Russian Officials Appear to be Ignoring Putin’s Orders


Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared an existential war, framing Western revulsion at his brutalization of Ukraine as an insidious plot to “dismember” and subjugate Moscow.

In his deepening crusade against the “degenerate” West, the Russian strongman has banned the use of foreign words, ordered his officials to drop foreign-made cars, and barred them from using Western technology—including Apple devices.

But so far, Putin’s declarations do not seem to have stuck. Former president Dmitry Medvedev was spotted this week arriving at an event in a convoy of foreign-made vehicles—Medvedev himself riding in the back of a luxury Mercedes.

Recent reporting by the Verstka outlet suggests this is not an isolated incident. The independent media organization revealed this month that Russian government agencies allocated more than 53 million rubles ($570,000) for foreign cars, one week after Putin’s order that officials stop using them.

Another Russian opposition outlet, Agentstvo, this week published a report detailing how officials at Russia’s defense ministry, agriculture ministry, and state technology Rostec corporation are all still using Apple products, despite the ban issued in July over fears that Western governments could compromise such devices.

The refusal, or inability, of Russian officials to respect Putin’s anti-Western orders comes at a sensitive political moment for “the boss.” The Kremlin’s costly war on Ukraine shows no sign of abating, and Western powers show no appetite for easing the sanctions that have isolated Russia’s economy. The ruble is in freefall, and Moscow’s decades-long effort to create a “fortress economy” has had limited success.

With the Wagner Group mutiny close in the rear-view mirror—and concerns over the supposedly lethargic reaction of Russian authorities to it—Putin’s position atop the Kremlin kleptocracy is perhaps not as secure as it once was.

Fortress Russia

Moscow has spent years trying to foster homegrown alternatives to foreign goods. Russia’s reliance on Western technology is both a practical and political problem; an economic Achilles’ heel and a symbol of Russian technological inferiority.

Western sanctions and capital flight mean that many goods are no longer accessible on the Russian market. The order to stop using foreign cars and Apple goods “will be difficult to implement, because on the market you cannot find a lot of alternatives,” Oleg Ignatov, the Crisis Group think tank’s senior Russian analyst, told Newsweek.

Russia’s car market is in a particularly difficult spot. Last year was the industry’s worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union, production dropping 67 percent according to data published by the Rosstat federal statistics service. Domestic producers appear unable to pick up the slack from foreign firms fleeing Putin’s war.

“A lot of foreign companies, Western foreign companies and Korean foreign companies, they left the Russian market,” Ignatov said. “If you wanted to buy a cheap car, you would buy a Korean car, but now it’s not possible. And so, the main cars on the Russian market are Chinese right now.”

Man brushes snow off Mercedes cars Moscow
An employee cleans snow from Mercedes-Benz cars parked in front of a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Moscow, Russia on February 14, 2023. President Vladimir Putin has ordered all Russian officials to switch to using domestically produced vehicles.YURI KADOBNOV/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

“The problem is that they don’t produce enough cars,” Ignatov said of Russian manufacturers. “And officials usually need cars of a special standard, business-class cars. Russia almost doesn’t produce any such cars. Even if officials should use them, it’s not possible to find such cars.”

“Sooner or later, they will localize production of Chinese cars in Russia, or maybe Iranian cars,” Ignatov said.

Russia is also unable to meet the needs of a modern telecommunications market, Ignatov said. Though Moscow can produce smartphones, it does not have an effective standalone operating system.

“They don’t have much choice,” Ignatov said, “they would have to use smartphones with either Android or with China’s operational systems. Russia tried to produce its own operational system—it’s called Aurora, and it’s a Russian operational system—but it still doesn’t work.”

This week, Russia’s Roskomnadzor regulator said the Aurora system needs $3.2 billion in investment before it can be used.

“This order, as with the order with cars, will be very difficult to implement, because they almost don’t have an alternative,” Ignatov said. “The Russian variant is super expensive. It needs to be developed. And it means that if they maybe get rid of iPhones, instead they will use China’s operational systems.”

A Shaken Pyramid

For decades, Putin has carefully prevented the emergence of alternative Russian leaders. Even now, 18 months into a disastrous war, there appears little indication that Russian elites are willing to mobilize against him, regardless of their many reported grievances.

June’s Wagner mutiny was not directed at Putin, rather the rogue oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin was intending to unseat his rivals in the Defense Ministry—namely Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

But the tremors of the short-lived coup appear to have shaken the foundations of Putin’s “mafia state.” As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “I do believe he is weakened as this shows that the autocratic power structures have cracks in them and he is not as firmly in the saddle as he always asserts.”

Notable too, was the slow response of Russian authorities to the mutiny. Initially caught by surprise, some military, security and intelligence personnel were then reportedly hesitant to back the Kremlin, even as a Wagner column bore down on the capital.

The Wagner problem is not going away. Putin decried Prigozhin’s “treason,” but quickly agreed to give the Wagner financier and his fighters amnesty in exchange for their exile in Belarus under the watch of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Picture of Wagner Group HQ St. Petersburg
Employees remove the PMC Wagner Center logos from the mercenary group’s closed office in St. Petersburg, on July 2, 2023. The group’s short-lived June mutiny represented a serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin.OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Though the Defense Ministry is seeking to absorb all fighters and equipment that did not leave the country, seizing control of the group’s lucrative overseas operations—particularly in Africa—will be difficult. Newsweek has contacted the ministry by email to request comment.

Prigozhin appears largely uncowed by his fall from grace. The oligarch has repeatedly been spotted back in Russia, even publicly meeting with national leaders on the sidelines of Putin’s St. Petersburg Africa summit in July.

Wagner’s continued existence constitutes a challenge to Putin’s autocracy. “The problem with Prigozhin is similar to his problem with Lukashenko,” Mark Voyger—a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of U.S. Army Europe General Ben Hodges—told Newsweek.

Both are “rather unruly subordinates who don’t want to be completely controlled, and each of them controls their own little empire; one in Belarus, the other in Africa,” Voyger, who is now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at American University of Kyiv, added.

“Putin is—from what we can see—probably forced to actually acquiesce and put up with them. Maybe he has plans of his own to one day assume control. But for now, Putin has to put up with their unruliness, and find an outlet for their aggressive behavior.”

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