Detail on how the decision to annex Crimea was made, including how important information was brought to bear, is sorely lacking. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that as a security-related matter it was handled within a narrower range of participants and information than nonsecurity matters.
In terms of the actual decision, a small group of Putin’s colleagues were involved, colleagues with expertise and experience in relevant areas to a degree that despite their personal links with Putin and the aggressive nature of their world view the word “crony” is perhaps inappropriate. That having been said, they were not the sort of people that one would expect to have exerted a moderating influence on Putin.
There is no strong evidence of discussion or decision-making within any formally constituted body, not even one of such narrow membership as the Security Council. Those who claim that there is no Russian equivalent to the Politburo appear to be correct, including with regard to security-related decision making. This has significant implications for the level of bureaucratic moderation that can be brought to bear. With regard specifically to the Security Council and Crimea, on the single occasion when there might have been discussion of substance in that forum the one “moderate” member was absent.
In terms of information input in the lead up to the decision, one should not exaggerate the narrowness of available information. Russia has a vibrant within- and without-system expert community and many of the key issues around the Crimean action had been widely debated. However, the expert community includes aggressively oriented analysts and information consolidators, both inside and outside state agencies, and it can be suggested that in security-related policy-making those specialists have a privileged position. That contributed to policy failure, particularly in the areas of the international reaction and Russia’s response to it.
The issue is not just the ideological inclinations of Putin and his closest colleagues. There is an institutional element, of a constitutional and operational bifurcation of the state, its agencies, and organizations serving those agencies. The semi-presidential constitution might provide some protection from securitizing pressures in nonsecurity policy-making, concentrated as it is in the government. But it also sidelines moderating influences in security-related policy-making, as was evident in the case of the decision to annex Crimea.