An “Enlightened” Alternative After Putin?

An “Enlightened” Alternative After Putin?

Russia’s moderate reforming prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, has avoided the headlines, but is he a viable candidate to succeed his boss?

Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in a series on the succession of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Read the first and second here and here.

In our first article in this series exploring potential successors to Vladimir Putin, we examined one option: the semi-dynastic succession of Putin’s cousin, Anna Putina Tsivilyova. In our second article, we considered the possibility of a hardline succession featuring Putin’s Chairman of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, or his son Dmitri. In this article, we explore a third possibility: a reformer emerges from the ranks of the bureaucracy to become Russia’s next leader. 

As renowned historian Vasily Kliuchevsky demonstrated, rather than hindering, war has necessitated reform multiple times in Russian history. Think of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, and even Gorbachev. Their initiatives depended on a unique class, what historian Bruce Lincoln called “enlightened bureaucrats” who play critical roles in running the government but are virtually never tapped as top leaders. These administrators wield their power thanks to their unique, specialized knowledge. Their mandate was to fortify the economy for prolonged conflicts while avoiding any fundamental reform. 

The hereditary monarchy of Tsarist Russia made it impossible for these reformers to “rise from the ranks.” Peter needed military modernization and financing, not Western liberal values. His modernizers were mainly foreigners, especially Germans, and their increased presence in the Russian elite raised tension with conservative nobility whose wealth greatly depended on maintaining and deepening serfdom. This model peaked for the Russian Empire with the defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. As the nineteenth century wore on, it was increasingly clear that Russia’s considerable, illiterate, land-based serf population was a crimp on economic growth and technological development. However, as Tsar Nicholas I told his State Council in 1842, “Serfdom, in its present form, is an evil obvious to all; but to touch it now would of course be an even more ruinous evil.” Russian Tsars, Soviet General Secretaries, and Vladimir Putin have all faced this dilemma in some form or another: the system is inefficient and corrupt, but reforming it risks destroying the foundation of state power. Arguably, the only leader to attempt systemic reform was the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was—and still is—vilified by modern Russian and Chinese propaganda

The best historical analog to Vladimir Putin is Nicholas I, who served as Tsar from 1825 until his death in 1855. He was a conservative who sought to promote a newly branded state identity based on the troika of autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality while defending other conservative European monarchies. He and his fellow monarchs viewed the liberalism that felled the Bourbon dynasty in France as the most dangerous threat to their sacred status quo. Notoriously, Nicholas’s leadership concluded with the failure of the Crimean War. 

However, Russia’s current technocracy takes its cues from Georg Kankrin, one of Nicholas I’s finance ministers. Kankrin, who some historians credit with assisting Russia’s victory over Napoleon, steeled the economy for war by economizing the budget and maintaining a rigid monetary policy. Kankrin, who met the Tsar on a daily basis, had a unique prerogative to speak his mind because of his personal relationship with the monarch. Other famous Tsarist and Soviet mandarins include Pyotr Stolypin, who, under Nicholas II, spearheaded partial privatization of the land; Sergei Witte, who made the ruble convertible and launched the Trans-Siberian Railroad; Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, who pushed Brezhnev’s politburo to implement administrative optimization. For nearly a decade, Putin’s friend, the former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a fan of Kankrin, epitomized this brand of “enlightened” bureaucrat. This article focuses on the inheritor of this Russian tradition, Mikhail Mishustin, Putin’s current prime minister. 

It’s a journalistic stereotype to assume the KGB runs Russia. Indeed, Mishustin, Kudrin (former head of the Accounts Chamber, former Minister of Finance, and current executive at Yandex), and his successor as Finance Minister, Elvira Naibvuilina, along with other Putin technocrats, wield significant personal power. They maintain influential patronage networks. The necessities of crisis management have granted these “enlightened bureaucrats” even more clout. In particular, Covid shutdowns and wartime disruptions have meant that they dole out massive state subsidies. Increasingly, Russian businesses and the military depend on the whims of the Kremlin’s civilian ministries.

While Russia’s military leaders have clearly underperformed, Russia’s financial wizards can boast of unqualified successes. Despite the West’s harsh sanctions, Russian supermarkets remain full. In the meantime, Russian military production has been significantly ramped up. Western experts are dumbfounded by Russia’s success in mass-producing deadly UAVs such as the Lancet model. Moreover, Putin’s technocrats have been able to replace European trade with alternative partners. The ruble, which was supposed to crush Putin, has remained stable. Despite isolation from international finance, there have been no Russian bank runs. 

Ultimately, Putin (along with the majority of the elite) has realized there are few potential replacements with the necessary managerial competency and discretion available. Without his “enlightened bureaucrats,” Putin’s economy would crash quickly. Understanding their irreplaceability within the system, these bureaucratic managers enjoy significant leeway and wide prerogatives. It’s an open secret that Kudrin, Mishustin, and Nabiullina quietly opposed the war in Ukraine. Unlike other functionaries, they do not feel compelled to trumpet bombastic nationalist slogans. Their disciplined monetary policies, such as double-digit interest rates, have been widely criticized in the press and by heavyweights such as Igor Sechin. Nonetheless, with the full support of Putin, they refuse to back down. Putin knows well that a “patriotic” economist like Sergei Glaziev, who advocates free-wheeling spending on industrialization, would quickly run the economy into the ground.

From Systems Engineer to Tax Man to Prime Minister

Imagining a scenario in which a reformist leader in Russia could emerge under the current conditions of repression and militarization requires considerable imagination. Nonetheless, before his death in 2022, the wily Far-Right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky named Mishustin as the leading contender to succeed Putin. In addition, the Russian Constitution calls for the prime minister to assume office as acting president if the presidency is vacant until new elections within ninety days. Indeed, this was the path Vladimir Putin followed in 1999. 

Putin has been mindful of limiting the scope and prerogatives of his own prime ministers. Putin’s first Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, was able and charismatic and enjoyed close ties to the Yeltsin family. Leery of a Westernizer, conservative forces mobilized a PR campaign to relegate Kasyanov to the margins. They branded him “Misha two percent” for his alleged standard take on government deals. After Kasyanov, Putin was mindful of selecting humorless men with limited ambitions.

In his first years in power, Putin’s greatest fear was the wealthy oligarchs and their ability to buy political power. Thus, Putin has been careful to prevent his officials from abusing their access to revenue flows. In particular, Prime Ministers Mikhail Fradkov and Viktor Zubkov both worked in the sensitive area of tax collection: both were connected to Russian intelligence. After serving as prime minister, Fradkov even became Director of Foreign Intelligence. But to the public, they were faceless placeholders. 

Dmitri Medvedev, who served as Putin’s premier from 2012–2020, appears to be an exception among Putin’s prime ministers, given his legal training and lack of intelligence service background. His management of Putin’s national projects” was judged as ineffective, and it is hard to identify a single, distinctive success in his eight years as prime minister. In a rare case of a public split among the Putin elite, Kudrin in 2011 called Medvedev incompetent in financial matters. Indeed, Medvedev’s principal virtue is his loyalty to Vladimir Putin. 

Around this time, Putin sought to cement his legacy as a modern-day “Collector of the Russian lands” to cement his legacy in the pantheon of expansionist Russian rulers. Putin understood this entailed military aggression and possible international isolation. Consequently, he would need a far more competent prime minister than Dmitri Medvedev. Russia’s technological progress was an existential need for both military competition and societal control. While Medvedev cultivated the image of a posh trendsetter showing off his iPad on every imaginable occasion, Mikhail Mishustin presented a more compelling image as a former systems engineer with immense IT sector experience dating back to the 1980s.

Mishustin’s father, Vladimir Moiseyeich Mishustin, was a KGB officer who worked most of his career at Aeroflot, an airline company. Trained as a systems engineer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mikhail joined the International Computer Club, established in 1988 during Perestroika as a central node for the nascent IT industry. There, he had the opportunity to network with international IT companies and Russian state enterprises. Mishustin rose quickly and eventually became a co-owner of the ICC and chairman of its board. KGB authorities were likely involved in the establishment of this club and certainly monitored it very closely. Selling used and new Western computers just before and after the collapse offered substantial profit opportunities. Notably, future Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky started his entrepreneurial career using siphoned Komsomol funds to buy and sell computers and other IT equipment.