Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Power Vertical

Leonid Ilyich And Vladimir Vladimirovich

A man looks at a cartoon depicting Premier Vladimir Putin (left) and former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in a magazine in Moscow.
A man looks at a cartoon depicting Premier Vladimir Putin (left) and former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in a magazine in Moscow.
A lot has already been written about the interview Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave to the independent television network "Dozhd," in which he praised Leonid Brezhnev's rule.

In Moscow, within the Garden Ring, you can hear words about Putin’s Brezhnevization. People who say this usually do not know anything about the Brezhnev’s period. You know, Brezhnev is not a minus for our country’s history. He is a huge plus. He set up the base for our economy, agriculture, and so on.


Peskov is correct, but only to a point. By Soviet standards, as I have blogged here and here, the early part of Brezhnev's rule was seen as a success. His "stability of cadres" policy gave the elite job security (and personal security) that they lacked in during the Stalin and Khrushchev periods. He brought the Soviet Union to rough military parity with the United States. Living standards, again by Soviet standards, rose -- mostly thanks to rising oil prices.

And then came the late 1970s and early 1980s. Stability of cadres kept an ossified and moribund elite in power. Oil prices dropped, crippling the Soviet economy leading to shortages of consumer goods. Militarily, the Soviet Union began to fall behind the West.

On the Brezhnev timeline, Putin (who has been in power for 12 years) is now in the late 1970s -- 1976 to be exact, just before things started to fall apart.

Interestingly enough, 1976-77 was also when Brezhnev was widely rumored to be considering resigning. Accounts vary, with some claiming that Brezhnev decided against this himself and others suggesting that he was talked out of it by the Soviet leadership.

The 2008 Russian documentary film, "Leonid Brezhnev: Burnt By Power," cites members of the ruling elite as saying that Brezhnev wanted to resign in 1976 but was urged to stay by his inner circle because nobody else was capable of balancing the interests of the various clans in the ruling elite. Sound familiar?

One thing that jumps out at you about the documentary is that in the early part of his rule, Brezhnev looks healthy, athletic, and positively Putin-esque -- before degenerating into the doddering stumbling Brezhnev we all remember.


Putin was also widely rumored to be looking for a way to step down back in 2007 and, according to some reports, was not thrilled about the prospect of returning to the presidency in 2012.

But like Brezhnev, he is the only one seen as capable of balancing the interests of the competing clans in his ruling circle.

The more things change...

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Leonid Brezhnev

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: SeansRussiaBlog from: Pittsburgh, PA
October 07, 2011 18:22
I'm always a bit wary of simple historical comparisons, though I am tend to make them myself. Basically, it's too soon to tell if Putin will be another Brezhnev. I think its important to remember that Russia has a long history of rulers in power for decades, and it always didn't end in degradation.

That said, I think one issue you bring up is worth thinking about in regard to Putin as Brezhnev: "Like Brezhnev, [Putin] is the only one seen as capable of balancing the interests of the competing clans in his ruling circle." If this is true, and I suspect it is, then this should cause us to reconsider how we view Russia. Namely, that a) Putin is a prisoner of the system he created 2) my own touted notion of the "contradiction of centralization" (see my Putin comment:; 3) Russia's ruling class and state is weaker than its given credit; 4) Russia's future might be more dire than a Brezhnev. If Putin keeps the elites together then Putin as Lenin might be a more apt comparison just for the infighting that might erupt when he finally leaves.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
October 07, 2011 19:14
"it's too soon to tell if Putin will be another Brezhnev"

But surely, Sean, you don't advocate that we wait until we know for sure that Putin is another Brezhnev before we oppose him, right? Surely, we don't have to wait until we see people marching into a new GULAG archipelago (as if we don't already see that), right?

Surely, you admit that those who told us Putin would not return, and who therefore advocated doing nothing to oppose his return, badly misled us, and that we should be extremely careful about repeating that awful, costly, paintful mistake again. Right?

After all, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!

We at LR find it highly inadvisable to take any kind of advice about how to address current events from historians. With their heads buried in the sands of the past, their comments can't but be useless at best, dangerous at worst.
In Response

by: GaryD from: Washington DC
October 10, 2011 11:20
There are plenty of reason not to like Putin - being a new Brezhnev seems to be the least of it. The only way he could be considered another Brezhnev is to define "being Brezhnev" so loosely as to make it meaningless. I mean, the social and economic conditions are totally different, his power over the country is much less, he hasn't had a stroke or whatever it was, isn't an alcoholic, and on and on.

"We at LR find it highly inadvisable to take any kind of advice about how to address current events from historians. With their heads buried in the sands of the past, their comments can't but be useless at best, dangerous at worst."

I hope you intended a large helping of hyperbole here! Historians have a lot to say that's valuable; you just have to know how to use what they say. For example, trying to understand Russia without knowing how power was exercised in the Soviet days is madness.
In Response

by: Mark from: Canada
October 10, 2011 23:11
Your final paragraph contains a typo, and should read;

"We at LR find it highly inadvisable to take any kind of advice from anyone who actually knows anything, opting instead to rely upon whatever noxious trash Novaya Gazeta makes up, because what we like to hear will always triumph over what is real".

As evidence of your general unreliability, I offer the reality that Russia has been a country - or a federation - for longer than the USA has been a union of states, and has still not collapsed. On average you have predicted its immediate collapse, or actually argued that such a collapse is already in progress, every two months for the past four years. You have yet to forecast the collapse of the United States. Yet Russia has the third-largest cash reserves in the world and the lowest debt in the G20, while the USA is the world's biggest debtor in terms of external debt owed to foreign creditors. I'd be hard-pressed to name a current historian with that kind of dismal record.

In case you go to your veterinarian for financial advice, or some random person who tells you what you like to hear, I feel ethically bound to tell you that having a lot of external debt is a very bad position, while having large cash reserves is a very good position. While forecasting the USA's collapse based on this would be foolish, it could be argued that under present conditions the USA is considerably closer to collapse than Russia is.
In Response

by: Maria from: Ritterdam
October 11, 2011 21:12
And who are you to give any kind of advice or analysis on Russia?

by: La Russophobe from: USA
October 08, 2011 12:54
"Putin was also widely rumored to be looking for a way to step down back in 2007 and, according to some reports, was not thrilled about the prospect of returning to the presidency in 2012."

-- Maybe that was propaganda, designed to get us to drop our guard and lower resistance to his return?

"But like Brezhnev, he is the only one seen as capable of balancing the interests of the competing clans in his ruling circle."

-- If that is true, Russia is only putting off the day of its collapse, because Putin will not live forever. Soon after Brezhnev disappeared, so did the USSR. Will Russia disappear with out Putin? If so, it is a country in name only.

by: GaryD from: Washington, DC
October 09, 2011 16:24
'Clans' is a convenient short-cut, but is that really accurate? I think of them more as retainers, people who owe their power to Putin personally and are allowed to steal as much as they can so long as they don't get carried away, and they respond when Putin calls. They have their own retainers, but loyalty is barely skin deep, and the retainers won't hesitate to replace their bosses if given the opportunity.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014


09:09 November 21, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:

Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)


16:55 November 19, 2014


Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014


MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014


Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014


14:47 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)


President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

Latest Podcasts

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