The Security Council

Putin’s statement was made at the end of an informal meeting. Is it possible that his expressed belief in the need to move toward the annexation of Crimea had been or was then subjected to discussion and decision within a formal body? Commentators have pointed out that Russia lacks an equivalent body to the Soviet Union's Politburo, which was universally recognized as the peak decision-making body in all areas of policy-making - security and nonsecurity - for most of the Soviet Union’s existence. Others claim that the Security Council is the Russian equivalent of the Politburo (Jones and Brusstar 1993, p. 355; Kryshtanovskaya and White 2003, p. 297; Vendil Pallin 2009, p. 25). Yet others, while not drawing that precise comparison, see the Security Council as filling a decision-making vacuum left by a weak government and the abandonment of Putin's effort to create a “second government” in the Presidential Administration when he returned to the presidency in 2012 (Stanovaia 2016).

The Security Council is like the Politburo in that it exists within a bifurcated executive. Contemporary Russia, like the Soviet Union, has a cabinet chaired by a prime minister. In both cases, the cabinet and prime minister are clearly inferior to the party leadership in the Soviet case and the presidency in the Russian case, with the Security Council firmly subordinated to the president.

In the Soviet case, the inferiority of the state hierarchy left the Politburo as the dominant decision-making body. The situation regarding the Security Council is less straightforward. It has nothing like the ideological authority of the party hierarchy at the peak of which stood the Politburo; indeed it has no equivalent hierarchy. Also it has a specific responsibility only for national security matters. While national security is defined broadly (Polozhenie 2011), nevertheless, the Security Council clearly does not enjoy the undisputed right of the Politburo to discuss everything. Serious policy-making across a wide range of important areas is conducted at cabinet level. How the president participates in that policy-making is institutionally a complex matter, but there is little evidence that the Security Council is involved. Further, while the Central Committee apparatus was clearly subordinate to and served the Politburo, there is no sense that the Russian equivalent, the Presidential Administration, serves and is subordinate to the Security Council.

The Security Council’s decisions are given force through decrees, orders (rasporiazheniia), and instructions (porucheniia) of the president (Polozhenie, Para.15). The president’s decree powers are somewhat limited in that they cannot contradict existing legislation, and relatively few policy-related decrees are issued (Fortescue 2012, p. 123). Orders are used for relatively routine administrative matters. Instructions are usually addressed to the government, with implementation being notoriously patchy (Fortescue 2012, pp. 133-134). Although not specifically mentioned in the Security Council Statute, the president has the right to send legislation directly to parliament, and has done so in recent times on some controversial security-related issues. Nevertheless, most presidential governance is carried on through the government and the legislation which it sends to parliament (Shul’man 2015).

While there are good reasons not to see the Security Council as a modern-day Politburo,5 the annexation of Crimea was a national security matter by any definition, and if any formal institution were involved it was surely the Security Council.

Indeed, in April 2014 Putin claimed that he had obtained the agreement of the Council’s members to action in Crimea ( events/president/news/20796). The Council has what are called permanent members and members. We are interested only in the permanent members, since only they attend the regular meetings (soveshchaniia) which would have been the forum for any decision-oriented discussion of Crimea. Ordinary members attend only the rarer and showpiece zase- daniia. The permanent members are listed in Table 11.1

Membership is dominated as one might expect by siloviki, in many cases with a history of personal and professional links with Putin. As an exception, Medvedev has long links with Putin, but no silovik background. Indeed, he is often seen as possessing a less “securitized”

Table 11.1 Permanent members of the Russian Security Council at the time of the events in Crimea




President, Russian Federation (chair)


Prime Minister, Russian Federation


Director, Federal Security Service (FSB)


Chair, Supreme Council, “Edinaia Rossiia”


Head, Presidential Administration


Minister of Internal Affairs


Minister of Foreign Affairs


Chair, Council of the Federation


Speaker, State Duma


Deputy secretary, Security Council


Secretary, Security Council


Director, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)


Minister of Defence

policy approach. There is no other member representing nonsecurity structures. Of the three “parliamentary” members - Matvienko, Gryzlov and Naryshkin - the last two have claims to a silovik/crony background, while Matvienko has often expressed sentiments consistent with such an outlook.6

The Security Council is unlikely to cause Putin difficulties when it comes to adventurous decision-making. It also has considerable relevant expertise. Does this suggest that it was used as a collective body in the decision-making around Crimea? The timing of its meetings might provide some clues. Its Statute (Polozhenie, Para. 14) says that “in order to discuss current issues in the provision of national security that require managerial (upravliaiushchie) decisions, the chairman of the Security Council holds with the permanent members of the Security Council operational meetings (operativnye soveshchaniia) of the Security Council, as a rule weekly. ”

As events on Kiev’s Maidan unfolded in late 2013 the Security Council met for operational meetings on a fortnightly, not weekly, basis until 14 November (19 October, 1 and 14 November). Ukraine was not in the summaries on the presidential website of what was discussed. It then did not meet for nearly a month, holding a meeting on 11 December to consider Putin’s state of the union address and another on 27 December to sum up the events of the year. There was then another break of nearly a month, with meetings held on 24 and 31 January. These were the first at which events in Ukraine were said to have been discussed. There was then a fortnight break until 14 February, when the Geneva-2 negotiations on Syria were discussed. A truce had been declared in Kiev the day before, something which, judging by the presidential website summary, was not discussed at the meeting. The next meeting was held on 21 February, the day of dramatic events in Kiev. (The meeting was not described on the Kremlin website as oper- ativnoe. The significance of the absence of that word is not clear.) The meeting was reported on the presidential website at 13.30 Moscow time as having taken place and as having discussed Ukraine. The signing of a peace agreement was announced by the official Ukrainian news agency at 16.40 Kiev time, that is, 17.40 Moscow time. Thus, the Security Council meeting took place before any agreement was reached in Kiev, before the Russian representative refused to sign the agreement, and before it became clear that it was not going to hold. Thus, it is possible that the Russian approach to the negotiations in Kiev were discussed, but it is unlikely that there was any decision on the annexation of Crimea, given that it was entirely unclear how events would develop in Kiev. It seems unlikely that the permission sought of Security Council members to move toward the annexation of Crimea that Putin referred to in April 2014 was obtained at this meeting.

The next announced meeting of the permanent members of the Council took place on 25 February. This is the only meeting throughout the period that in terms of timing was out of sequence. It was described as operativnoe, and the account on the presidential website said simply that the situation in Ukraine was discussed. Unusually, no list of participants was published, perhaps to hide the absence of Medvedev. He is not sitting in his usual place in the two photographs of the meeting on the presidential website, and his own website lists no official engagements for that day (although one decree is listed as having been signed by him). If Medvedev were absent because he had been excluded (it is possible that he was ill - he had no official engagements the following day as well), that would be very significant. Those visible in the photographs are Patrushev, Lavrov, Bortnikov, Ivanov, Kolokol’tsev, and Matvienko, a list which includes some who are not generally considered as being in the inner core.

It was over the following two days that the “little green men” appeared, public buildings were seized, and the parliament decided to hold a referendum on Crimea’s future. It is possible that it was decided at the 25 February meeting that such events should occur.7 It is also possible that the meeting was called so that members (or those not already in the know) could be informed of the decision announced by Putin at the end of the all-night 22-23 February meeting and the preparations subsequently undertaken. It could have been at this meeting that Putin received the approval from Security Council members that he referred to the following month.

It is also possible that it was decided at this meeting to change the referendum question from self-determination within Ukraine to accession to the Russian Federation, something which the Crimean parliament did on 6 March. This would suggest that the decision arrived at early in the morning of 23 February, to prepare for annexation, was conditional, and that another decision, to take that step rather than settle for some form of Crimean autonomy, came sometime after (Zygar’ 2016). If so, and if it were conditional, as claimed by Putin after the event, on secret polling demonstrating support for such a move among the residents of Crimea, it is hard to link it to any publicized meeting of the Security Council, including that on 25 February. There is evidence - to be presented below - that such polling was done in early March. The Council next met on 6 March, the same day but after the Crimean parliament decided to change the referendum wording. We have no clue, from Putin or other sources, when or by whom a second decision might have been made.

The situation in Ukraine was discussed among other things at the next meeting of the Security Council on 13 March. The Crimean referendum and resulting request of the Crimean parliament that the peninsula be accepted into the Russian Federation took place precisely half-way between that meeting and one on 21 March. For some reason that meeting, at which the situation in Ukraine was said to have been discussed in detail, was not described as operativnoe. The discussion could only have been of the processes of integration, since the formal annexation itself was now all but complete. The meeting was reported on the presidential website at 12.30, before Putin signed the accession document later that afternoon.

In summary, the rarity of meetings and apparent lack of consideration of Ukrainian affairs at those meeting held from October through to mid- February are striking, at a time when one might have expected issues and options to be discussed in a broad “policy” sense. The body then became more active, and Ukraine was frequently discussed. On occasion the timing was such that a meeting closely preceded significant events, that of 25 February being the most striking example. But more often that was not the case. Lack of strong evidence of the use of the Security Council as a decision-making body suggests that it played no such role.

Rather, the decision was taken by Putin after the gravity of the situation became clear at the meeting of22-23 February. That was not a meeting of a formally constituted body and indeed involved a very small number of people at its most crucial stage. But it was more than a fire-side chat with some cronies. Those present had responsibility in terms of formal position for the operations that were carried out soon after. By the nature of the Russian system they were also people with close personal connections with Putin. The decision was neither made by a small bunch of dilettantes nor was it made in the broadly representative circumstances that might encourage moderation.

What happened was not unlike controversial security-related decisions in other systems. For example, an early account of the Soviet decision to intervene in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 stressed the bureaucratic nature of the decision-making process, with outcomes decided by the push and pull of powerful agencies and bureaucratic interests within the Politburo (Valenta 1979). Later accounts based on archive evidence suggest a decision made within a narrow circle of key participants (Williams 1996). In the case of the US decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan, a relatively formal and representative so-called Interim Committee provided recommendations to Truman. But he relied heavily in making his decision, and on his diplomatic use of the bomb, on his long-time mentor, Joseph Byrnes, whom he appointed Secretary of State (with Byrnes in turn relying on a narrow group of key advisors) (Malloy 2008, pp. 9-10, 93, 118).

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