Saturday, November 22, 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.

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.

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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