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Putin's Icarus Moment

Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at a United Russia congress in Moscow on November 27.

Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at a United Russia congress in Moscow on November 27.

Let's take a brief trip into an parallel universe.

At the September 24 United Russia congress, Dmitry Medvedev announces -- with Vladimir Putin's blessing -- that he will seek a second term as president. Putin, for his part, announces that he will step down as prime minister after the 2011-12 election cycle, but cryptically adds that he will remain in politics in some yet-to-be-determined capacity.

Just over a month later, in the December 4 State Duma elections, United Russia hangs on to its majority by a thread, but the big story of the day is that the newly configured Right Cause party, under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, comes in a very strong third, just behind the Communists. The new Duma would have five parties, United Russia in the center, Right Cause on the center-right, A Just Russia on the center-left, and the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR on the flanks. Prokhorov, who enjoyed strong support from the growing urban professional class, is immediately touted as the leading candidate for premier.

Medvedev easily wins the March 4 presidential election with about 70 percent of the vote and -- as expected -- nominates Prokhorov for prime minister. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin hails the choice. But the big post-election story comes when Medvedev unexpectedly names Putin to serve as secretary of a revamped and beefed-up Security Council. As part of the overhaul, Medvedev also announces that the so-called "power ministries" -- FSB, Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs -- will report directly to the Security Council secretary.

OK. Thought experiment over. Now back to reality. But ask yourself the following question: From the perspective of Russia's ruling elite hanging on to its power in a stable environment, would they have been better off under this alternative scenario I just described or in the one they find themselves in now?

In the last episode of the Power Vertical Podcast, New York University professor and veteran Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," suggested that the ruling circle -- the so-called "collective Putin" --would have been better off with Medvedev staying on as their formal front-man:
There is very little reason to believe that if he had let Medvedev continue for another term that things would have gone bad for him and those around him. It probably would have been a relatively stable continuation of the tandem. He just didn't seem willing to let go.... It's clear that Putin made a phenomenal blunder there. For whatever reason, he just wasn't willing to let go. Maybe it was because he had qualms about whether Medvedev could handle the job. We don't really know. Someday, maybe it will emerge.

Regular readers of this blog know that I like to describe the emerging political arrangements in Russia as an embryonic "deep state" -- a permanent super-elite that rules from the shadows, setting the parameters of acceptable politics for the formal institutions of governance. The term was coined to describe the cabal of military officers that de facto ruled Turkey prior to the rise of current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But as Mark pointed out in the podcast, for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep." Everyone knows it's there, but everybody pretends that it is not. Putin's mistake was "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell and inflamed public opinion:
The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed, if you look at Turkey for example, but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians. Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses and that was a big mistake.

Returning to my little parallel universe for a bit, a second Medvedev term with Putin retaining control of the power ministries would not have been without its problems. Big disagreements would have still existed over issues of modernizing and diversifying the economy and the privatization of the energy sector -- issues dear to technocrats who favor reform but deeply threatening to the siloviki who control the commodities sector. There would still be plenty of conflicts between the "shareholders" and "managers" in the elite.

But in an environment of relative social and political tranquility, Putin -- who would remain de facto in charge due to his control over the security services -- would have been able to act as "arbiter in chief" and settle them behind the scenes. His authority and clout would still be unchallenged.

Now, he looks diminished and the deep state looks vulnerable.

So why did Putin take the path he did? As Mark noted, we really don't know yet. But there are some plausible explanations out there.

Political analyst and former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky suggested in a recent interview with "New Times" that Putin's inner circle simply didn't trust Medvedev to protect their wealth and privilege:
I think that it was a few cohorts -- who owed their position and wealth to Putin -- who pushed him into it. They asked themselves a simple question: if it were not Putin, would their capital be guaranteed or not? That is why I, like a maniac, since I was close to the presidential staff then, said all the time that Medvedev must find a way to give guarantees to the "collective Putin." But Medvedev thought that the president was above these trivialities.

Along similar lines, longtime "Economist" correspondent Edward Lucas, author of "Deception: Spies, Lies, And How Russia Dupes the West," suggested that formal power matters more in Russia than in other countries with similar deep-state arrangements:
The way the Russian system works, these formal channels of power are important. It isn't like China where you can have Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes or Singapore where you have Lee Kuan Yew behind the scenes. The paper flow matters, the signature matters, the pechat [stamp] matters. I think that it was a source of some awkwardness and instability for them that Medvedev was theoretically in the top job and so Putin had to have a guy in Medvedev's office managing the paper flow so people didn't run around behind him.

In the end, as I blogged here, it appears that the "managers" who opposed Putin's return to formal power were outflanked by the "shareholders" who wanted him back in the Kremlin at all cost.

The September 24 United Russia congress, I believe, was a critical juncture, one of those inflection points in Russian politics that set the stage for the next era. And we are now seeing the results of the choices made in the run-up to that day.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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