Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

Putin Forever

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill visit an exhibition on the Rurik Dynasty in Moscow on November 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill visit an exhibition on the Rurik Dynasty in Moscow on November 4.

As one of his activities marking the Unity Day holiday, Vladimir Putin joined Patriarch Kirill to view an exhibition commemorating the Rurik Dynasty, which established tsarism in Russia and ruled for seven centuries.

What kind of message was he trying to send? If you look hard enough, and even if you don't, it is pretty easy to find signs that Putin intends to stick around for a long, long time.

There was, of course, Vyacheslav Volodin's oft-cited remark that "as long as there is Putin, there is Russia. Without Putin, there is no Russia."  

There was also Putin's "Class of 2014," the large cadre of people in their 20s and 30s who are being recruited from poor families in Russia's far-flung provinces, vetted for loyalty to Putin, and brought to Moscow to fill low- to midlevel posts in the bureaucracy. 

And there was the most recent report by Kremlin-watcher Yevgeny Minchenko, who tracks the balance of power within the elite. Minchenko concluded that due to the "sharp rise of Putin's rating after the reunification with the Crimea, the subject of succession within the president's circle has been removed." 

We've long passed the point where it's feasible to expect Putin to leave the Kremlin and enjoy a peaceful retirement.

That could have happened back in 2008. Remember those rumors that he was going to head up the International Olympic Committee? It could have happened in 2011-12. Had Putin chosen to allow Dmitry Medvedev to serve a second term, he could have continued to rule from the sidelines like China's Deng Xiaoping -- enjoying de facto power without responsibility or accountability.

But at this point, there isn't a safe exit route from the Kremlin.

Putin isn't going to leave willingly. He certainly isn't going to be removed through the sham events Russia calls "elections." A popular revolution is unlikely to say the least -- a Russian ruler hasn't been overthrown in one of those since 1917. Which leaves a palace coup, which was always the most plausible scenario -- but one that looks increasingly remote.

But as remote as it is, Putin is clearly not taking any chances.

And this, I believe, is the context in which we need to view the rumors that surfaced last week that Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was about to be sacked and replaced by longtime Putin loyalist Viktor Zolotov. 

Writing on his blog "In Moscow's Shadows," New York University professor and Russian security expert Mark Galeotti described Kolokoltsev as "a proper professional copper, rather than a yes-man transplant from the security agencies" like his predecessors, Boris Gryzlov and Rashid Nurgaliev. He also has support among the rank and file. 

"None of that necessarily counts, though, and it is perhaps more important that Kolokoltsev is a professional, not a courtier, with no traction in Putin’s inner circle," Galeotti wrote.

"In other words, he is just a 'manager' there to do his job, and can be discarded freely -- as far as the Kremlin is concerned -- when he becomes inconvenient or simply someone more convenient comes along."

What is also important at this point is that Kolokoltsev is the only official in the so-called "power bloc" who is not a Putin uberloyalist. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov are all considered politically reliable.

So, probably, is Kolokoltsev. But certainly less so than Zolotov, who is currently Kolokoltsev's first deputy and commander of the Interior Ministry's 170,000-strong paramilitary forces.

Dozhd TV's Anton Zhelov cited unidentified defense ministry sources as saying the "probable reason" for Kolokoltsev's vulnerability is that "he is not part of the president's inner circle, and that in the current environment, this is particularly important. Zolotov is the ideal candidate."

Zolotov and Putin go back. They met in the 1990s when both worked for St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- Putin as deputy mayor and Zolotov as chief of security. Zolotov followed Putin to Moscow and his career has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

"A former head of Putin’s personal security (and indeed, one of the president’s judo sparring partners), Zolotov has a reputation as a tough loyalist, a 'maximalist' in the words of one Russian cop, whose interests are in protecting his patron rather than necessarily upholding the law," Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, according to Sergei Tretyakov, a Russian security official who defected to the United States in 2000 and died under mysterious circumstances in 2010, Zolotov once made "a list of politicians and other influential Muscovites whom they would need to assassinate to give Putin unchecked power."

Tretyakov's account has never been corroborated

Dozhd TV reports that if Kolokoltsev is removed and replaced by Zolotov, it would likely only be after the November 10 Police Day holiday.  

"If this does happen, it’ll be a clear sign that the Kremlin is manning the barricades and preparing for trouble ahead," Galeotti wrote.

Which brings us back to the Rurik dynasty. Its long reign ended in 1598 with the political chaos, civil uprisings, usurpers, foreign occupation, and famine of the Time of Troubles.

Putin has long suggested that, should he leave the scene, this would be the result. But by monopolizing power, eliminating all alternatives, destroying Russia's institutions, and suppressing its civil society, he is making the ground fertile for political upheaval when he does finally go.

And like all mortals, he will eventually go -- and that will be his legacy.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Power Vertical blog,Vladimir Kolokoltsev,Viktor Zolotov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Babeouf from: Republic of Ireland
November 05, 2014 11:48
When Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister he was 80 years old. By comparison Putin is a spring chicken. Not only has Putin become more popular in Russia. He has become more popular with many people in Europe. And I see that in dealing with the Putin Phenomenon Western publications regale their readers with tedious tittle-tattle. Meanwhile the China/Russia axis goes from strength to strength.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: Netherlands
November 05, 2014 21:57
Well, have a look at the Russian publications then. You'll see what "tittle-tattle" aka cult-of-personality is.

Western publications are wishful: they hope for the best. We all do. Of course, reality doesn't have to oblige us.
In Response

by: Babeouf from: Ireland
November 06, 2014 12:09
Western publications are not' wishful hoping for the best' they are on modern Russia Cold War propaganda sheets where every story has a negative slant. The stories tend to be tedious pointless and self serving. And here the New York Times is no exception. In a recent page long article on a Putin speech there was only a single line quoted from the speech. Then the story followed the usual listing of 'hopes' that the Russian regime would come to grief.
In Response

by: Idrian from: Surrey, BC
November 07, 2014 01:01
Au contraire, never has the PRC/Putinist Russia axis faced more opposition than now. With the PRC's expansionist actions on the South China Sea and Putin's influence on Ukraine and even the whole of Europe, there are now more opponents than ever, especially from their nearest neighbours. And Churchill had a period out of the prime ministership after the Second World War before he returned to power in the '50s.

by: Anonymous
November 05, 2014 15:46
One thing you can be sure
this man will be in the history

by: John T from: CA
November 05, 2014 20:39
He wants to be remembered as Putin the Great and will only be remembered as Putin the Reviled.
In Response

by: Peter
November 06, 2014 20:15
Or better yet, he will be remembered as "Putin the Khuylo"

by: Anonymous
November 05, 2014 22:11
"As long as there is Putin, there is Russia. Without Putin, there is no Russia."

There was a Russia before Putin, and there will be a Russia after Putin.

Idolatry of a human personality is no foundation for political, social and economic stability -- only for dictatorship.

by: Idrian from: Surrey, BC
November 05, 2014 22:21
So how will or should his opposition, incl. anti-US opposition, respond?

by: American Tolerast
November 06, 2014 04:10
Just look at that photo. Why, it's the very image of a modern, sophisticated, advanced, cultured civilization. I bet there aren't two men kissing within a hundred miles of that photo. And who doesn't want a leader-for-life?

by: Mamuka
November 07, 2014 12:56
Putin zhil, Putin zhiv, i Putin budet zhit'!

(Translation: I'm not going anywhere for a long time so get used to it)
In Response

by: JLNancy
November 09, 2014 06:18

and add >

“If you don’t like it, well, I’ll just have you killed off by some of my jingoistic hacks…”

(wink) “but, it’ll be *unsubstantiated*, of course! “

“My Kremlin-paid shills, from all walks of life and all levels of societies around the world, will see to that.”

“I perform miracles!” (thunder and lightning)

by: Mamuka
November 07, 2014 13:06
Blin! What happened to the podcast??? I watched the video with batoni dato but where's my podcast??

by: rakeshkapila from: Russia
November 08, 2014 15:02
Putin is the Grandson of Rasputin !

by: DuckDodgers from: The 24th-and-a-half Centu
November 11, 2014 17:48
So when did Vladimir Putin join the cast of Duck Dynasty at a Shriner's convention? I missed that episode!
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