin. If the cause of the plane going down in Egypt is to be officially recognized as terrorism, the Russian popular thinking, the way I see it, would be as follows: we have to take it as a blow and move on. We are at war and to leave Syria would mean accepting a defeat. We have to uproot and fight the cause of the terrorist threat, which is somewhere in Syria. We have to kill it before it kills us. Russia is eager to go in. A long time will have to pass before Russia would be eager to get out.
The Kremlin has taught Russians to believe that every bad thing is an act of aggression from some outside force. The Kremlin and Putin are not seen as responsible for the tragedy of the plane crash. Even if the decision to intervene in Syria was a disaster, it does not mean, in popular thinking, that Russia has to withdraw. Even if the Kremlin did not plan for a larger-scale campaign in Syria, it will now have to escalate. This is the result of the Kremlin’s success in avoiding responsibility and blaming everything on foreign sources. Domestically, Putin is now expected to escalate Russia’s war effort in the Middle East.