Wednesday, August 31, 2016

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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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