Friday, August 26, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Kremlin Floats An Exit Strategy

A piece of the wreckage is seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka in eastern Ukraine
A piece of the wreckage is seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka in eastern Ukraine

Sometimes it's a good idea to pay attention to what Andrei Kolesnikov writes.

The "Kommersant" columnist is one of the Kremlin's anointed court scribes and is often described as President Vladimir Putin's favorite journalist.

Ben Judah, author of "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin," recently wrote that the Russian president "pays particular attention" to Kolesnikov's columns, which he enjoys "greatly and always reads right to the end." 

Kolesnikov regularly travels with Putin and is often a conduit for messages from the regime's inner sanctum to the broader elite. It was in an interview with Kolesnikov in the summer of 2010, on an epic road trip across the Russian Far East in a bright yellow Lada, that Putin strongly hinted that he intended to return to the presidency in 2012 and that pro-democracy protesters should be beaten. 

Both of these things, of course, happened.

So it didn't go unnoticed when Kolesnikov wrote on July 29 that Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

"If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this, that would radically change [Putin's] attitude toward them -- even if it was a fatal mistake," Kolesnikov wrote. "Children who died for nothing, as well as adults and elderly people, this is a red line he will not cross. He will not cover up for those who did this if he knows they did it. He will not have this sin on his soul."

Kolesnikov's argument should by no means be taken at face value. Who really believes that Putin is suddenly shocked that the separatists he has been sponsoring could have shot down a civilian airliner? And does anybody really believe civilian deaths are a red line he will never cross?

But Kolesnikov doesn't write anything by accident. And it's safe to assume he doesn't write anything that is not Kremlin-approved. So with his July 29 column, he is clearly either floating a trial balloon or delivering a message from Putin to the elite that a change of policy is imminent.

There are other signals that a change in the Kremlin line may be coming. In an interview with CNN on July 22, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested reports that the rebels in eastern Ukraine thought they had shot down a military aircraft around the same time that MH17 crashed suggested they weren't really culpable.

"According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet, so if it was [that they thought they] shot down a military jet, there was confusion," Churkin said. "If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism."

Kolesnikov's column has also provoked a bit of hand wringing in the nationalist press. "Common people who read 'King Lear' think that court jesters exist to tell the monarch the truth with a smile on their face," Yegor Kholmogorov wrote in "Vzglyad."  "The truth is that they are used to tell lies in the monarch's name. Andrei Kolesnikov is one such person who is close to Putin who set off a storm among journalists who are accustomed to seeing signals every time he sneezes."

It's too early to tell whether this was a trial balloon, a signal of a policy shift, or a court jester telling noble lies for the king.

But the column's timing, on the day when the European Union and the United States announced tough new sanctions against Russia's financial and energy sectors, was certainly interesting.

It also comes at a time when Russia's erstwhile defenders in Europe appear to be distancing themselves from the Putin regime -- putting additional pressure on the Kremlin.

In a cover story last week titled "Stop Putin Now!" the Hamburg-based weekly "Der Spiegel" reported that "52 percent of Germans said they would favor tougher sanctions, even if they would lead to the loss of many jobs in Germany." 

According to the article, Germany's business community, which has close ties to Russia, "has also gotten the message. Although the initial sanctions had few direct consequences for them, many business leaders had warned against sanctions -- drawing the ire of the chancellor and other politicians. Now they are changing their position."

In a July 22 article, Yevgenia Albats, editor of the opposition magazine "Novoye vremya," or "The New Times," issued an emotional call to the Russian elite to persuade Putin to change course in Ukraine or be left "without a country."  

"Never before in its post-Soviet history has Russia been in such a horrific position as it is now. All possibilities -- from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin -- are possible," Albats wrote, adding that Putin's "Chekist entourage...has led him not just into a dead end," but also "into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone who has the blood of innocent children on his hands."

Maybe somebody in high places actually heard her call.

-- Brian Whitmore 

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Anonymous
July 30, 2014 21:24
now I ask you
which is the Exit Strategy of ukraine and its ally US ?
No one
they think only to kill and gain ground much more they can

no logic of dialogue
no attempt at a political solution

Kiev speak only with the force of arms against civilians

For this reason, however gonna end up with Donbass
here who lost is whole Ukraine
and will no longer be possible to speak about an united country
In Response

by: caaps2 from: Toronto
July 31, 2014 13:32
The "exit" in "exit strategy" when used in reference to Russia is "exit from Ukraine". That is: exit from Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. You are right, Ukrainians have no intention of exiting from their own country.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:08
you are wrong my dear UkroCanadian
ukraine has many problems
and a very big one problem
a problem that now you don't see

but when will be ended the war against its own people of eastern side
it will be immediately afloat

Ukraine is a country completely divided,
the people of eastern side never will forget
of the bombing on civilians operated by Kiev

The biggest mistake that is done by those who don't knows ukraine
is to believe that all this wasn't predictable
they don't knows that all was waiting for happen by years

The same Crimea has always been unstable
and with big secessionist forces

I don't think that there is only one Ukrainian
that don't know this

by: Anonymous
July 30, 2014 22:08
just another story that would camouflage and put gaze over our eyes while there is children, elderly, and women dying and being bombarded each day across the world so that only few can get very rich from all this non sense called war
In Response

by: Panas
July 31, 2014 12:11
This not an exit strategy but a change in strategy. Putin has many tricks up his sleeve.

by: Alski from: Location
July 30, 2014 22:35
Written by a person who knows little about Russia.

by: saucymugwump from:
July 31, 2014 00:07
Whitmore quasi-quoted Kolesnikov: "Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17."

We have already proven that a missile was responsible for the murders, but proving who actually pushed the button will be rather difficult unless they defect to the West and spill the beans. And why would they do that, given that they would probably be charged with war crimes? Should we set our DVRs to capture the digital era's version of Stalin's show trials where the defendants confessed because they had been tortured?

Putin had his chance. If he would have immediately sent his army in and secured the site, he could have claimed that he had nothing to do with it. Putin is looking for a way out, to return to the status quo. And our pampered leaders will probably allow him to do it because Putin has what all capitalists, especially American ones, covet: oil and gas.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 31, 2014 02:38
Putin is not the Czar of Russia, even if he wanted to.
Russian Varag-Cossack brigants are plunder and kill.
Putin is "Ataman", limited if brigants express their will
To plunder, kill, expand - why rely on his mood to do?
Why obligate World to one man's will, live or be killed?

The interests of Russia, its legitimate part, is free trade
With Ukraine and all other nations, mutually beneficially,
Not intrigue, invasion, genocide, blackmail, or blockades
That Russia does - from East Europe busting perpetually
Through corrupting all Globe - addicting gas, inciting riots.

Only legitimate, or at least understandable interest Russia
has - negotiate free and mutually beneficial trade, projects
Some global Security, as equals, with independent Ukraine
And other countries around Russian borders, including new
EU members, starting with return of land, property and rest.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:13
Ataman is cosak not russian
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 03, 2014 21:27
It is Varag too, and all-Russian tyranny obsession with
"Brigant" mentality of "Sten'ka Razin".

by: sandy miller from: usa
July 31, 2014 03:35
Come on media stop this war now. Why allow anymore blood on your hands with propaganda? Tell Putin to let Ukraine go. Stop supporting the seperatists. Let Ukraine go their own way and try to rebuild themselves. Ukraine is no threat to Russia and neither is the USA. No one wants WW3.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:15
you don't know ukraine

ukraine is divided country

divided into russians and ukrainians

ukrainians hate russians
In Response

by: Konstantin! from: Los Angeles
August 05, 2014 00:24
Ukrainians hate nobody, but Russians call "hate" any dignity
of non-Russians - any resistance is killed.
Your pact of 1954-56 try divide Ukraine with Germans-Austrians!
Ask intermarried in Ukraine,
unless one of them is a "Stervyatnik"-Nazi.
Ukraine must be one of the best and stable country in Center of Europe, with mutually beneficial trade an projects West and East, including Russia.
You use old known paradox:
"Stervyatnik's" spies pose as haters of Russia.
"Plantagenot's" and Hitler's spies pose as haters of the West.
Stealing hat screams – “Lovite vora!”

by: Neil Omalley from: Austin Texas
July 31, 2014 05:55
Thanks for this insightful glance into one of the important cogs in the kremlin machine. This is one of the more "stand-out" articles I have read over the recent developments in eastern Ukraine and will certainly eye on this character. Kudos, Brian.

by: michael walters from: canada
July 31, 2014 16:28
80 children and babies bodies are still out there....thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
In Response

by: Bill
August 01, 2014 06:49
More like thanks to Western governments that support a divisive regime in Kiev, whose armed activity created the circumstances for a civilian airliner shoot down - something not yet fully established.
In Response

by: Tom H
August 02, 2014 03:05
The Western governments weren't ones to send in trained and armed militia into a foreign country to start a war. That was Putin
In Response

by: Ukrainian from the USA from: Ukrainian from USA
August 27, 2014 06:51
The whole situation is the result of undeclared Cold War 2 on Russia that was started in 1990. Hence West has to share the burden of blame too. I blame Putin and government in Kiev. Yet real criminal liability lies with those who allowed that plane to fly over war zone.

by: moderateGuy from: Henderson, NV, US
July 31, 2014 17:56
"If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this [downing of MH17]...[Putin would wash his hands of the terrorists]" - he meant 'if at some point the evidence of who did this cannot be hidden and obfuscated any longer', right?
I thought so.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:22
we are still waiting for the evidence of your U.S. Government

we are still waiting for the recordings
between Ukrainians air traffic controllers and pilots of 777

this after two weeks

and you still have the nerve to accuse without evidence

by: bob from: europe somewhere
July 31, 2014 18:58
All anyone needs to know about russia can be summed up by :

Holodomor 1932, Attack on winter war Finland 1939, treaty with Hitler to devour Poland 1939, budapest 1956, prague 1968 , KAL 007 airline shoot down 1980's . Case closed .
In Response

by: doublebo6 from: uzhorod
August 01, 2014 01:16
not quite. youre forgetting;
ignoring Kursk, killing russian citizens in theatre seige, bombing of moscow but blamed on chechens, litvinenko......100 maidan protesters...
In Response

by: John from: Nevada
August 04, 2014 23:14
.......and forgetting Beslan.....apartment bombings also blamed on Chechens.
Comments page of 2

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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