Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Power Vertical

A Mathias Rust Moment For The Siloviki?

German amateur aviator Matthias Rust stands trial for illegally landing near Red Square in Moscow in 1987.
German amateur aviator Matthias Rust stands trial for illegally landing near Red Square in Moscow in 1987.
In May 1987, Mathias Rust, an amateur German pilot, flew a rented Cessna aircraft from Finland to Moscow, evading Soviet air defenses and improbably landing on Red Square near the Kremlin.

Rust's quixotic  flight, which he called an attempt to build an "imaginary bridge" between East and West, severely discredited the Soviet military establishment.  It also gave Mikhail Gorbachev an excuse to fire hundreds of defense ministry officials who were opposed to his reforms, including the defense minister, Sergei Sokolov, and the air defense chief, Aleksandr Koldunov.

Reflecting on the potential political fallout from today's metro bombings in Moscow, I found myself thinking about Rust's flight and its aftermath.

From the very second he came to power over a decade ago, and especially since the 2004 Beslan hostage siege, Vladimir Putin has justified restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms in Russia as necessary to keep the country safe from terrorism.

In the wake of today's tragic bombings, will Russians begin to question that logic?

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service today, opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov called the metro attacks "a failure of the security services" and called for a full accounting.

Opposition youth leader Ilya Yashin went even further:

After today's terrorist act, I am certain that President Medvedev should fire Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This is a person who has assumed extreme powers and therefore is responsible for everything that happens in our country....
Not long ago Putin promised to end terrorist acts in Russian cities and a military victory over terrorism. For this we gave up our political rights and civil liberties. We gave up the right to elect governors. All of this undoubtedly strengthened Vladimir Putin's personal power, but did nothing to provide for our security. Today's attacks can be seen as the collapse of Putin's anti-terrorist policies...
Medvedev probably lacks the will and the ability to fire Putin. But three people who bear responsibility for not preventing these attacks need to be fired -- FSB Director [Aleksandr] Bortnikov, Interior Minister [Rashid] Nurgaliyev, and Moscow Police Chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev.

Are the siloviki about to have a Mathias Rust moment? My guess would be probably not -- or at least not yet. In 1988, the Soviet security establishment was on the defensive as Gorbachev's reforms were near their high-water mark. In contrast, the siloviki surrounding Putin remain the strongest political constituency in Russia.

Moreover, it would have to be Medvedev who would seize such a moment, as Gorbachev did more than two decades ago when he took on the defense ministry. And thus far, Medvedev has shown little stomach for challenging the siloviki, or even a desire to do so

Something to watch in the coming days and weeks is the degree to which Putin will try to use today's tragedy to further consolidate power. It will also merit watching how much pushback there will be -- not just from opposition figures like Ryzhkov and Yashin -- but from establishment politicians and society in general.

(Note To Readers: I will be writing a full-length feature on the political fallout of today's bombings, that expands on this post, in the coming days)

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: terrorism, services, mathias, rust, Russia, security

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ozzy from: UpstateNY
March 30, 2010 10:28
Interesting twist on a tragedy, perfect timing would you not say with the big `Anti-Putin Manifesto' dominating your site. Perhaps your cover-up of ties to CIA-backed `Black-Ops' ... like the US just recently sending GITMO detainees to Georgia just last week with a `mission in mind' vs. jail time w/Mish in Tbilisi?

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
March 30, 2010 13:04
Lousy analogy. M. Rust did not have murderous intentions. Gorbachev rightly used that incident to begin to transform the USSR back into a state with an army rather than an army with a state. In 2010, the situation on the Russian landmass is far different. Please consider the mess in Afghanistan/Iraq before you start advocating the removal of the corrupt power ministers in Russia. The folks who would replace them have an even darker understanding of how society should be run.

by: Ozzy from: UpstateNY
March 30, 2010 15:55
Another deeply intelligent comment ... Ray your right on, poor compare ... BRAVO ... these guys do not realize that if you remove Medvdev/Putin and their so-called `Power Vertical,' the RF and Eurasia becomes a `powder keg of free nukes for AQ' and violent regional separatism that will be involves 10s of 1000s more American blood and guts - they all need to pony up!

Did you hear about the GITMO detainee release to Georgia last week, most Americans won't put 2 and 2 together, but the FSB says now that these folks were probably Jihadis w/AfghanPak training or origin, mixed with the Emir of the so-called `Caucasus Emirate' ... the notorious Chechen militant Doku Umarov and ge this ... he was a guest of RFE's back in a supposed call-in to `confirm his aliveness' ... back in July 2009.

Quoting Lavrov now today ... `Anything could be possible. We know that on the territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan, traditionally considered No Man’s Land, underground terrorism has become entrenched. We know that numerous terrorist attacks were planned there - not only for Afghanistan or nearby countries, but for Central Asia also. At times those plans even led all the way to the Caucasus.'

If Moscow smells a rat in Georgia, DC has a problem in its hands, that's for sure, as for intervention in Afghan/PAK that's a very real possibility - the Duma just passed laws last year and after August 2008 , which allow Russian Special Forces to roam globally to hunt down any supect that kill Rusian Nationals dmestically and/or Russian Nationals w/Passports abroad!

by: La Russophobe from: USA
March 30, 2010 16:24
Brilliant analogy! Since Rust had no murderous intentions, it should have been far easier for the Soviets to stop him, yet they couldn't. Given that, what chance does Putin have against committed fanatics?

It's interesting that the world castigated George Bush for his "crackdown" on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, yet compared to what Putin has done Bush was an anarchist, and Bush ACTUALLY DID keep the country totally free of domestic terror on his watch. In response, Americans summarily ejected his party from power. Yet Putin faces no such potential consequences as Russians ignore world opinion in the manner of barbarians (hypocritical barbarians, since they too condemned Bush).

Vladimir Putin stands utterly exposed, just like the infamous Emperor with his "new clothes." If Russians continue to allow him to lead them to utter despair as they did Stalin, they have nobody but themselves to blame for their suffering.

by: Ivan from: Sofia
March 30, 2010 23:40
Tovarish Whitmore,
You seem to have a decent insight of Russian politics, yet, you fail to understand Russian mindset, culture and ethics. All are tightly intertwined and cannot be judged separately. Judging the Russians from the Western perspective does not work.

The real threat to Russia, and ultimately to the West (because let's not kid ourselves, you don't care about Russia, because you are a Western spy and a capitalist propaganda protege) is the Muslim extremism, which you see in the terrorist attacks. The Islamic fanatics are the ones you should be concerned, not the siloviki.
In Response

by: God from: Heaven
March 31, 2010 17:59
Ivan, Muslim extremists in the middle east make little or no distinction between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. Together with Israel all three are considered "infidels". Many probably consider Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, etc. as "The West" along with Western Europe and the Americas. As for the siloviki, the US and EU should be concerned, because they seem to behave without accountability. Companies owned by the siloviki are the LEAST TRANSPARENT of all. Interesting how you consider Whitmore to be a capitalist propagandist while the siloviki are of no concern to you.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
March 31, 2010 22:22

Since, let's face it, you are a KGB spy, it's not surprising that you would try to get us to drop our guard regarding the effort to build a neo-Soviet state in Russia that will ultimately seek to destroy us if given a chance.

But do you really expect us to see attacks on Russia as attacks on ourselves when Russians are buzzing our shores with nuclear bombers many times more dangerous to us than all the Islamic terrorists in the world put together?

Why is it that America has been 100% free of domestic terror since 9/11 yet Russia is continually plagued by it? Could it be because Russian atrocities against the Islamic world are far more egregious, and the neo-Soviet state far more incompetent?

Do you really think you can fool anyone with the same tired Soviet propaganda? Seriously!

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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