“Putin, the master of the game, controls all the pieces on the chessboard and carefully divides up the areas of power,” writes influential French columnist Christine Ockrent in her most recent book, Les Oligarques.  Her view is shared by most Western analysts and media commentators, regardless of their position on the person and policies of the Russian president.  Until a year ago, I was broadly inclined to share this assessment.  Five trips to Moscow since last March have made me change my mind.  It is clear that the reality is more complex.

Putin’s sky-high approval rating, consistently above 80 percent, is mostly thanks to his foreign and security policy.  That level of support may waver if the sanctions start having a detrimental effect on Russian living standards.  The ruble has already lost some 40 percent of its value against the leading Western currencies over the past nine months, and inflation—while still in the upper single digits—is on the rise.  More importantly, Putin’s personal rating does not reflect the Russians’ attitude to their government as a whole.  When asked about some specific institutions, such as the cabinet of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, many Russians express misgivings that translate into approval levels of 60 percent—still very high by Western standards, but well below those of the president.

Putin’s Valdai speech on October 24 was strong on foreign and cultural policy but weak on economics.  He said that the government will do all in its power to return the oligarchs’ money stashed in foreign banks, and that it will help Russian businesses by promoting stability and predictability.  The former he cannot and will not pull off, and the latter means nothing.  He did not mention the long-overdue restructuring of the Central Bank: This yet-to-be-nationalized liberal stronghold still insists on treating the U.S. dollar as Russia’s reserve currency.  Putin did not mention de-dollarization in general, or the sale of Russia’s U.S. Treasury bonds in particular, although these are essential to Russia’s long-term ability to resist pressures and develop a diversified economy that is no longer unduly dependent on oil and gas.

This wishy-washiness arises from the fact that Putin is not at all the “master of the game” on economic and financial issues.  The paramount fact of his structure of power is that he is not surrounded by concentric circles of power interests.  Putin is like the center of a wheel with five spokes; each has direct access to the president, but none is able to exercise preponderant influence.  First, there are the technocrats, embodied in Prime Minister Medvedev and his team, which is made up of pro-Western liberal yuppies steeped in the Bretton-Woods orthodoxy, unhappy about the sanctions, horrified by the prospect of estrangement from their peers in New York and London, and disdainful of the notions of “Mother Russia,” “Novorossiya,” etc.  Second are the major oligarchs who have pledged their political loyalty in return for Putin’s de facto legalization of their ill-gotten gains during the 1990’s privatization disaster, and who would be delighted if the Kremlin would capitulate to the West to protect their offshore bank accounts, Riviera villas, etc.  Third, the siloviki in the security and military structures, mostly law-and-order types who miss the Soviet Union, hate the oligarchs, despise the technocrats, but lack the strategic vision or intellectual sophistication to develop a coherent long-term agenda.  Fourth, the pragmatic patriots in the government institutions, like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who are for the most part all smoke and no fire—reactively improvising new scenarios as they go along, but still insisting on using the absurd phrase “our Western partners.”  And finally, there are the no-nonsense patriots, like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who understand the geopolitical essence of the Western challenge and who are loath to contemplate appeasement.

Putin listens to all of them—without committing himself to any one particular set of ideas, preferences, or suggested policies.  The notion that he “controls all the pieces on the chessboard and carefully divides up the areas of power” is ridiculous.  He looks at the five spokes, considers their concerns and suggestions, then devises policies that will not upset that balance or alienate any one group to the point where it becomes unreliable.

That is the reality of “Putin’s Russia”—hardly the monolithic autocracy in which the boss “carefully divides up the areas of power.”  Those areas are long divided already, and Putin’s attempt to rearrange them would result in a dangerous disequilibrium.  He is aware of this and reluctant to take the risk.  The result is a reactive decisionmaking structure that will respond to the Western challenges on the basis of a consensus between the spokes, but which cannot and therefore will not develop a bold and imaginative long-term strategy of Russia’s geopolitical, economic, and cultural renaissance.