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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 3: Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

Vladimir Putin and Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zhukovsky 2010.

Post-Putinism and Ali Abdullah Saleh's War of Revenge

A few weeks after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, odd reports emerged concerning the seeming disappearance of Vladimir Putin. On 5 March, rumours in Moscow about the lack of any sightings of Russia's President began to be picked up by journalists and on social media. In the following days, a wave of speculation attracted the attention of the wider media. From outlandish theories over the birth of a son to mutterings that a coup d'etat may be imminent, the botched and chaotic handling of Putin's vanishing act by his public relations team reinforced the perception that a power battle was taking place within the Kremlin. Though Putin's resurfacing on March 16 helped to dampen such speculation, the barely suppressed panic his absence had caused among Moscow as well as regional elites has added considerable momentum to a wider debate over what might happen if he was permanently removed from the scene. Though the Kremlin swiftly shifted to business as usual upon Putin's return, the way in which his absence has concentrated minds about the manner and consequences of his fall may be the most damaging legacy this episode has left for his regime.

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate about how Putin may fall is what most analysts assume will not happen. A general consensus has taken hold among Russia scholars that the Kremlin, for all its obsession with 'color revolutions',  is not likely to be brought down through mass protest. While there are some milieus in Moscow and St. Petersburg that may be willing to protest, Sam Greene and other analysts have concluded that they simply don't have the numbers to overwhelm the massive security presence the regime has built up in Russia's two dominant urban centres. 

Though economic protest may take a political turn in key regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia or perhaps even Tatarstan if the Kremlin botches its response, it is difficult to see how such local demonstrations could reach a national scale, particularly if the regime accuses regional activists of separatism. Other possibilities such as a violent military coup were also dismissed, with Russia watchers setting out how difficult it would be for officers outside the Kremlin inner circle to conspire before being stopped by the FSB. Though the proliferation of armed nationalist groups and the influence of Chechen units in Moscow is likely to become a deepening source of instability, they do not have the capacity or necessarily even the will to attempt to bring down the regime without powerful allies within the highest levels of government. 

As these other options were dismissed, many prominent Russia watchers such as Mark Galeotti, Vladimir Ryzhkov or Lilia Shevtsova set out what they believed to be the most likely scenario for Putin's eventual fall. Often described as the 'soft coup' or 'Khruschev option', this is presented as a potential moment of elite consensus where all key figures within the leadership come to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin is no longer able to safeguard the survival of the status quo and their position within it. As with the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in August 1964, key figures would move swiftly to remove the current President's access to the levers of power before replacing him with a more pliant successor who could both stabilise relations with Ukraine and the West (hopefully on Russia's terms), while also ensuring that any necessary reforms did not impinge on the power base of each of the key Kremlin factions. While popular protest over economic matters, a military quagmire in the Donbass and a severe economic recession may all contribute to this scenario, ultimately this would be a meeting of grey men in grey suits ensuring the peaceful removal of the president as part of a wider drive to stabilise the regime rather than to replace it.

The popularity of this scenario among so many perceptive observers of Russian affairs is based on a notion that it is rooted in regime practice in recent Russian and Soviet history. The removals of Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin are used as precedents, where a similar confluence of internal and external crises (which in the Khrushchev case included an uprising in the regions) led key decision makers to come together and force the figure at the apex of the Soviet or Russian power vertical to leave without putting up a fight. The way in which these historical examples played out has fostered the assumption that the path to Post-Putinism would be similar, in that a figure that dominates the Russian state would be forced to quietly bow out and watch as his subordinates openly disavow significant parts of his political agenda.

If one considers how Russia under Putin has evolved away from the industrial structures of its Twentieth century and towards a patrimonial social framework closer to that of contemporary Middle Eastern regimes, then these assumptions become decidedly problematic. The manner in which the crisis of the modernization project of High Putinism flowed into the fragmentation of power and state paranoia of Late Putinism parallels developments in Egypt and Pakistan has been outlined in the two previous posts in this series. Yet in both cases the culmination of these crises played out in the aftermath of the sudden death of the central figure within both regimes, an outcome that is less likely in Russia. In Egypt, the death of Nasser in 1969 gave his successor, Anwar Sadat, an opportunity to reorient the regime through a so-called de-Nasserization programme. In Pakistan, the rather suspicious death of Zia ul Haq in a plane crash in 1988 enabled the return of elite pluralism with the political comeback of the Bhutto family, a form of resurgence of former opposition groups which may take considerably more time in the Russian context.

There is, however, one example in the Greater Middle East of an attempted peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader steeped in the use of disinformation and hybrid tactics that should attract the attention of Russia watchers. Along with Putin's disappearance, March 2015 saw another major geopolitical surprise with the Saudi bombing campaign against the Yemeni Houthi movement and troops loyal to its ally former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This external intervention was the culmination of developments in Yemen that have interesting parallels to the proliferation of crises that may face the Putin regime over the next few years. It is not just that Saleh's quip that "ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes" is also a pretty apt description of the challenges Putin faces in sustaining control over contemporary Russian politics. The slow collapse of the Yemeni state in the final years of Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule and his current campaign against all those who expedited his peaceful removal indicates that an authoritarian leader removed from power in a soft coup can remain in a position to sabotage his successors. While the language with which Yemeni and Russian society are described may differ enormously, below the surface many of the dynamics that led to Saleh's war of revenge can also be found in Late Putinism.

Ali Abdullah Saleh provides his own take own take on the origins of the 'Arab Spring

Though it is difficult to imagine now, there was a time when Saleh was seen as a figure who could guarantee the unity and stability of an impoverished and fractious society. His early military career took shape in an environment marked by civil war and political turmoil. In the late 1950s a Republican revolt failed to dislodge the Imamate, a quasi-monarchical hereditary autocracy backed by Saudi Arabia. An Egyptian military intervention ordered by Nasser to support the Republican side quickly followed, leading to a long civil war that only ended after Cairo withdrew its forces in 1967 and the Saudis abandoned their support of the Imam in 1970. Having largely fought on the Republican side of the conflict, Saleh emerged as a young but experienced officer with a reputation for getting things done in the newly consolidated Yemen Arab Republic. As older officers became enmeshed in factional infighting, Saleh slowly built complex tribal alliances with established regional clan leaders while presenting himself to the wider world as a modernizing leader in the Nasser tradition.

Thus, when his predecessor, North Yemen President Ahmed Hussein Al-Ghashmi was assassinated in 1978,  Saleh was ideally positioned to gather support both from traditional leaders with strong links to Saudi Arabia as well as American and European diplomats who saw opportunities in a reformed and modernized North Yemen. In the ensuing decade, Saleh was able to entrench his power network to the extent that when financial pressures led to the unification of North Yemen with the neighbouring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990, he was in a position to maintain strong influence over all levels of government despite sharing power with Southern leaders. Though the breakdown of this agreement ultimately led to civil war in 1994, Saleh’s dominance in the North enabled him to mobilise a coalition of forces that pulverised a divided Southern leadership in Aden,. The successful suppression of the Southern elite ensured that tribes and interest groups allied to Saleh would benefit from Yemen’s newly found oil wealth. 

Yet it was the manner in which Saleh secured this dominance which sowed the seeds for his downfall and war of revenge two decades later. Rather than relying on a brittle military, Saleh used semi-feudal tribal levies as well as jihadi veterans of the Afghanistan War as shock troops. In the final assault on Aden, the Southern capital, Saleh deployed hybrid tactics that would have been familiar to Pakistani or Russian leaders. After the sacking of Aden and other Southern cities, Saleh's Northern jihadi and tribal supporters were rewarded with property and businesses expropriated from those that had lost out in the conquered territories. While this secured their loyalty in the short term, it enabled senior Northern tribal leaders such as the Ahmar clan to expand their personal power bases, while, as Stephen Day has indicated, alienating a large proportion of the Southern population in the process.

Moreover, the Saudi-backed jihadi networks Saleh invited in to help seize Aden slowly expanded their reach in an increasingly destabilizing fashion, as Gregory Johnsen has explored in great detail. Some turned on the Saleh regime and merged with Al Qaeda by the early 2000s, attracting the unwanted attention of the United States and its expanding drone assassination operations. As corrosive was the aggressive missionizing of former Sunni jihadis who remained loyal to Saleh. By challenging the established social order in Northern provinces such as Saada, the aggressive approach taken by radical Salafists and former jihadis provoked an uprising by a Zaidi Shia traditionalist movement led by Hussein al-Houthi, which went to war several times with the Yemeni state between 2004 and 2011.

By relying on non-state actors to secure his position in 1994 and retain control in the ensuing two decades, as Sarah Phillips indicated even before the mass protests of 2011, Saleh ultimately created the foundations for his own downfall. With his claims to be an agent of modernization a long distant memory, by the time the first Arab Spring protests gained momentum in Sanaa and became intermingled with separatist resentments in Aden the state institutions which Saleh needed to either satisfy the demands of protesters or quash them through swift action had been hollowed out. With military and police units loyal to individual commanders connected to tribal networks, Saleh again was reduced to calling in the help of tribal allies to keep control. The very corruption based on oil revenue and foreign aid which fuelled the 2011 protests thus remained essential to Saleh's hold on power. Without these cash transfers his remaining allies were likely to join the clans and officers that had already defected. His temporary removal from the scene to a Riyadh hospital after barely surviving a bomb attack on 3 June 2011 was enough to convince his allies that a deal was needed to force his resignation and end the state paralysis that was undermining whatever stability remained in Yemen.

Thus followed the kind of peaceful removal of an authoritarian leader that matches scenario many Russia watchers would assume would play out in the final days of the Putin regime. Concerned that tension between Saleh and senior figures that had abandoned the regime such as General Mohsen Ali and the head of the Ahmar tribal confederation could escalate into a civil war, external powers such as the Saudis, the US and the UN worked together with local elites to ensure a peaceful handover of power. Despite such foreign mediation, Saleh's peaceful removal from power had the hallmarks of an elite coup. Once core regime loyalists within the General People's Congress (GPC), his personal political party, began negotiating with senior protest leaders and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Islah Party, as Adam Baron and Iona Craig observed there were clear signs of an elite consensus that his resignation was overdue.

In order to prevent the Northern Houthi movement and Southern separatists taking advantage of the situation, a so-called 'National Dialogue' was put in place which was to act as a form of constitutional convention to modernize and democratize the Yemeni state. Not coincidentally, this was to go hand in hand with an extensive restructuring and re-equipping of the Yemeni Army to enable it to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and wrest restore the state's monopoly of violence over such political actors as the Houthis, tribal networks or the Hirak separatists. While Saleh resigned with as good grace as he could muster, he was promised immunity and his supporters were able to retain positions within the military and state bureaucracy. In order to secure the political transition, a former Southern ally of Saleh's, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was allowed to stand for president unopposed to ensure the stable functioning of government as changes were slowly put in place. By the spring of 2012, as American and European leaders touted the 'Yemen Model' as an example of successful political transition in the Middle East, Saleh seemed to be settling in to a comfortable retirement in his Sanaa villa.

Minus the foreign involvement (though China could take a direct interest), this easing out of Saleh by members of his own power vertical comes close to the elite coup model that many Russia scholars see as the only way in which Vladimir Putin's rule could be ended relatively smoothly. Just as Saleh's GPC core reached out to military defectors, tribal leaders, and protest coordinators, Kremlin loyalists could work with disaffected members of the elite, alienated regional leaders and prominent members of the opposition to arrange a stage-managed removal of Putin in a way that does not threaten the core interests of those involved. Putin's fate would be determined by the willingness of his supporters to arrange a meeting in the Kremlin where he would be clearly told that his time is up before being sent to enjoy quiet retirement under intense surveillance. In that context, the 'Yemen Model' touted by Western officials was often presented as a format that could be used to manage transition processes in other parts of the world. As late as January 2014, the US State Department was promoting the political process in Yemen as a success as other aspects of the Obama team's foreign policy approach came under pressure.

A year later the situation looks very different. Once the Hadi government failed to come to grips with a growing lack of security and botched reforms of petrol subsidies, the Houthi movement took the opportunity to use mass protests to attack pro-government militias and seize control of Sanaa by October 2014. In the ensuing months, the Houthis gradually forced members of the political elite loyal to Hadi to flee Northern Yemen and by late February 2015 had launched an offensive on the main Southern centres of Taiz and Aden, leaving the National Dialogue process in tatters. Building on initially tenuous links with the Tehran, the Houthis did their best to court Iranian support for their increasingly open takeover of the Yemeni state.

Yet as the country drifted into chaos, what took observers most by surprise is how GPC factions and elements within the security services loyal to Saleh played an active role in aiding the Houthis to seize strategic targets. Once bitter rivals now collaborated in systematically eliminating shared opponents and courting an Iranian government interested in causing trouble for Saudi Arabia in a neighbouring state. This improbable Saleh/Houthi partnership culminated with the continuing assault on Aden that ultimately triggered a Saudi military intervention driven by fear of growing Iranian influence in Yemen. As Saudi jets hammer Sanaa and Houthi artillery pounds Aden,  Saleh has tried to reposition himself as a major player in a way that those that had arranged his removal from power would have thought  unimaginable in 2012.

As we watch Saleh hold rousing patriotic speeches to his supporters in front of his bombed out residence and try to manoeuvre his family back into contention on the international stage, it is worth pondering what lessons his war of revenge may teach us about any effort by Russian elites to quietly topple Vladimir Putin. For Saleh's bloody comeback has been enabled by the kind of hollowing out of state cohesion and the use of non-state actors to achieve strategic goals that have been a hallmark of Putin's survival strategy since the Bolotnaya protests.  While the internationally backed deal within Yemen's elite around the National Dialogue process helped remove Saleh from power, as Farea al-Muslimi warned, neither Hadi nor his allies were in a strong enough position to remove the many officers and officials in the security services loyal to the old regime. Deep rivalries between Yemeni military units and security agencies meant that those that had turned on Saleh were often more distracted with bureaucratic turf battles than keeping an eye on what the Saleh clan were getting up to. Saleh's extensive arming of non-state tribal and jihadist allies as well as the militarization of his Houthi and Southern opponents meant that it he could find enough potential allies throughout Yemen who he could work with to undermine the stability of a state no longer under his control.

The sudden successes of Al Qaeda affiliates in Hadhramaut province in 2012, weeks after Saleh had been forced to resign, were in retrospect a clear indication not only of state weakness but also of active attempts by officers unhappy with the new order to undermine any attempt to entrench a post-Saleh power structure. Despite their long standing rivalry with his own patronage network, Saleh found in the Houthis a well-armed and highly motivated movement equally disatisfied with the National Dialogue and willing to do anything to disrupt it. Thus while the West and the GCC promoted the 'Yemen model' and Sanaa elites wrangled over the constitutional details, the Houthis began their direct assault on a fragile Yemeni state while Saleh's allies quietly undermined it from within. Yet rather than achieving a shared swift victory and a new division of spoils, from September 2014 onwards each move by this Saleh/Houthi alliance to consolidate power only fractured the country further into warring fiefdoms and set the stage for a Saudi military intervention whose relentlessness few had anticipated.

Die-hard Saleh supporters denounce Saudi airstrikes, 10 May 2015

Just as Saleh was able to build on a network of supporters within state institutions and armed non-state actors, any newly reconstituted Kremlin elite would have to contend with Putin loyalists in the security services as well as militarized social milieus that may not take kindly to any attempt to change course. As we have seen in the previous post exploring legacy of High Putinism, the personalized nature of Putin's control of the Russian state is likely to make it extremely difficult for any of his successors to rein in institutions seeking to regain their autonomy. If Putin is ushered off the scene in a way that permanently isolates him from those still loyal to him within federal and regional institutions, then it might be possible for a new president to reassert central control over time. Yet any elite coup which simply removes Putin from power without rooting out his underlying support network provides him with opportunities to sabotage any post-Putinist settlement. Even if Putin were to lose his life in any Kremlin turmoil, there is a strong likelihood that many unhappy with a new order would take up the standard of Putinism in a counter-offensive against a new power vertical. Unlike Khrushchev, it is highly unlikely that Putin will simply sit quietly in his dacha writing bitter memoirs out of loyalty to an overarching institution like the Soviet-era Communist Party. Rather, the likelihood is greater that he, like Saleh, would work with any allies he could find to reassert his political influence and demonstrate that without his consent Russia cannot remain stable.

In this context, the proliferation of armed non-state actors that has become a characteristic of Late Putinism would provide Putin with opportunities for revenge against his opponents which Khrushchev simply had no access to. Just as Saleh could make deals with armed tribal networks and even former enemies in the Houthi movement who disapproved of Yemen's new political course, Putin can work with pseudo-Cossack groups, Chechen units under Ramzan Kadyrov's control, nationalist militias in Donbass, organized crime and discontented regional leaders who have the means with which to disrupt the state's monopoly of violence. Unless any successor is willing to engage in ruthless purges that in themselves could destabilize the state, Putin loyalists within the security apparatus and key ministries would be likely to find opportunities to paralyse the state's response to any armed opposition and discredit its new leadership in the eyes of the wider Russian public. In any post-Putinism scenario, a deposed leader who has relied so heavily on hybrid tactics to secure his position when in power is unlikely to abandon them when seeking revenge against his successors.

As an example of how an attempt to remove an entrenched leader can go disastrously wrong, the resilience of Ali Abdullah Saleh should give Russia watchers pause for thought. The widespread consensus that an elite coup could head off popular discontent without destabilizing the Kremlin's power structure presupposes the kind of institutional stability Soviet leaders could count on when they plotted against Nikita Khrushchev. Yet as we have seen in this and the previous two posts in this series, key aspects of the contemporary Russian state bare a greater structural resemblance to certain societies in the Greater Middle East than to the institutional framework of the Soviet Union. In a context in which the loyalty of semi-autonomous bureaucracies and regional barons is defined through their relationship to a specific leader and a proliferation of armed groups erode the state's monopoly of violence, a quick recalibration of the power vertical after Putin's fall seems unlikely. Even in such an initially benign scenario, the risks would remain high that a vengeful former Vozhd would rather bring down the state than see allies who had betrayed him prosper after a successful transition. The disastrous consequences of such an act of revenge by a deposed authoritarian leader are there for all to see in the bombed out streets of Aden and Sanaa.


Any historian using comparative methods to explore a contemporary political debate needs to acknowledge the limitations of this approach. For all the structural parallels that may exist between societies that are the subject of analysis, important differences in economic, political and cultural development that need to be kept in mind. There are therefore a number of important caveats when trying to establish what lessons can be learned from the contemporary history of the Greater Middle East when it comes to developing insights into the possible paths Russia may take.

When looking at the remarkable parallels between the highly personalized nature of the Egyptian political system that emerged under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the High Putinist era between 2000 and 2012, then key differences in economic structure also become apparent. The challenges the Kremlin faces in managing post-industrial decline and a rentier economy based on oil prices are very different from those Nasserist economic planners had to cope with when trying to industrialize a post-colonial economy heavily dependent on agriculture and cotton production. The major differences in economic development between 1990s Russia and 1950s Egypt meant that in certain key policy areas Putin and Nasser opted for very different ways of managing their relationships with business and regional elites.

The similar ways in which Vladimir Putin and Muhammad Zia ul Haq used hybrid tactics to pursue internal and external political strategies make the trajectory of Pakistani politics after 1988 an interesting case study for those trying to establish what the historical legacy of Late Putinism may become. Yet Zia himself was the product of military and religious traditions very different from those of the entrepreneurial security circles to which Putin belongs. As Shuja Nawaz has explored, Zia's formative years serving in the British Empire's Indian Army and within the Pakistani military meant that his contact with the world outside the officer corps remained limited. However much it also served his strategic goals, Zia's emphasis on the Islamicization of Pakistani society stemmed from a deep sense of personal faith. In particular, Zia always kept his distance from a business elite with which he did not feel culturally at ease. By contrast, Putin's rise began in a St Petersburg mayor's office in which former intelligence operatives, businessmen and gangsters mixed easily in the pursuit of profit. Moreover, for all the noisiness of Putin's apparent devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, it remains as yet unclear whether this is a result of any deeply held religious beliefs or out of purely tactical considerations. These differences in outlook and leadership style need to be taken into account when one looks at the parallels between the legacies of the Zia and Putin regimes.

With all the useful analogies one can draw between the circumstances that brought down Ali Abdullah Saleh and those that may lead to Vladimir Putin's fall, one of course needs to remain conscious of the major differences in the international position of their respective countries. As a resource poor state surrounded by wealthier and more militarily powerful neighbours, Yemen has regularly suffered from covert meddling and open armed interventions that have had a deeply disruptive effect. During his long period in power, Saleh has had to balance the competing demands of the Saudis, the Americans, the Europeans and Iran, who each have tried to influence Yemeni politics in ways that benefited their own economic or strategic interests. By contrast, despite the Kremlin's constant warnings about foreign meddling in Russian affairs, as the leader of a nuclear armed former superpower Putin has military, media and financial resources to assert his power on the international stage that Saleh can only dream of. As a result, the impact rival states have on Putin's political calculations are very different to the kind of external pressures faced by Saleh and his current Houthi partners.

Yet for all these important differences between contemporary Russia and states in the Greater Middle East, the structural parallels between these societies are far greater than those between the Putin regime and its Soviet or Tsarist predecessors. The personalized style of Putin's power vertical is far removed from the way in which even under Brezhnev, the Communist Party created an institutional and ideological framework that limited the freedom of action of rival factions within the Kremlin. Moreover, by the mid-nineteenth century, the legitimacy of Tsarist autocracy was anchored on a centuries old dynastic myth of which the fifteen year old Putin regime can only dream of. Yet a power vertical based on mutual dependencies between a corrupted leadership and state, business or regional elites that relies on a proliferation of armed non-state actors is a combination you can find both in Russia and states in the Greater Middle East.

That does not mean that Russia will inevitably suffer the various forms of societal breakdown we are witnessing today in Egypt, Pakistan or Yemen. Rather, a clearer understanding of how these societies drifted into a state of near permanent crisis would help scholars and policy makers to develop insights that can help prevent similar outcomes in the Russian Federation. The highly personalized nature of Nasser's regime ultimately eroded institutional mechanisms a central executive needs to hold strong state bureaucracies in check. Those in Russia trying to restore an institutional framework not dependent on a specific individual could draw key lessons about how such a process can go awry from recent developments in Egypt. Any post-Putin government struggling to restore the state monopoly of violence in the face of armed non-state actors could do well to examine the ongoing struggle in Pakistan to overcome the social damage caused by hybrid warfare. And perhaps most importantly, the dire consequences of the inability of a new Yemeni leadership in 2012 to uproot the power network of a former dictator may provide some indications of the tough decisions Russian politicians and civil society leaders may have to make in the immediate aftermath of any form of elite coup.

Over the past seventy years there has been a long history of political interaction and cultural exchange between Russia and the societies of the Greater Middle East. How these links between Moscow, Cairo, Islamabad and Sanaa may have contributed to the emerging structural parallels between Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and several states in the region would be a very useful topic for further research. At the very least, it would move away from a focus on the Kremlin's evolving relationship with the West towards setting out how contemporary Russian politics may have been the product of a variety of different external cultural and economic influences. Future scholars may even uncover how commercial and political links built between Russian and Middle Eastern elites from the 1950s onwards played a role in shaping the conditions that made the Kremlin's current power vertical possible. In that case, perhaps the next edition of Roger Owen's excellent book The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life may even end up with a chapter about a certain Vladimir Putin.

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 2: Late Putinism and the Hybrid Dictatorship of Zia ul Haq

Members of the 'Russian Orthodox Army' prepare for Battle in Donetsk, 2014.

Late Putinism and the Hybrid Dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul Haq

In the aftermath of the seizure of Crimea by the Russian military, an old tactical concept gained an unprecedented degree of interest from a European public shocked by the sudden turn of events. Over the spring of 2014, European and Ukrainian media suddenly saw a proliferation of instant experts in hybrid warfare, the tactical approach by which the Putin regime paralysed Kyiv and its allies in order to seize territory with barely a shot fired. Using disinformation, allied local political activists, proxy militias and special forces to destabilize an opponent militarily while maintaining plausible deniability, hybrid warfare tactics proved very effective in destabilizing a vulnerable Ukrainian state already reeling from the political turmoil surrounding the fall of Victor Yanukovich. Prominent scholars with a background in Security Studies such as Mark Galeotti and Lawrence Freedman pointed to how this campaign built on Russian and Soviet traditions of using hybrid tactics in such conflicts as the Afghan war, Chechnya or various interventions in Cold War Eastern Europe.

What remains so problematic about much analysis of the Putin regime's use of hybrid tactics is that it tends to present this form of covert warfare as a particularly Russian approach to waging war. Yet most of the techniques that shocked Europe in the spring of 2014 would have seemed depressingly familiar to any observer of political conflict in the Greater Middle East. During the Lebanese Civil War the Assad regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Saddam Hussein, Israel and Saudi Arabia used variants of hybrid tactics to influence the course of events. In North Africa, Muammar Ghaddafi used infiltration, disinformation and proxy militias to try to gain control over Chad before eventually getting sucked into a conventional war in which the Libyan army performed miserably. In neighbouring Algeria, security services under the oversight of the notorious DRS used disinformation and other hybrid tactics to brutal effect to counter an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

Of all the states in the Greater Middle East, however, it is Pakistan that has used hybrid warfare most extensively against more powerful neighbours. Unresolved territorial disputes with India have repeatedly led to moments of high tension. With India's significant conventional and nuclear military advantages, from an early point the Pakistani security services became fixated on the use of hybrid tactics against stronger opponents to achieve strategic goals. Yet over time, the central role played by hybrid warfare in the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) and Pakistani Army's attempt to gain control over Kashmir and Afghanistan helped to undermine the internal stability of the Pakistani state itself.

Since partition and independence in 1947, Pakistan has remained heavily influenced by ideological trends from the Arab world. Despite the long-lasting theoretical debate about whether Pakistan belongs to what American military strategists call the Greater Middle East, deep relationships between Islamabad and key states in the region including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have had a profound impact on the Pakistani state. Though Pakistan's alignment with the West and Saudi Arabia caused considerable friction with the Nasser regime, many of its key features including an emphasis on secular institutions, a strong social role for politically neutral Islamic institutions or a focus on a strong state role within the economy also defined Pakistani politics.

While the Egyptian state plunged into a period of acute instability after the 1967 war, the Pakistani political order that had been shaped by Jinnah in the independence period experienced a severe crisis after the loss of Bangladesh in 1971. As Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the increasingly unpopular head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), moved aggressively to suppress opponents in ways that threatened civil conflict, there were growing calls within elite circles for the military to intervene. Accusations of PPP vote rigging at a key election in 1977 proved to be the breaking point. Once opposition parties declared the Bhutto government illegitimate, the military under the leadership of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had the pretext it needed to suspend the constitutional order and seize control of the state. Though he claimed that he would call elections months after the coup, Zia quickly consolidated his position and set about restoring state power. With the coup d'etat successfully completed on 5 April 1977, Zia was now faced with the challenge of legitimizing his rule and restoring support for state institutions many Pakistanis had come to see as incompetent and corrupt.

In the ensuing decade, the military and security service elite around Zia often pursued contradictory goals. Ayesha Jalal's study of the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia years outlines how tightening relationships between army and security service officials with senior members of the Pakistani business elite clashed with the anti-corruption agenda that had been used to justify military rule. While Zia himself worked strenuously to maintain an image of rectitude, the families of many of his loyalists within the security services benefited from his ascendancy in a noticeable fashion. Attempts to consolidate state power had to be balanced with backroom deals sealed with powerful regional elites who could help the military solidify political control in a way that confirmed its image as a guarantor of stability. Thus the Zia era saw an enormous increase of the central power of the military without significantly undermining the neo-feudal social order in the countryside or the incestuous business networks in the cities that had so hindered attempts to modernize and democratize the Pakistani state.

In foreign policy terms, the clique of generals and spooks around Zia was confronted with challenges that defied easy solutions. Though the Pakistani army still had greater prestige than other dysfunctional state institutions, its defeats at the hands of the Indian Army and Bangladeshi insurgents had weakened its levels of public support. Attempts to take the initiative in disputed border areas of the Kashmir or Punjab regions in the 1960s and 1970s ended in stalemate, as the Indian Army after was usually able to reinforce exposed positions and push Pakistani military units operating openly or covertly out of territory they had seized. The collapse of the Afghan monarchy in the early 1970s and the brittle Socialist regimes that ruled Kabul in the aftermath also caused the Pakistani military increasing difficulties. Struggling to maintain control, a new Afghan political elite aligned with the Soviet Union began back ethnic Pushtun irredentist claims on large swathes of Pakistani territory. Thus when the USSR intervened in Afghanistan with a large military contingent in 1979 to secure the survival of its local allies, the Zia regime saw itself confronted with both an ideological threat from Soviet Communism and an ethno-national threat from the Pushtun factions allied with Moscow.

As Marvin Weinbaum illustrated at the time, it was in this febrile atmosphere driven by internal instability and foreign policy challenges that Zia opted to deploy hybrid warfare tactics to secure the survival of his regime. Like Putin's shift to what could be called a Late Putinist paradigm, a crisis of legitimacy triggered by the convergence of internal instabilty with perceived external threats led to an extensive use of hybrid warfare as part of a wider ideological reorientation of the state. After the crisis of 2011, Putin abandoned an ostensible commitment to national modernization and deeper integration with the West for isolationist nationalism oriented around a revival of Russian Orthodox religious symbols. In a remarkably similar fashion, in the late 1970s Zia intensified state cooperation with radical Islamist groups whose influence until then had been balanced by more secular-oriented social milieus that dominated Bhutto's PPP. In both cases, what had been relatively politically marginal movements were not only empowered in order to provide a new ideological source of legitimacy, they became a key means through which hybrid warfare tactics were implemented to strengthen internal control and ward off external threats.

In the Pakistani case the alliance between security services and radical Islamist movements played out on multiple levels. Internally, Zia and his allies within the Ministry of Interior placed a strong emphasis on the introduction of sharia courts and the strengthening of a Koran based legal system running in parallel to the established judiciary. This provided the regime with new tools of social control which enjoyed support among a large proportion of the population and bypassed more secular oriented milieus that remained suspicious of military rule. Not only did the Zia regime provide institutional backing for these Islamization campaigns, Zia used symbolic actions such as the first declamation of Koranic verses before a leader's speech at the UN General Assembly as a way of indicating to state elites that they needed to adjust to this new course. As Aqil Shah has pointed out this internal use of Islamist movements also enabled the security services to apply pressure on opponents indirectly, providing a means with which the ISI or the police could feign neutrality while mobilizing the more religiously conservative elements of society against their opponents.

When it came to dealing with external challenges, Islamist movements organised proxy militias that could be deployed either against a secular Indian state or a Soviet-backed Afghan government in the name of the defence of Islam. While the Afghan revolt against a Socialist regime and the Soviet occupation that followed was driven by internal discontent, the ISI used links between theologically conservative groups dominated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Pakistani Islamist organizations as the basis around which to build strong militia networks loyal to Islamabad. However much the United States tried to funnel support to Afghan militias with more of a nationalist or ethnic base, the CIA's dependence on the ISI's local contacts on the ground meant that the vast influx American aid fuelling the Afghan insurgency reinforced the strength of Islamist militias loyal to Pakistan. Moreover, with a growing number of volunteers joining Islamist Afghan militias or setting up groups of their own to fight the Soviets, the ISI's pivotal role enabled the Pakistani security services to strengthen links with conservative Arab regimes and jihadi networks.

In the short term, engaging in these kinds of hybrid tactics enabled the ISI to achieve several goals. For all the religious and anti-Communist rhetoric used by Zia and the ISI in promoting their role in the Afghan war, their primary focus was on securing and extending the position of the Pakistani military. The use of Islamist organizations to build proxy militias in Afghanistan ensured that a US backed campaign to limit Soviet expansionism was dominated by groups loyal to Pakistan and ideologically averse to engaging in Afghan irredentist projects after the war had been won. With an in-built hostility to secular regimes, groups such as the Hekmatyar network would also be extremely unlikely to work with India, Pakistan's primary enemy. By supplying arms to multiple groups, Islamabad also did its best to prevent the rise of any united Afghan mujahideen command whose dominance could potentially threaten Pakistan's ability to use the 'strategic depth' of an alliance with Afghanistan in any battle against the Indian army. Heavy involvement in the importation and training of Arab foreign fighters also deepened links with political networks in key Arab states that could be used to promote Pakistani interests across the Greater Middle East.

As Lawrence Wright has illustrated, the involvement of Arab foreign fighters also finalised the shift within many of these recruitment networks in Pakistan and the Arab world from more moderate strands of Islamism towards out and out jihadi ideologies. Rather than putting a brake on this shift to ever more extreme ideologies, the ISI deployed jihadi networks established in response to the war in Afghanistan against the Indian military in Kashmir. Though such tactics against India had been intermittently used since the mid-1960s, the late 1980s saw a surge in operations to enable the Pakistani military to exert dominance in Kashmir without having to invade directly. Whenever Indian governments in the 1980s and 1990s furiously accused Islamabad of stoking a vicious jihadi insurgency across Jammu and Kashmir, Zia and his successors would simply lean back and claim that the fighters were either locals or volunteers over which they had little control. For at least a decade, this use of disinformation, proxy militias and other hybrid tactics kept India off balance and, as Paul Kapur and other observers have set out, weakened its ability to put Pakistan under pressure.

The legacy of the use of disinformation, proxy militia groups and other hybrid tactics against internal and external opponents by the Zia regime contains valuable lessons for analysts trying to determine what impact Late Putinism will have on Russia's political future. That there are quite a few parallels between the Zia regime's linkage of hybrid tactics with the embrace of radical political movements and the actions the Putin regime took in response to the Bolotnaya protests should fill Russia watchers with great concern. As Ahmed Rashid has outlined repeatedly, the short term strategic advantage the Zia regime gained through the use of hybrid tactics and jihadi proxies was at the price of the long term destabilization of Pakistani society.

                                    Zia ul Haq appeals to the UK for an alliance against the USSR, 1981

In a phenomenon that has come to be known as blowback, local and international jihadi networks that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan backed during the war against Soviet occupation turned on their sponsors. With the Saudi regime's embrace of American military support during the first Iraq War, many jihadi veterans of Afghanistan's conflicts came to identify both the United States and the al Saud dynasties as the primary obstacles to the achievement of their ideological goals. This turn against the main sources of Pakistan's financial support put Pakistani governments coping with the fall out from Zia's sudden death in 1988 and the resurgence of the PPP under Benazir Bhutto in the early 1990s under enormous pressure. For the military and the ISI, which relied on radical Islamist movements to keep India under pressure and Afghanistan weak and loyal, endless war between jihadis and the United States created a strategic dilemma that constrained the Pakistani state's freedom of action. By 1999, the risks involved in either provoking American and Saudi anger or losing control over jihadi networks that could wreak enormous damage had paralysed strategic decision-making, with attempts at finding a middle path satisfying neither side.

Linkage between hybrid warfare and alliances with radical movements had a devastating impact on the internal stability of Pakistan as well. Since Zia's death, factions within the military and ISI have colluded with jihadi movements to intimidate or even, as is rumoured in the case of Benazir Bhutto, assassinate shared opponents. The intense cooperation between the ISI and jihadi networks in particular has led to growing radicalisation within parts of the military and security services. Even at senior levels, many officers and intelligence agents have over time absorbed a jihadi outlook from militants or Taliban commanders with which they have cooperated with so intensely over decades. With this protection from high level supporters, influence over armed groups enabled Islamist movements that did not necessarily represent a majority of public opinion to put intense pressure on state institutions to back their ideological agenda. As a consequence, political conflict within Pakistan has become ever more violent, as non-religious political groups also resort to the use of armed groups to assert their interests against Islamist and other rivals.

The near collapse of the Pakistani state after the fall of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, another military ruler who meddled in Kashmir and Afghanistan, was a direct consequence of the reorientation of the Pakistani state under Zia ul Haq. The so-called Pakistani Taliban which has plunged large swathes of Northwest Pakistan into near civil war conditions punctuated by American drone strikes is a direct successor of the movements Zia had armed and coddled in the early 1980s. Initially designed to shore up the power of the military in a pious and stable society, the internal and external components of Zia's hybrid dictatorship crippled the ability of the state to respond to fundamental internal and external threats.

The parallels between the political approach of the Zia regime and the methods used by the Late Putinist Kremlin have worrying implications for the future development of Russian society. Though cooperation with extreme nationalist groups was already a feature of High Putinism, such relationships remained on an arms length basis and were balanced through regime alliances with liberal figures. But through a shift towards a more openly aggressive stance towards external and internal opponents, particularly in the wake of Ukraine's Maidan Revolution, the Putin regime has publicly adopted irredentist aspects of the Russian nationalist agenda. Prominent Russian nationalists have been extensively used as proxies in the hybrid warfare phase of the Kremlin's military campaign against Ukraine. By the final months of 2014, nationalist networks that had previously been kept at a distance were used extensively by the security services to man pro-Russian military units in Eastern Ukraine. Adopting this expansionist agenda, Ramzan Kadyrov and other Chechen figures have used Russian nationalist rhetoric to increase influence through participation in a shared territorial project. There are also strong signs that many figures across the Putinist hierarchy have embraced ultra-nationalist ideology. As former members such as Aleksandr Sytin have revealed even key intelligence think tanks such as RISI are now controlled by members of the intelligence establishment who share the world view of once marginal nationalist ideologues such as Alexander Prokhanov and Aleksandr Dugin.

Yet the Pakistani example demonstrates that while such an alliance with radical groups built around cooperation in forms of hybrid warfare may give a a regime short term tactical advantage, it can also breakdown the cohesion of the political elite and undermine the state in the long term. The growing political influence of radical groups can alienate other constituencies equally vital to the stability of the regime, leading to conflict over the future course of domestic or foreign policy. The armed nationalist volunteer networks the FSB and GRU have helped establish may prove difficult to dismantle, and are now in a position to cause significant damage if their members decide that the Putin government has turned against them. While the seizure of parts of the Donbass through hybrid tactics may have given the Kremlin temporary advantage in relation to the Ukrainian government, a political vacuum within the Donbass also provides various radical groups a safe haven they could use as much to organise operations against opponents in Russia as the Ukrainian state. While the conquest of Crimea may prove the high point of Late Putinism, the dependence on nationalist proxies to carry out forms of hybrid warfare in the Donbass has opened up a political dynamic which could wreak the kind of long term havoc in Russia the Pakistani public is all too familiar with.

The fevered speculation surrounding the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is already an indication of the corrosive effect the methods of the Late Putinist Kremlin have had on its ability to maintain internal stability. One of the main theories put forward by dissidents such as Alexei Navalny or Leonid Volkov is that the assassination was carried out by groups closely associated to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, causing deep irritation within a dismayed FSB. While these figures tend to assume that Putin must have initiated the assassination, alternative explanations suggest that Putin is no longer the master of events.

Even if inaccurate, such widespread speculation about the extent to which Kremlin is fully aware of actions take by elements within official or informal security structures punctures the Putin myth of a strong power vertical guaranteeing national stability. The erratic actions of a whole range of pro-Russian and Russian nationalist militias in East Ukraine also indicate that the Kremlin may be finding it difficult to restrain proxies the Russian military has armed to the teeth. The implications of such a radical erosion of Putin's power vertical and the resulting threat to the stability of a state he has subordinated to his personalised form of government would represent a worrying outcome for Western policy makers. While a situation in which Putin carries direct responsibility for criminal acts committed by regime supporters provides the hope that pressure on his circle could get him to rein in his allies, US, EU and Ukrainian officials would have very few means with which to influence a situation in which Putin has lost control over factions his security services have armed and trained.

The Pakistani experience during and after the Zia era provides a clear precedent for what can unfold if a personalised authoritarian regime shores up its internal and external position through alliances with radicals and the use of hybrid tactics. The clear parallels between Zia's hybrid dictatorship and the methods of the Late Putinist Kremlin are an indication that specialists in the study of Russian politics have much to gain by exploring recent Pakistani history. For policy makers and analysts, understanding how the actions of a Pakistani military elite in the early 1980s sowed the seeds of the chaos their successors are struggling to stem today may provide some clues to working to ensure that Late Putinism does not push Russia towards a similarly disastrous course.

Where such a course might lead if nothing is done to counteract it can be seen most vividly today on the battlefields of Yemen, the country to which the final post in this series will turn.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 1: High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's Rais-State

A poster welcoming Vladimir Putin to Cairo on his February 2015 state visit to Egypt

In the wake of the very public death of Boris Nemtsov within a stone's throw of the Kremlin, many commentators have done their best to establish whether President Vladimir Putin may have personally given the order to kill a political rival. Senior figures within the remnants of Russia's organized opposition such as Alexei Navalny and Leonid Volkov remain convinced that only Putin himself has the strength to order such a high profile killing. By contrast scholars and journalists such as Mark Galeotti or the investigative team at Novaya Gazeta have speculated that Nemtsov's death was the product of actions by nationalists, security services or individuals loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who may be increasingly operating outside of the Kremlin's control. Confronted with the assassination of Nemtsov and Putin's subsequent disappearance, these attempts at making sense of an unpredictable regime used comparisons with key moments in Russian history  to help frame their own interpretation of events. Such grand historical moments as the rise of the oprichniki under Ivan the Terrible, the Black Hundreds of the late nineteenth century, Stalin's purges and even Gorbachev's 'conservative turn' have been used to help explain Putin's actions and his own future legacy. Yet when looked at more closely such comparisons of events in contemporary Russia with past crises in Russian history are deeply flawed, potentially distorting our analysis of the emergence, structures and impact of the Putin regime. 

The Imperial autocracy under the Romanov dynasty contained factors underpinning its identity and institutions that have few equivalents in Putin's Russia. The existence of a land-holding nobility whose legitimacy was based on the dynastic continuity of the Romanov dynasty was a pillar of pre-1914 Imperial Russia. Political debate was defined by how conflicts between the nobility and emerging social groups in the cities affected repeated attempts by a tsarist elite to centralise state power. Though a siloviki nomenklatura has provided a degree of continuity within the security services and parts of the state capitalist elite, under the Putin regime it cannot draw on the long term continuity and ritualised dynastic legitimacy that even incompetent tsars could rely on until the late nineteenth century.

Comparisons with the Soviet Union also fall short. Throughout its existence, the USSR nominally adhered to an ideological framework that cut across ethnicity and religion. Though the state often promoted de facto russification under Stalin and Brezhnev, Communist ideology put limits on what could be said and done openly. Moreover, the institutional structures of the post-Stalinist Communist Party placed constraints on the leadership's freedom of manoeuvre, while also connecting the Soviet elite with a transnational movement that could be used to promote its interests. Despite Putin's attempts to use various ideological networks to mobilise support for his regime, there is no equivalent within contemporary Russia to the overarching ideological discourse that defined the Soviet experiment. Rather, the Putin regime uses Russian history as a symbolic resource that helps it justify its actions through references that are recognizeable to the Russian public. Yet such instrumentalization of history by an authoritarian regime does not necessarily mean that the underlying structures its leadership has put into place match those of previous eras in their country's history.

Rather than using such problematic historical models, it may be preferable to develop comparisons with forms of political organization and mobilization in other parts of the world that bear greater similarities to the structures and direction of travel of the Putin regime. In particular, a particular form of security service driven quasi-plebiscitary dictatorship initially developed by Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 1950s contains remarkable parallels with the kind of state that Putin has constructed over the past fifteen years. Over the past sixty years, this Egyptian template has been emulated by authoritarian regimes from Libya to Pakistan and Syria to Sudan, a political space that many International Relations scholars such as Richard Haass have come to call the Greater Middle East.

In three posts this blog will outline how exploring the echoes within the Putinist state of regimes built by authoritarian leaders such as Nasser can provide us with a better understanding of how Russia has arrived at its current impasse and how it may evolve in future. The first section, High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's Rais State, will outline how Putin's mobilisation and consolidation strategies contain striking similarities with the efforts by Nasser to construct a power vertical in mid-Twentieth century Egypt. Examining the weaknesses and strengths of Nasser's experiment may help us understand the impact of what Brian Whitmore has described as the era of High Putinism, which came to a close with the Bolotnaya demonstration of 6 May 2012. In the second section, Late Putinism and the Hybrid Dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul Haq, we will look at the parallels between the hybrid warfare strategies deployed by the Putin regime in Ukraine and Chechnya and the methods used by Pakistan's General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. His search for new sources for ideological legitimacy after a quasi-Nasserist approach to state mobilisation entered a period of crisis hold important lessons for those analysing the current Late Putinist phase Russia seems to have entered. The final section, Post-Putinism and Ali Abdallah Saleh's War of Revenge, will point to how the actions of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh after his ouster from power could foreshadow the kind of behaviour Putin may display if he is no longer able to dominate the Russian political system. A better sense of such parallels between Putin and Saleh, whose attempt to consolidate power in the Nasserist style fractured Yemeni society in 1994, could help Ukrainian and European policy-makers ensure that Russia avoids the kind of state fracture that we are currently witnessing in Yemen.

High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's 'Rais-State'

On the surface you could find few more different politicians than Vladimir Putin and Gamel Abdel Nasser. While Putin's talents as a public speaker are limited, Nasser was legendary for flamboyant speeches that galvanised the support of vast crowds. Given to sardonic quips, Putin has built an image of cool detachment, providing many Russians with a sense that their president can calmly guide their country through periods of crisis. Though Putin has tried to work crowds at such events as the annual regime youth convention at Lake Seliger, he has tended to fall flat in anything but the most controlled exchanges with large groups of people outside the elite. By contrast, as a talented demagogue Nasser could enthusiastically engage with Egyptians and other Arabs of all backgrounds. This 1966 clip of Nasser pouring scorn on the Muslim Brotherhood is one of many examples of a wit and charm which Putin has never been able to match:

Nasser mocks the Muslim Brotherhood, 1966.

But if one looks beyond these differences in style, the strong similarities between the substance of the Nasser regime and the first, High Putinist, decade of Putin's time in office stand out. As a young officer Nasser was part of a coalition of military, business and political factions including the Muslim Brotherhood which came together to bring down the Egyptian monarchy through the 'Free Officers' coup of 1952. Yet as Anne Alexander has pointed out, as leader of the 'Free Officers' Nasser was initially only one of several key figures operating under the leadership of General Muhammad Naguib. Although public agitation played a role, Nasser managed to attain a dominant position after the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions overplayed their hand and Naguib was outmanoeuvred through opaque in-fighting within the military. 

Though much has been made of Nasser's charismatic public persona by biographers such as Said Aburish, his rise combined covert elite factional battles with open political campaigning that paved the rise of a relative outsider from obscurity to dominance within four years. In fact, Nasser's legendary status as Egypt's charismatic Rais (President) who could sway a crowd through wit and quickness of thought was only cemented after his calm response to an assassination attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. It is this managed rise, with its public campaigning concealing equally significant battles for turf and dominance behind the scenes that one can already see the parallels with the spectacular career of an obscure former KGB officer in 1990s Russia. For Nasser, as with Putin, every move from 1950 onwards combined an increasingly public presence with various covert moves to intimidate his opponents and strengthen the position of his faction within the military, state and economy. 

The actions Nasser took to cement his hold on power also have some similarities with the actions Putin took in the first two years of his presidency. In ruthlessly turning on his erstwhile allies within the Muslim Brotherhood and engaging in confrontations with former colonial powers France and Britain, Nasser was able to mobilise a significant proportion of the population behind his social and pan-Arab foreign policy agendas. In a contemporary echo of these strategies, Putin used war against an internal enemy in the Chechens along with a more assertive Russian stance on the international political stage to solidify public support for the centralisation of state power. Admittedly, the kind of conflicts Nasser and Putin used to consolidate their positions were very different in nature, reflecting the distinct challenges they faced at specific historical junctures. While Nasser used an anti-colonial quasi-socialist ideological framework to legitimate his political project, Putin emphasised Russia's great power status and at least outwardly claimed to support the creation of a functioning free market. Yet the structural outcomes that both sought to bring about have remarkable parallels. 

In both cases authoritarian leaders who had recently seized power focused public anger against internal as well as external enemies to help build an increasingly centralised power vertical. Putin used the brutal suppression of the Chechen insurgency to symbolically turn the tide in what was seen as a crisis of Russian statehood. Nasser's ruthless political campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood marked a means through which he could impose central discipline on the Egyptian state. In 1950s and 1960s Egypt as in early 2000s Russia appeals to national pride and a greater role in global affairs helped cement the image of the ruler as the protector of national greatness. To create a facade of democratic legitimacy, Putin and Nasser used dubious electoral processes as a quasi-plebiscitary element that could be used to claim that the public had concretely express its full support for the president and his factions. Curtis Ryan illustrated how the Nasser government also used various means to control opposition actions in order to simulate acceptance of its rule across different milieus in a way that would have made Putin's former Chief of Staff for internal affairs Vladislav Surkov proud.

In the process, Putin and Nasser presented themselves as modernisers who centralised power at the expense of previously autonomous regional and business elites who were deemed to be holding the nation back. However much corruption still marred the day to day life of citizens, intermittent attempts to crack down on corrupt officials maintained a degree of discipline within the state, cementing the impression of a benevolent leader toiling away at all hours to protect the people. This attempted modernization of the economy and society through intensive centralization of a power vertical was legitimised through appeals to national pride, with Putin and Nasser equating a restoration of centralized state power with a restoration of national greatness. Though the strategic implications of an increased invocation of pan-Arabism in the late 1950s Middle East and some sort of cross-border 'Russian world' after 2005 remain distinct from one another, both reflected a deep conviction within state elites of that intervention in culturally related states, the 'near abroad' as many post-1990 Russians called them, was an entirely legitimate course of action. In both cases though there were often profound disagreements within the elite about the extent to which the state should seize coordinate economic activity, the central leadership remained focussed on economic and technological modernization as a means with which to challenge rival powers.

Nasser inspects a Russian Ilyushin aircraft purchased
 as part of his Egyptian modernization programme, 1957.

What remained of the old order was forced to lobby for support for their pet projects from a powerful and clannish elite centred on a presidential court. Both Putin and Nasser moved to displace previously powerful economic figures by empowering cronies in key sections of the economy. This put them in a position to arbitrate between various factions and if necessary buy off potential threats from within what remained of a middle class and business networks. As John Waterbury pointed out, during the first decade and half of Nasser's rule the security services came to play an increasingly central role in this process, entrenching their position along with the military as arbiters far beyond their initial intelligence remit. While the sources of national wealth remain quite distinct between mid-twentieth century Egypt and 1990s Russia, this systematic co-optation of great chunks of the economy by military and intelligence leaders in order to create a form of centrally coordinated state capitalism became a feature of both the Nasser and Putin regimes.

The resulting intertwined nature between military, intelligence service and business elites, which Roberto Roccu explores in an excellent study of the political economy of modern Egypt, have become a lasting legacy of the Nasser era that remained at the core of the most recent attempts to roll back the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution. Moreover, Nasser's enormous political influence across the Arab world after outmanoeuvring the British, French and Israelis during the Suez crisis and strengthening ties with non-Western powers including the Soviet Union encouraged many leaders who seized power in the Greater Middle East during this period to consciously emulate his model of government. Political strongmen emerged in states as varied as Libya, North Yemen, Iraq and even in some ways Pakistan, who both absorbed aspects of Nasser's ideological model and adopted many of the state modernization initiatives that seemed to be pushing Egypt to the cusp of great power status by the mid-1960s. These state structures, and the way they have thrown their support behind a leader from the intelligence services who is willing to protect their interests, be it in the early 1960s or now under General Sisi, continue to reproduce power relations that would be more than familiar to most Russia watchers.
Structural parallels between the era of High Putinism between 2000 - 2008 and the Nasser regime of the 1950s and 1960s could then provide a few possible hints as to the internal balance of power the lies behind the curtain within the Kremlin. Exploring the rivalries, institutional frameworks and mobilization strategies of such an analogous regime may therefore be a more useful methodological tool for budding kremlinologists than any number of references to Stolypin or Beria. There are in particular three fundamental ways the rise of the Nasser regime in the mid-1950s as well as the growing problems it faced by the late 1960s can help us develop useful insights into how political structures developed by the Putin regime at its height have helped lead it into its current impasse.

The first is dependence on a form of charismatic leadership that lacks a strong basis of legitimacy in long-established dynastic traditions or a well-formulated political ideology. Though pan-Arabism and massive infrastructure projects have became part of the Rais myth that shaped popular memory of Nasser, as Fouad Ajami pointed out at the time attempts by his regime to develop a more systematic ideology often veered into incoherence. While pan-Arabist rhetoric provided a recognizeable core to Nasserism, the lack of any systematic economic or social analysis underpinning it gave the Nasserist political elite considerable political flexibility. Without such a coherent socio-economic ideological programme, Nasser's successors from Sadat to Sisi were in a position to simply eject most projects and ideals he claimed to espouse when they became inconvenient. While the profoundly repressive and increasingly corrupt institutional framework established by Nasser survived his death in 1969, the great bulk of his personal political agenda was largely been abandoned a decade later. The ephemeral nature of much of what defined Nasserism should be kept in mind when discussing the extent to which the particular ideological projects Vladimir Putin's inner circle are trying to promote will survive after he has left the scene.

The second key parallel between the Nasser and Putin regimes at their height is the considerable autonomy state institutions were able to carve out as leading officials became personally answerable only to a specific leader at the apex of the power vertical. From the very start, state modernization was hampered by the leader's need to foster rivalries between state institutions in order to prevent the formation of alliances within the bureaucracy that could represent a threat. As long as economic and political conditions enabled a single individual and his inner circle to exert tight control over every aspect of policy these state institutions displayed few signs of independence. Yet when the power vertical begins to fail, the lack of strong interconnections between key institutions leads to fragmentation, as each autonomous state entity from the judiciary through and security through to regulatory agencies do everything possible to prevent any challenge to their sphere of influence.

The way in which such institutional balkanization can lead to profoundly dysfunctional outcomes for Egyptian society has been explored by Nathan Brown in his excellent work on the Egyptian judiciary. Brown's key insight was that once the power of the centre began to erode in the final years of the Sadat administration, the Egyptian judiciary effectively carved out semi-autonomous control over its sphere of responsibility, doing everything to fend off attempts by Mubarak to reassert stronger state control over the judicial process. Thus after the Tahrir revolution of 2011, the battles by judges to assert their independence against the security services did not result in any underlying democratization of the judiciary. Rather, once judges, lawyers and Ministry of Justice officials had received reassurances from the Ministry of Interior that their bureaucratic turf would not be impinged upon, most members of the judiciary enthusiastically joined the security services' campaign to reassert state power in order to protect their institutional autonomy. Despite a facade of unified purpose under Mubarak or Sisi, with these trends playing out across the bureaucracy the Egyptian state has therefore fragmented into semi-autonomous rival institutions whose interests occasionally align. 

This precedent may provide some indication of what may have taken place within the Russian state behind the facade of High Putinism. The Kremlin's power vertical may have asserted dominance over state and society for a while. Yet by discouraging interconnections between agencies and ministries, below the surface it may have fostered the emergence of increasingly self-contained institutional actors. Rather than hollowing out the state, as Sam Greene has speculated, the damage caused by Putinism to governance in Russia is therefore of a different nature. Once Putin or his successors lose the ability to sustain the power vertical, competing institutional verticals may come to the fore. As early as 2007, the so-called siloviki wars between rival security services already indicated that such tensions were bubbling just below the surface. As Egypt witnessed in the final years before the fall of Mubarak, when a system dependent on a highly personalised form of government breaks down, each agency, ministry and even the judiciary may rush to assert its control over the specific spheres of political and economic life that fall within their remit. Such turf wars between structurally distinct institutions could make it extraordinarily difficult for any future Russian president to restore cohesion and some semblance of good governance. Rather, it may face the limitations Nasser's inheritance has imposed on Egypt's current Sisi regime, faced as it is with institutions whose leaders are too weak to become dominant yet strong enough to prevent much needed change in their areas of responsibility.

Perhaps a final useful parallel between both regimes that could help us analyse the legacy of early 2000s High Putinism are the challenges they faced in mobilizing support without losing tight control of the public sphere. For Nasser, promoting Arab nationalism based on an assumption that Egypt was the cultural and political centre of the Arab speaking peoples was fundamental to his regime's legitimacy. It both justified deep Egyptian involvement in the affairs of its neighbouring states, while lessening the popular pressure on the regime to develop coherent reforms of the social order. With Egypt experiencing a period of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, the Nasser regime had the financial leeway to expand parts of the welfare state and engage in prestige projects such as the building of the Aswan Dam designed to increase industrial and agricultural production.

Yet as Clement Moore pointed out, by the mid-1960s botched state attempts to consolidate control over the Egyptian economy were causing serious social problems that remained endemic in subsequent decades. Moreover, Barbara Zollner has set out how despite the execution of Sayid Qutb and other senior figures within the Muslim Brotherhood, attempts to eradicate its influence over Egyptian life never quite succeeded. Thus, after overcoming the British, French and Israeli intervention in Suez in 1956, the regime searched for repeated foreign policy successes that could help sustain the popular enthusiasm that enabled Nasser to entrench his position in the 1950s. Yet the use of foreign policy initiatives and pan-Arab projects to mobilize popular support led to short-term adventurism that only added to Egypt's long term instability. Thus the failed attempt at unification with Syria between 1958 and 1961, a botched military intervention in Yemen in 1962 and finally the disastrous war with Israel in 1967 were all the product of the regime's attempt to sustain legitimacy at a time when its efforts at state modernization were increasingly crowned with failure.

Here again the evolution of the Nasser regime and the increased use of tactical foreign policy gambles by the Putin regime to maintain popular support in the face of deepening internal problems after 2008 demonstrate a remarkably similar trajectory. The siloviki wars of 2007 and the complex compromises surrounding Dmitri Medvdev's potemkin rise to the presidency were all strong indications that the modernization of the state and the economy, were beginning to run into serious difficulties. Stanislav Secrieru among others pointed out how internal conflicts over the modernization agenda helped pave the way for a more aggressive approach to foreign policy which culminated on the war against Georgia in 2008. The way in which the failures of an modernization agenda can feed into increased foreign policy adventurism to sustain popular support is a common pattern for many authoritarian regimes. Yet the parallels between the Nasser and the Putin regimes and the role foreign policy played in a controlled mobilization of popular support around quasi-imperial nostalgia and transnational cultural identities indicates that the domestic impact of 1950s and 1960s Egyptian foreign policy could be a useful point of comparison for those examining the legacy of the first decade of Putin's rule.

With such remarkable structural parallels between the Nasser and early Putin regimes, exploring recent Egyptian history could provide historians and political scientists with a better understanding of how Putin's attempt to legitimize his own position as Russia's Rais has reshaped state institutions. Yet while Putin has remained in power long enough to be confronted with a crisis that destabilized his power vertical, Nasser died in office before the aftermath of the 1967 War forced the Egyptian political elite to engage in de-Nasserization. As a successor with his own distinct power base, Anwar Sadat was able to distance himself from Nasser's errors of judgement with the kind of radical break that the Medvedev-Putin 'tandem' never seemed capable of bringing about.

While the political direction of Egypt diverges after the death of Nasser diverges significantly from that of Russia after the 'castling' and Bolotnaya crises of 2011, there is another state in the Greater Middle East that experienced structural changes and developed mobilization strategies very similar to that of the Late Putinist period that is still unfolding today. With a collapse of established legitimization strategies for both civilian and military elites, late 1970s Pakistan saw a set of ideological and strategic shifts that very much mirror the course taken by the Kremlin since 2012. This period of elite transformation, which will be explored in the next post, was initiated and guided by an irascible military leader, General Muhammad Zia ul Haq.