Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Power Vertical

Russia's Indispensable Man

Summer camp for pro-Putin youth movements in the Tver region.
Summer camp for pro-Putin youth movements in the Tver region.
Vladimir Putin isn’t going anywhere.

All other analysis of where Russia is headed post-2012 must proceed from this basic assumption.

Putin may very well end up returning to the Kremlin, as much of the Moscow punditocracy seems to expect at this point, in which case Medvedev would become an interesting historical footnote.

Or, he could continue to rule as Russia’s informal national leader essentially extending the tandem's shelf life -- and Medvedev's presidency -- for another six years. In this case, the only question remaining would be which official post he occupies.

Regardless, at the end of the day, this is Putin’s show.

I recently spoke to Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center about the source of Putin's indispensability to the current system (sorry, no link since the interview is still unpublished):

Putin designed a system of managed conflict. There is no competition in public. But he created different clans and groups who are fighting against each other. This is the way Putin keeps control over the system.  He is a judge and arbiter who is keeping the balance among them. It is impossible for him to leave. It is impossible to imagine this system without him because all of the agreements are guaranteed by him. Without him, all of these clans would fight each other, like after Stalin's death.

Kremlin-watchers say this system of interlocking and competing clans that is managed by Putin comprises the core of Russia's ruling elite. The key players, the people with decision making power, number about thirty. The inner circle, most agree, comprises about twelve people.

Petrov describes them as "shareholders" and "managers":

There are something like a dozen of the most influential guys in the first circle and perhaps two dozen who are less influential in the second circle. These are not only managers but also shareholders who are not that visible or public...Not only do they manage Russia...but they also enrich themselves pretty actively. Russia is also personalistic in that although these guys play an important role, it is Putin who is the major arbiter and who can even replace them.

Some analysts, like Yevgeny Minchenko and Vladimir Pribylovsky, call the core ruling elite "Putin's Politburo." Others playfully refer to it as "the Collective Putin." In a recent report for Chatham House, Andrew Monaghan of the NATO Defense College called it "The Team."

I prefer to call it Russia's emerging "Deep State" (and am working on a longer feature-length piece on the subject, so if you're interested, stay tuned).

In addition to Putin and Medvedev, the core group, according to Minchenko and others, comprises Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin, Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff (and informal ideologist) Vladislav Surkov, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin,  and businessmen Yury Kovalchuk (widely seen as "Putin's personal banker"), Gennady Timchenko, Roman Abramovich, and Alisher Usmanov.

And since this Politburo, Collective Putin, or Deep State comprises "shareholders," they are above all concerned with preserving their status, power, and by extension, their wealth.

If they believe -- and ultimately decide -- that they can do that by loosening up the system by moving to a system of managed pluralism, that is what they will do. This is the option preferred by Kudrin and his allies in the technocratic wing of the elite.

If they conclude that the only way to maintain control is by maintaining, and perhaps even strengthening, the vertically integrated authoritarian state Putin established, then they will go down that road. This is the option favored by Sechin and many of his siloviki allies.

Both choices have implicit risks, as I have blogged in the past. As the late 1980s and early 1990s show, the managed pluralism route can easily spin out of control and lead to -- ghasp! - real pluralism (which many in the elite see as chaos). And as the Soviet 1970s show, failure to open up and modernize the system can result in ossification and stagnation.

Which negative set of lessons will prevail -- those of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika or those of Leonid Brezhnev and the period of "zastoi" -- is still up in the air.

And this is the main question to watch, rather than all the hand wringing and navel gazing over whether Putin or Medvedev will occupy the Kremlin post-2012.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,2012 elections,Dmitry Medvedev,Kremlin clans

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ivanushka the fool from: Mother Russia
August 16, 2011 22:26
Molodets Vlad. Dracula puu-teen is going nowhere,but unfortunately he is dragging the whole `country` with him on his private kgb journey to hell /and no back /.All this will end into another third world war conflict to end all conflicts.When we all go to hell the man will be waiting for us there.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
August 17, 2011 11:09
So let's see: (1) A proud KGB spy rules Russia (2) by means of a Politburo (3) to the tune of the national anthem of the USSR (4) shamelessly rigging elections and seizing opposition party newspapers ( and (5) rehabilitating Stalin. Seems like those who told us Russia could "never go back" to the Soviet days may have been mistaken?

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15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


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.

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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