Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Power Vertical

Putin's Winter Of Discontent (updated x2)

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a training session of the "Ice hockey legends of the USSR" club in Moscow on November 18.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attends a training session of the "Ice hockey legends of the USSR" club in Moscow on November 18.
It is not entirely clear whether the fans at Moscow's Olympic Stadium were booing Vladimir Putin when he stepped into the ring to address the crowd following a martial arts match on Saturday, or whether -- as the events organizers claim -- their ire was directed at the defeated American fighter.


But what is abundantly clear is that the incident has fed a narrative that has been building in Russia over the past couple months that Putin is wearing out his welcome.

As I blogged here recently, Putin's poll numbers, as well as those of President Dmitry Medvedev and the ruling United Russia party, have been in steady decline for months.

The trend seemed to accelerate with the Leonid Brezhnev comparisons that followed the United Russia congress in September, when Putin's plan to return to the Kremlin was announced.

But as "Kommersant" reported last week, a roundtable at Moscow State University's Department of Sociology and Psychology of Politics illustrates that the public's changing attitude toward the long-serving leader go even deeper.

On participant in the roundtable, Yelena Shestopal, noted that Putin is now facing a new generation that is less amenable to his political charms than their parents were:

The demand for stability typical of the 2000's is changing beyond recognition. We have in Russia the first post-Soviet generation of citizens who learned the official liberal lexicon... and is prepared to be active... It is the passiveness of the majority that is playing into the hands of the powers that be at this point. And yet, well-educated young Russians of the middle class are fairly critical with regard to the powers that be.

Another participant, Victor Titov, noted that the public is growing increasingly weary of Putin's macho PR stunts like driving a Lada through the Far East, scuba diving for buried treasure -- or making an impromptu appearance at a martial arts bout:

At first, emphasis was made on his assets - a real macho, dependable,  charismatic, strong-willed, and so on... But now twelve years after, Russians are no longer blind to his liabilities as well. It means promises that were never kept, absence of control over his subordinates, the deterioration of living standards.

Titov noted that Medvedev's image has also suffered since the United Russia congress in September, when Putin's return to the presidency was unveiled.

Russians had viewed Medvedev "as a nice person but not as a politician or leader. That's what attracted Russians," he said. "The castling move proclaimed at United Russia congress in late September, however, changed everything. Unconsciously, the Russians began perceiving Medvedev as first and foremost a weak politician."

Titov added that "Medvedev and Putin are seen as people who are in the position to accomplish something but who never even try."

Another participant in the symposium, Vladimir Lapkin of the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations, noted that the public was also souring on the staged Potemkin political theater that substitutes for real debate in Russia:

Society is becoming weary of what passes for political struggle in Russia or rather...of the political struggle in the form society is forced to accept. It means that mass conscience will start formulating a demand soon for a resolute energetic policy of competition for resources of development. In fact, it will create some serious risks for the next president.

In a recent commentary published in "Vedomosti," Mikhail Dmitriyev and Sergei Belanovsky of the Center for Strategic Research came to similar conclusions as the Moscow State University roundtable.

The authors called the creation of the Putin-Medvedev tandem a masterstroke that consolidated two opposing poles in Russian society:

From the social standpoint, formation of the tandem was an exceptionally successful move. It happened almost inadvertently just when society was splitting into two camps with polar and therefore incompatible ideological values and political expectations. The establishment of the tandem solved the problem of appealing to both camps.

Putin and Medvedev appealed to different social poles. Their individual brands complemented each other, camouflaging at the same time the accumulating conflict of interests of these very poles. Medvedev's brand appealed to the part of society longing for overdue modernization. Putin's in the meantime appealed to the traditionalists and conservatives within society.

But the decision to have the two switch jobs after the 2012 election essentially emasculated Medvedev as a politician and severely damaged Putin's image as well:

The forthcoming castling move exposed Medvedev as a political tagalong lacking the qualities and traits expected in a national leader playing the part of a consolidator. It is logical to assume therefore that Medvedev's personal brand is devalued as a political asset. Instead of being an asset for the regime as such, it is a liability.
The damage to the image of the tandem is irreparable because the support lost by Medvedev does not go over to Putin. It follows that the aggregate political basis of the tandem is weakened. It is particularly noticeable on the right flank of the political spectrum that has nobody in the upper echelons of the state power  to appeal to and regard as its potential leader.
The damage done to Putin's brand seems to be less serious but serious all the same. His brand is all alone now, face to face with the problems of its political ageing and inability to appeal to both social poles. The castling cannot help making changes within the upper echelons of state power less probable and weakening the chances of an adequate dialogue between the authorities and society.

This will all probably not mean much for the 2011-12 election cycle. The Kremlin's command of administrative resources is more than sufficient to achieve the results they want.

But where it will matter -- and matter big time -- will be when the elections are over and Putin needs to preside over what are certain to be very unpopular reforms in Russia's creaking social service infrastructure without the reservoir of support he has historically enjoyed.

UPDATE (November 23, 2011): The video of the booing incident has now gone viral, with 1,599,107 views on YouTube as I am writing this -- making it today's most viewed video. The video also boasts 13,437 "likes" and just 926 "dislikes."

Moreover, the Facebook page of Jeff "Snowman" Monson, the defeated American fighter the Kremlin claims the fans were booing, is now filled with supportive comments from Russians who assured him they were booing Putin and not him.

Here are just a few examples (click the link above for the whole shebang):

"Jeff, get well soon! Best regards and respect from Siberia, Russia. You fought honestly. Sorry for our government and corrupted mass media," wrote Ekaterina Shipilova.

"You're a great fighter. Fight vs. Putin. Fight vs. politicians," wrote Aleksey Dolya.

"Russians occupied this area, mwuahhaha! Jeff, don't be surprised by this much attention from us, it caused by the lie in Russian media that we were booing at you after the fight with Fedor, and we just want to clear it out that the target actually was Putin. We love such humble and sincere persons like you here in Russia. Good luck for you, Jeff, you're the man," wrote Alexei Novikov.

This must be very disturbing for the Kremlin. Those who attend martial arts fights like the one in Moscow's Olympic Stadium Saturday should constitute a key part of Putin's base -- and once did. If he is losing them, that is an ominous sign indeed.

UPDATE 2 (November 23, 2011): This video, shot from another angle, shows many in the crowd clearly booing Putin. Also audible are shouts of "ykhodi!" (go away!).


The original video, meanwhile, now has over 2 million views on YouTube.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,2011 State Duma elections,Dmitry Medvedev

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Nate
November 22, 2011 22:14
Another piece of wishful thinking. Brian is in fact paid to do this, i.e. american taxpay's money at work. Wish they kept their $$ to themselves, as they appear head over heels in debt.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
November 23, 2011 03:27
Maybe this site will shut down when the Kremlin shuts RT news and stops violating the Russian Constitution that guarantees ordinary people human rights.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
November 23, 2011 11:06
Wishful thinking? Vladimir Putin is also paid to say the things he does, are you aware of that fact, Nate?

The video speaks for itself, you idiot, it is a fact not a wish. Russians were booing loudly in large numbers while Putin was in the ring speaking. At the very least, they were totally disrespecting him, at the most expressing outright hatred and condemnation for him. Why suddenly start booing when Putin entered the ring? Why not stop when he did so? A country that really respected its president would not act this way. And it is just rational behavior: Under Putin Russians work for $3/hour and rank outside the top 100 countries of the world for life expectancy. They have no allies among the major nations of the world and don't produce any major manufactured products in the world stream of commerce. They win hardly any Nobel prizes, receive hardly any foreign tourists, and are hated throughout former Soviet space. A nation that didn't boo such a leader would be a nation deserving of scorn.

Seems like it's YOU, Nate, who's guilty of wishful thinking.
In Response

by: Nate
November 23, 2011 18:17
Is Russia an ideal state right now? No. Is US? No. Is US further along? Yes. Has Russia been any better in however many years back? No. Has it got better since Putin. Yes. Is Russia on the right path? Yes.

You can't measure actions on an absolute scale or in light of realities of ANOTHER country. You have to look at action of Putin in light of RUSSIAN realities. Stop looking at Russia through the pink glasses of US liberalism. US has traveled a long ways, both economically and socially, to get to where it is now. Russia is the 1930's version of US. It faces different realties. It faces a road, which it must complete to move forward, well, to stay alive. And Putin absolutely is the right man for this. You can't hope a badly ill patient to heal on his own. You need firm directions of a qualified doctor. Will patient be comfortable and allowed to do whatever he wants while being treated? No. Putin is the right "doctor" and strong majority (!) approves his actions. When people don't approve -- nothing can stop them --- countless revolutions has shown. And no need for US to tell Russia what to do - we all know its hypocritical pursuits.

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