Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

Putin's Icarus Moment

Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at a United Russia congress in Moscow on November 27.
Dmitry Medvedev (back) and Vladimir Putin wave to delegates at a United Russia congress in Moscow on November 27.
Let's take a brief trip into an parallel universe.
At the September 24 United Russia congress, Dmitry Medvedev announces -- with Vladimir Putin's blessing -- that he will seek a second term as president. Putin, for his part, announces that he will step down as prime minister after the 2011-12 election cycle, but cryptically adds that he will remain in politics in some yet-to-be-determined capacity.
Just over a month later, in the December 4 State Duma elections, United Russia hangs on to its majority by a thread, but the big story of the day is that the newly configured Right Cause party, under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, comes in a very strong third, just behind the Communists. The new Duma would have five parties, United Russia in the center, Right Cause on the center-right, A Just Russia on the center-left, and the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR on the flanks. Prokhorov, who enjoyed strong support from the growing urban professional class, is immediately touted as the leading candidate for premier.
Medvedev easily wins the March 4 presidential election with about 70 percent of the vote and -- as expected -- nominates Prokhorov for prime minister. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin hails the choice. But the big post-election story comes when Medvedev unexpectedly names Putin to serve as secretary of a revamped and beefed-up Security Council. As part of the overhaul, Medvedev also announces that the so-called "power ministries" -- FSB, Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs -- will report directly to the Security Council secretary.
OK. Thought experiment over. Now back to reality. But ask yourself the following question: From the perspective of Russia's ruling elite hanging on to its power in a stable environment, would they have been better off under this alternative scenario I just described or in the one they find themselves in now?
In the last episode of the Power Vertical Podcast, New York University professor  and veteran Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," suggested that the ruling circle -- the so-called "collective Putin" --would have been better off with Medvedev staying on as their formal front-man:
There is very little reason to believe that if he had let Medvedev continue for another term that things would have gone bad for him and those around him. It probably would have been a relatively stable continuation of the tandem. He just didn't seem willing to let go.... It's clear that Putin made a phenomenal blunder there. For whatever reason, he just wasn't willing to let go. Maybe it was because he had qualms about whether Medvedev could handle the job. We don't really know. Someday, maybe it will emerge.
Regular readers of this blog know that I like to describe the emerging political arrangements in Russia as an embryonic "deep state" -- a permanent super-elite that rules from the shadows, setting the parameters of acceptable politics for the formal institutions of governance. The term was coined to describe the cabal of military officers that de facto ruled Turkey prior to the rise of current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But as Mark pointed out in the podcast, for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep." Everyone knows it's there, but everybody pretends that it is not. Putin's mistake was "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell and inflamed public opinion:
The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed, if you look at Turkey for example, but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians. Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses and that was a big mistake.
Returning to my little parallel universe for a bit, a second Medvedev term with Putin retaining control of the power ministries would not have been without its problems. Big disagreements would have still existed over issues of modernizing and diversifying the economy and the privatization of the energy sector -- issues dear to technocrats who favor reform but deeply threatening to the siloviki who control the commodities sector. There would still be plenty of conflicts between the "shareholders" and "managers" in the elite.
But in an environment of relative social and political tranquility, Putin -- who would remain de facto in charge due to his control over the security services -- would have been able to act as "arbiter in chief" and settle them behind the scenes. His authority and clout would still be unchallenged.
Now, he looks diminished and the deep state looks vulnerable.
So why did Putin take the path he did? As Mark noted, we really don't know yet. But there are some plausible explanations out there.
Political analyst and former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky suggested in a recent interview with "New Times" that Putin's inner circle simply didn't trust Medvedev to protect their wealth and privilege:
I think that it was a few cohorts -- who owed their position and wealth to Putin -- who pushed him into it. They asked themselves a simple question: if it were not Putin, would their capital be guaranteed or not? That is why I, like a maniac, since I was close to the presidential staff then, said all the time that Medvedev must find a way to give guarantees to the "collective Putin." But Medvedev thought that the president was above these trivialities.
Along similar lines, longtime "Economist" correspondent Edward Lucas, author of "Deception: Spies, Lies, And How Russia Dupes the West," suggested that formal power matters more in Russia than in other countries with similar deep-state arrangements:
The way the Russian system works, these formal channels of power are important. It isn't like China where you can have Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes or Singapore where you have Lee Kuan Yew behind the scenes. The paper flow matters, the signature matters, the pechat [stamp] matters. I think that it was a source of some awkwardness and instability for them that Medvedev was theoretically in the top job and so Putin had to have a guy in Medvedev's office managing the paper flow so people didn't run around behind him.
In the end, as I blogged here, it appears that the "managers" who opposed Putin's return to formal power were outflanked by the "shareholders" who wanted him back in the Kremlin at all cost.

The September 24 United Russia congress, I believe, was a critical juncture, one of those inflection points in Russian politics that set the stage for the next era. And we are now seeing the results of the choices made in the run-up to that day.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Putin-Medvedev tandem,Dmitry Medvedev,Russia's Deep State

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
May 28, 2012 18:01
Not sure that I agree with the title or the allusion to Icarus. From what I can tell, Putin remains nearly as popular as ever and he doesn’t look to crash anytime soon. Should the price of oil remain at about $100 per barrel, Putin will have no problem in continuing to distribute largesse, and staying above the fray of genuine politics. I think a more apt metaphor for the Russian leader would be Sisyphus. I sense that Putin now firmly believes in his indispensable role in keeping the system moving. Whether it is actually moving anywhere is an altogether different question.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
May 29, 2012 06:24
Obviously you are right, RAY, when you say that "Putin remains nearly as popular as ever and he doesn’t look to crash anytime soon". But please do not forget that the "journalists" working for the RFE/RL are getting their salaries paid for doing their best to create in the heads of their readers the impression that such places as Russia, Iran, the DPRK etc etc are just craddles of horror - so that the people in the US would forget about the fact that their own economy is going down the drain and their army is losing the war in Afghanistan.
In Response

by: Steve from: Brisbane
May 29, 2012 15:31
Yes, but who pays you to comment on practically every story on this site?
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
May 30, 2012 04:41
Hey, Steve from Brisbane, thank you for your timely question! Yes, you know, it all started when Putin, Fidel and Chávez put together a couple of rubbles, pesos and bolivares and paid me to "comment on practically every story on this site". Then it was Ahmadinejad and Kin Jong Un who spent a few dinars and North-Korean wons to pay my salary. And finally Assad allocated a few dinars for me to sing glory to him too.
On the top of that, I am getting food-stamps with which I can any time get a free lunch in the canteen of the Chinese embassy here in Vienna. But you know, eating Chinese food the whole time is not really so healthy - so I just exchanged those food-stamps for a few Credit-Default Swaps on Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portugese sovereign debt. And it means I am going to win big when all these (and other) NATO member states go bankrupt over the next few months :-)).
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 30, 2012 07:10
If it is true that Eugenio is indeed an unemployed immigrant in Austria, then I must commend him for his brilliant knowledge of English and express my astonishment at his inability to get a job!! Perhaps during every interview he responds to every question about NATO minions, Frau merkel and greek default.
In Response

by: Oly from: New Mexico
May 31, 2012 17:19
Do you really think that anyone with half a brain pays attention to what you say, Eugenio? Your words are the same as the ones Pravda used to print during the heyday of your Soviet Union. Please get over your anger and get a life....
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
May 31, 2012 22:44
It good to see you have a faithful following on this site, Eugenio :-)
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
June 01, 2012 03:06
Eugenio, Ray is right, not withstanding "popularity" of nazi "salut",
His country going wrong way, simce Russian inheritted desese.
Your point is - it isn't so horrible. Engels was by Lenin usurped
(and Russia was saved by Stalin). Hitler is by Putin usurped -
Who saves Russia now? Me, killed by Russ for its nemesis?

USA almost started Afghanistan war, put-on by aparatchics.
East Europe and CIS manage turn USA to a reconstruction.
Russia does all to turn it to raten wound of "democratchics",
Basted West economy, that you name loose war to Russia.
He salut "Victorious Russia" you salut "Russ Pobedonosik!"

by: Maria L from: Prague, CZ
May 28, 2012 20:02
An interesting take on the situation from the perspective on the ruling elite, but I think Putin had to have done more than just "rub the public's nose" in the reality of the deep state to provoke this kind of reaction. It makes it sound as if people just got angry because the cool kid in class started showing off and it hurt their self-esteem. The length and strength of the protests in Moscow and other bigger cities, that are still going strong, five months after the Duma elections, show that the frustration built up over time. It does seem that well-educated and financial stable Russians just woke up, but I think in reality they've been aware of the problems the whole time, just didn't want to rock the boat. This was just deemed an important enough reason to abandon the fear of loosing stability. Putin didn't just rub in the farce of his rule, he finally showed the full extent of his megalomania, making it clear that if he's not stopped he will take over every morsel of power in Russia.

by: Marko from: USA
May 29, 2012 10:47
A few disagreements.Putin remains quite popular with the majority but a third of the country hates him. Not even half of that third though are liberals. So a Medvedev return and a sharp turn toward policies favored by the West would have alienated Putin's own supporters and not won over all opponents-- without even getting into the matter of what those policies would have produced. Remember the 1990s? There were definitely some drawbacks and complications to what Putin did, but he seems to be through the worst of it now. The problem with your scenario is that, from the point of view of Russian rather than Western interests, Medvedev couldn't do it. Like Yeltsin, he was weak and malleable putty in the hands of the West. Libya proved that-- costing Russia tens of billions in commerce and Medvedev, in all probability, his job.
In Response

by: Regular Joe from: USA
May 29, 2012 20:38
I'm not sure from where you conclude that Libya proved anything about Medvedev. Russia was in no position to do anything about Libya, or frankly, to stop NATO from doing anything about the situation in Libya. I'm not supporting NATO's actions in Libya, but just saying that outside of its "near abroad" (ie. Georgia), Russia is too weak to have much influence if the Western powers feel they really want to take action, regardless of whether Medvedev or Putin might be the titular leader in Moscow. Russia's "tens of billions in commerce" were lost when they backed Ghadaffi, because he was already beaten, not when they yielded to Western pressure in the Security Council. Assad survives in Syria, not from the "protection" of Russia, or even China, but because the West has finally seen that the devil they know may be better than the devil they don't, as in Libya and Egypt.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
May 31, 2012 21:54
Don't entirely disagree that Russia couldn't have done about Lybia directly-- but it certainly could have not gone along with what happened. Very strange and rather cowardly of Meedvedev to simply go along with Russian interests being removed. It also could have responded asymmetrically in its "near abroad" -- as Putin in fact did in 2008 vis a vis the US creation of Kosovo as an independent state out of the territory of Russia's ally Serbia. Not sure what you mean about Russia backing Khadafy in terms of interests being cleansed from Libya by the US-- that was happening regardless of what policy Russia adopted.

by: rkka from: USA
May 30, 2012 00:12
"But ask yourself the following question: From the perspective of Russia's ruling elite hanging on to its power in a stable environment, would they have been better off under this alternative scenario I just described or in the one they find themselves in now?"


But thanks for the pathetically transparent attempt to stir up dissention amongst the Russian elite.

"Regular readers of this blog know that I like to describe the emerging political arrangements in Russia as an embryonic "deep state" -- a permanent super-elite that rules from the shadows, setting the parameters of acceptable politics for the formal institutions of governance."

You mean, like Goldman Sachs et. al. does here in the US?


Putin kicked the "malefactors of great wealth" out of power in Russia years ago.

by: George from: USA
June 01, 2012 03:19
What I find startaling is not one comment has a "Russian" location.
Althow I am sure some one of the commenters may be a ex-pat Russian. Besides the SVR officer of course.

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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

17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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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