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The Man Without A Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) in the Great Kremlin Palace during his inauguration ceremony on May 7.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) in the Great Kremlin Palace during his inauguration ceremony on May 7.

Remember Putin's Plan? It was all the rage during the 2007-08 election cycle when billboards sprung up around Moscow touting how it would lead to "Victory For Russia."

It was never exactly clear what the plan was, but it made for a useful meme as Putin was preparing to temporarily turn the presidency over to his handpicked interim successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

The hype about Putin's Plan and the hysteria surrounding the over-the-top "national leader" campaign that materialized around the same time appeared to be an effort to reassure the elite and the public that Russia's hard won stability and newfound prosperity would not evaporate due to a meager presidential transition.

Sure, Putin was leaving the Kremlin in a formal sense, but he was letting it be known that he remained in charge and had a vision of where he wanted to take the country.

So with the Medvedev interlude over and Putin sworn in for another six years in the Kremlin, it is worth revisiting whether or not he does in fact still have a plan.

The idea that Putin had some kind of master plan has long been something of an obsession for Kremlin watchers, myself included, as we tried to discern whether he had a strategy for Russia's long-term political and economic development.

Here's how I described the apparent blueprint toward the end of Putin's first stint in the Kremlin in an October 2007 piece: "At the heart of that strategy is the establishment of an enduring political system -- a centralized, authoritarian, vertically integrated and unitary executive that can manage a thorough and comprehensive modernization of Russia."

In the same piece, I quoted political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya as saying that Putin and his inner circle wanted to establish "a strong authoritarian state of the Soviet type without the Soviet idiocy. The idiotic Soviet economy and the idiotic Soviet ideology were minuses. All the rest they want to bring back and preserve: a state system without a separation of powers."

The model, of course, was China. And the inspiration was former Soviet leader Yury Andropov, who led the KGB when Putin was a rookie spy.

But, as Medvedev's presidency progressed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, an increasing number of voices in the elite began calling for more political pluralism.

Medvedev advisors Arkady Dvorkovich and Igor Yurgens, as well as Aleksei Kudrin, then the finance minister, began arguing forcefully and persistently that Russia could not successfully modernize and diversify its economy unless the political system was opened up.

The trend, at least for a time, appeared to be moving toward some kind of managed pluralism. According to this scenario, Medvedev would have served another term as president, Putin would have assumed the role of "national leader" and remained de facto in charge, and more political parties would have been brought into the process, diluting the clout of the ruling United Russia party.

The managed pluralism scenario, which was pushed by former deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, appears to have been shot down by key members of Putin's inner circle who wanted their chief patron back in power as president.

"I think that it was a few cohorts -- who owed their position and wealth to Putin -- who pushed him into it," Gleb Pavlovsky, the political analyst and former Putin advisor, told "Novoye vremya."

"They asked themselves a simple question: if it were not Putin, would their capital be guaranteed or not?"

So where does that leave us now? Managed pluralism is off the table. And given the divisions in the elite and the reassertiveness of civil society, the orderly Andropov-style authoritarian modernization model that was in vogue in 2007 will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to implement.

Apparently, it is now about little more than survival and about keeping Putin's inner circle in power indefinitely. Here's Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, speaking during a recent edition of the Power Vertical podcast:
The first part of Putin's rule was about strategy. It was about establishing a political regime. A political regime is like a building. You have to construct it and you have to have a plan. Now they are trying to live in this building. This is not about strategy. It is about how to survive. It is about how to live in this very bad Russian building that is in constant need of repair.

And that is why Putin, who once drew comparisons with the tough Tsarist-era reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, is now more often likened to the doddering Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

-- 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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