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Russia's Security Council: The Committee That Runs Russia

Russia's Security Council is the key institutional body in Russia's government, coordinating and deciding policy

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

On 10th October 2015 Russia’s Security Council held another meeting.

One of the tropes of Western commentary about Russia is that its political system is highly personalised around Putin.

Putin supposedly runs everything himself, making all important decisions, consulting only his cronies, with his officials and ministers mere servants of his will.

To the extent that policy debate within Russia’s political system takes place at all, it is purely faction fights between oligarchs or 'clans', battling for Putin's favour.

This has no connection to reality.  

A brief perusal of Russia’s Presidential website - which is or should be the primary source of information about Russia’s government - shows that policy making in Russia is far more collegial and consensual - and far less focused on the person of the President - than it is in the US.

Though Putin is obviously the main decision maker, Russia’s Presidential website shows that it is Russia’s Security Council - not Putin alone - which makes the key decisions.

That this is so is proved time and again by the fact the Security Council always meets before important decisions are taken.

It is a far more powerful body, meeting far more often and far more regularly, and engaging far more actively in the process of decision making, than is the far more loosely organised National Security Council in the US.

Moreover though the Security Council’s name implies that it is concerned mainly with foreign and security policy, its remit actually extends much further, and it deals with social and economic policy as well.  

The report of its latest meeting for example says that 'there was also an exchange on current domestic socioeconomic matters.'

Putin as President chairs the Security Council and chooses the topics for discussion. However its membership is stable, the Presidential website shows it meets regularly and often, and there is no doubt its meetings involve full and frank discussions with contributions from all its members.

In some respects the Security Council resembles - in membership, function, organisation and power - the Soviet Politburo, with the Presidential administration providing administrative support, just as the Central Committee’s Secretariat once provided administrative support to the Politburo - and with the Council of Ministers tasked with carrying out the Security Council's decisions, just as it once carried out the Politburo's decisions. 

This is not entirely surprising since the Security Council is the legal successor of the USSR’s Defence Council, which was essentially the Politburo meeting to discuss defence and security policy.

It is the Security Council’s senior or "permanent" members - those who attend all its meetings - not the oligarchs or the “siloviki” - who are Russia’s key decision makers, and who are the most powerful people in the country.

Following every Security Council meeting the Presidential website carefully lists who those people are.  Apart from Putin himself they are:

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev

Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko

State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin

Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Ivanov

Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu

Director of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov

Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Mikhail Fradkov

Deputy Secretary of the Security Council Rashid Nurgaliyev and 

Permanent member of the Security Council Boris Gryzlov

Other officials with "ordinary" as opposed to "permanent" membership, and who regularly attend meetings, include Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov and Procurator General Yury Chaika.

Medvedev is the permanent member who represents the government. Other government officials - such as Deputy Prime Ministers Shuvalov, Rogozin and Dvorkovitch - attend when needed. 

Russia’s Security Council is not exactly analogous to the Soviet Politburo.

Members of the Politburo were elected by the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee. Members of the Security Council are appointed by Putin himself.

Putin is therefore in a far more powerful position relative to the Security Council than any Soviet General Secretary was relative to the Politburo. It would be impossible for the Security Council to remove Putin from office, as the Politburo once removed Khrushchev from office.

Putin cannot however just appoint to the Security Council anyone he chooses. He is clearly limited to the senior officials who run the country’s government, parliament and senior ministries.  

Since the nature of their jobs means that these have to be experienced and capable people, in choosing the Security Council’s members Putin must choose people who are already amongst the most powerful and capable people in the country.

Shellbank has recently written for Russia Insider an interesting piece contrasting the far greater competence of Russia’s government compared to that of the US.

The reason for this is that decisions in Russia, far from being made by Putin on the hoof as popular wisdom imagines, are carefully weighed and discussed in advance before they are made by the powerful and experienced people who meet in the Security Council.

Contrast this with the chaotic way policy is made in Washington, with all key decisions made alone by the “POTUS”, who must contend with the unending struggle of his perpetually quarrelling advisers and bureaucracy for his ear.

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