Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Power Vertical

Surkov’s Last Stand

Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
Is Russia's puppet master playing one last trick?
It’s more than fitting that the circumstances surrounding Vladislav Surkov’s sudden exit from the halls of power continue to be shrouded in mystery a week after the fact.

The master of political subterfuge, the architect of the make-believe democracy, the creator of faux parties and imitation social movements, of course, would have it no other way.

A week after Surkov’s departure as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was announced, we still don’t even know for sure when exactly he actually tendered his resignation, which was officially announced on May 8.

The Kremlin’s preferred narrative: Surkov resigned on May 7, right after President Vladimir Putin publicly dressed down the government for its poor performance. That is what Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

But Surkov is telling another story.  He insists that he tendered his resignation on April 26 of his own accord, but the Kremlin waited nearly two weeks to announce it.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was typically wishy-washy on this point. His press secretary said Surkov discussed his resignation with the premier on both April 26 and May 7.

Does this really matter? Actually, probably not. But it is quite telling. The man who for over a decade masterminded Russia’s political narrative on the Kremlin’s behalf is not allowing his old masters to write the script of his banishment.

The authorities couldn’t even get their story straight about who would replace him.

The government first announced that Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich would be Surkov’s replacement. They then walked this back. Dvorkovich would just temporarily handle Surkov’s ministerial duties. His job as government chief of staff would be shared by two of his deputies: Aleksandra Levistskaya and Sergei Prikhodko. 

There was just one problem with this: Levistskaya, it seems, resigned back in April. Oops. Finally, days later, the government announced that Prikhodko would temporarily serve as acting chief of staff alone.

"It’s quite apparent...that the deputy prime minister’s departure was unexpected and that the Kremlin and the government do not have a candidate for the vacancy," the daily "Kommersant" wrote.

The reasons for his departure also remain murky.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov told journalists that it was related to the government’s failure to implement Putin’s decrees, which was Surkov’s responsibility -- but few are buying that explanation.

Most media focused on the fact that Surkov fell out of favor with Putin back in 2011 when he supported keeping Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin for a second term as president.

Speculation also zeroed in on a very public conflict he had with the powerful Investigative Committee, which is examining alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and technological center, a flagship Medvedev project that Surkov supervises.

The probe alleges that Skolkovo’s Senior Vice President Aleksei Beltyukov illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. Press reports from Kremlin-friendly outfits suggested that this illustrated Surkov’s ties with the opposition. 

In a speech at the London School of Economics on May 2, Surkov criticized the investigation, sparking a harsh response from Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin. In an article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Markin ridiculed Surkov’s "pitiful moaning from London," adding that it "would not stop the Investigative Committee from doing its job."

And some accounts simply suggested that, after masterminding high Kremlin intrigue for so long, Surkov was just bored with the mundane work of day-to-day governance.

Surkov himself was typically cryptic about what is really going on. "I’ll tell you about it later, when it is appropriate," he told "Kommersant."

So is Surkov playing some deeper game here? Mikhail Rostovsky, chief political analyst for the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," thinks so.  

"Russia’s former chief puppet master has refused to play the role of the loser in Putin’s puppet theater," Rostovsky wrote this week.

"I venture to suggest that the government chief of staff’s departure was not part of Putin’s plans," Rostovsky continued. "Why? Because in the political drama that Putin is now playing out, each person has been assigned his own role. The president’s own role was to constantly kick the government and exclaim: 'You losers! You are failing to execute my edicts!'"

And the role of the government and its chief of staff "was to make feeble attempts to justify itself and to promise to mend its ways."

Using the government as a lightning rod allowed Putin to deflect criticism for any crisis that may arise -- like the economic downturn many are predicting -- and to reinforce his image as the strong national leader.

"Surkov has, to a degree, wrecked Putin’s game," Rostovsky wrote. "Putin can, of course, continue to use Medvedev’s Cabinet as a whipping boy. But it seems that Surkov’s departure has weakened the government to such an extent that it will now be difficult to treat it without a pitying smile...Putin has discredited the government so successfully that Medvedev no longer has the strength to bear the burden of responsibility. And that burden now falls on the president’s shoulders."

I think Rostovsky is on the mark here. Surkov, it appears, has torn off the mask. The master of make-believe politics is, to a degree, putting an end to the era of make believe.

Which completes a circle that began with the resignation of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin back in the fall of 2011, shortly after the infamous Putin-Medvedev "castling" was announced at the United Russia party congress.

That, of course, was also not in Putin’s plans -- and it was a harbinger of future turbulence in the ruling elite.

As I have blogged in the past, Surkov and Kudrin are "managers" who owe their positions in the elite to specific skill sets -- as opposed to "shareholders" like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who have a very tangible stake in the status quo. 

The managers sensed that Russian society was changing and that the political system needed to open up to some extent to accommodate that change -- which made them potential allies of the opposition.

They lost that argument and now the heavyweights among them appear to be defecting. Which raises the question of whether the ongoing Cold War in the Kremlin is about to get a little hotter. 

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the May 17 edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I discuss the fallout from Surkov's exit with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin or RFE/RL's Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags: Vladislav Surkov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Andras Toth-Czifra from: Brussels
May 16, 2013 07:13
It's a very interesting point you raise there, Brian. Putin does seem to be "overdoing" the pressure on the government. I am not sure whether this will ultimately lead to Putin having to take full responsibility for the "ruchnoye upravleniye", though. But one thing is sure: he might navigate himself into a very uneasy situation.

In my blog last week I pointed at an article from 2011 in Vzglyad that argued that Surkov was an 'enterprising' political manager who was ready to take his own initiatives. In 2011, I added that he was unhappy with the emergence of a system that took no other initiatives than Putin's and that in fact he deliberately jumped the ship then as well, just as he did now. No wonder commentators in Kommersant's Ogonek last week argued that wherever Surkov went he would take up a job that was 'the most interesting' to him.

The point is that there are political managers of all kinds. Both Kudrin and Surkov were ones that fit a specific era. Surkov did try to find his new function in the government but Medvedev was all to eager to assume the role of Putin's "whipping boy" as you so rightly put it.

It will be very decisive whether or not Medvedev recognises that he still has somewhere to go. If he thinks he does not, he may believe that the only way for him to preserve his access to resources is to stay on as Putin's punchbag. As I argued before, at this point Putin cannot replace him with anyone who is politically strong enough to 'bear the burden of responsibility' because that someone would inevitably start to think about himself as THE successor. With Medvedev in the PM's seat, at least it's obvious to everyone that the decision will be taken later.

My full comments on Surkov are available on my blog:

Also: will you be doing a podcast on Surkov?

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