Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Power Vertical

Target: Surkov

"Psst. You're in trouble."
"Psst. You're in trouble."
When photos of Vladislav Surkov hanging out and fishing with the powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov appeared online recently, it raised some eyebrows but was viewed mainly as an odd curiosity.

Kadyrov said Surkov, whose resignation as deputy prime minister and government chief of staff was made public on May 8, spent this past weekend with him in Chechnya’s Itum-Kalinsky district, where the photos were taken.

Surkov "remains on the president's team and is ready to fulfill the tasks Vladimir Putin might give him" and "could be useful for the state in any role," Kadyrov added.

The two men are longtime allies, so Kadyrov’s public demonstration of support wasn't exactly shocking. But in light of recent news reports, it has become more interesting -- and appears to be much more than a kind gesture to an old friend.

Surkov, according to the latest round of media speculation, could soon become a target in the ongoing criminal probe into alleged corruption at the Skolkovo scientific and innovation center -- the flagship project Dmitry Medvedev initiated during his presidency to spur the modernization of Russia's economy. As deputy prime minister, Surkov was responsible for overseeing the center.

"The Investigative Committee is very interested in the activities of former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov," reported this week, quoting unidentified Kremlin and law-enforcement sources.

The report added, quoting Skolkovo officials who have been called in for interrogation, that investigators appear particularly interested in "Surkov's role in administering the distribution of funds" from the center. "The nature of the questioning suggests that the goal is to prove he was involved with embezzlement," the publication wrote.

If Surkov is indeed in the Investigative Committee’s crosshairs, it would represent a significant escalation in the Kremlin's war on dissent -- expanding it from the opposition to also include their alleged collaborators among the elite. It would also mark a significant escalation in the cold war between the siloviki and technocratic wings of the elite that has been simmering since the Medvedev presidency.

As the Kremlin's chief ideologist during Putin's first two terms, Surkov was a key member of the president's inner circle. He was instrumental in devising both Putin’s tough-guy image and the faux system of "sovereign democracy" that legitimized his authoritarian rule.

Surkov fell out of favor with Putin during the period of the so-called tandem, when he endorsed keeping Medvedev in power for a second term as president and the introduction of more pluralism into the political system -- things the powerful siloviki clan of security-service veterans surrounding Putin hotly opposed.

For the time being, the criminal probe into Skolkovo alleges that the center's senior vice president, Aleksei Beltyukov, illegally paid opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev $750,000 for lectures and research projects. But media reports suggest that this is just one piece of a larger case in which investigators are seeking to show that since his estrangement from Putin, Surkov has been involved in covertly funneling state funds to the opposition.

Kremlin-friendly political analyst Sergei Markov told that when antiregime protests broke out in December 2011, anti-Putin elements in the bureaucracy and the business elite used Skolkovo for precicely this purpose.

"Those who were in charge of this project are of course now falling under suspicion," Markov said. "Putin cannot give the impression that he will stand by quietly while people betray him behind his back."

Moreover, Surkov's relations with the siloviki faction of the elite, particularly powerful figures like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, have always been frosty at best. And now, it seems, they are out for revenge.

But going after a fish as big as Surkov would escalate the conflict within the elite to unprecedented levels and would require Putin's go-ahead. It is unclear whether he has given it.

Which puts those photos of Surkov and Kadyrov in context.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on May 24, when I will discuss the issues raised on the blog this week with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mark Galeotti of New York University, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Ramzan Kadyrov,Vladislav Surkov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Regular Joe from: USA
May 28, 2013 20:43
In the photo, Surkov has a striking similarity to Mr. Bean.

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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

15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


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.

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About This Blog

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