Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Sick Man Of Moscow

Vladimir Putin may well be seriously ill, or worse.

He hasn't appeared in public in a week, he just canceled a trip to Kazakhstan and a series of meetings in Moscow, and the hashtag #ПутинУмер (Putin Died) is trending like mad on Twitter. There have been reports in the Russian media that he's had a stroke.

Whether Putin is sick, or "is feeling fine," as his spokesman Dmitry Peskov insists, the system he presides over is far from healthy. Even if Putin the man is in top form, the "collective Putin," Russia's informal ruling circle, is showing signs of deep distress.

In fact, over the past two weeks, since the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, it has appeared to be in the throes of a crisis. Informal rules have been violated, rivalries among figures near the top of the power pyramid have escalated into open conflict, and Putin has been conspicuous by his absence.

And while it is impossible for outsiders to truly know what is going on in the opaque world of the Kremlin's inner sanctum, there seem to be two possible explanations for Putin's disappearance from public view.

Either he is fine and furiously working behind the scenes to calm the clan warfare that has emerged in the wake of the Nemtsov assassination.

Or Putin is truly sick and incapacitated and the recent turbulence we have witnessed -- from the assassination to the muddled narratives in the investigation to the open conflict between the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- are symptoms of a highly personalized system that has lost its head.

New Rules?

In a political system like Russia's, where formal institutions are weak, court politics are paramount, and personal ties mean everything, obscure signals and gestures matter a lot. So do informal rules. They have to, because the law doesn't apply to those on the top.

This was one of the reasons why the Nemtsov assassination was so shocking. Killing somebody this prominent -- and certainly doing the deed blocks from Red Square -- was against the rules.

As Ivan Yakovina, a former political correspondent for Lenta.ru, wrote recently in the Ukrainian newspaper Novoye Vremya, "Moscow's unspoken rules" forbid killing those other top politicians. Even those such as Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, who had gone into opposition.

The killing, therefore, was "a signal to all representatives of this class," Yakovina added.

And if the Nemtsov assassination has violated one of the cardinal edicts of Putinism, the aftermath violated another: Clan warfare among top members of the elite must not be played out in public.

When the FSB named Zaur Dadayev -- a man with close ties to Kadyrov - as the mastermind of the Nemtsov assassination, it was interpreted in the elite as a direct assault on the Chechen strongman.

Kadyrov is powerful. Perhaps one of the most powerful men in Russia. He has thousands of loyal armed men at his disposal; he has a strong lobby in the Interior Ministry; he counts key Kremlin power brokers like Vladislav Surkov as his allies; and he has long enjoyed Putin's support.

But he has also acquired powerful enemies, including Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Kremlin political overlord Vyacheslav Volodin, and FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov.

And Kadyrov's enemies now appear to be using the Nemtsov assassination to take him down.

In a recent interview, the prominent journalist and Kremlin-watcher Oleg Kashin noted that it was significant that Dadayev and the other suspects in the Nemtsov case were arrested by the FSB and made public by Bortnikov himself.

"Up until now, Bortnikov was not a public person who announces somebody's arrest," Kashin said. "This is usually done by Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin."

This, Kashin added, also reeked of a "siloviki war" -- a showdown among the security services -- since Dadayev served as deputy commander of Battalion Sever, an Interior Ministry paramilitary unit formed by the Chechen leader.

"Bortnikov struck a blow against Kadyrov," journalist and political commentator Orkhan Dzhemal told Ekho Moskvy.

"There's a battle going on. The Spasskaya is fighting the Borovitskaya," he said, metaphorically referring to the two famous Kremlin towers.

Battle Of The Titans

The battle played out in media reports about the Nemtsov investigation, too. A report in the pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets claimed that Dadayev had retracted his confession and claimed he was tortured

There was also a story in the opposition Novaya Gazeta that quoted unidentified law-enforcement officials who claimed the authorities know who really organized the Nemtsov hit -- a mysterious Chechen security officer, also with close ties to Kadyrov, identified only as "Major Ruslan."

In fact, the FSB assault on Kadyrov appeared to commence in earnest before the Nemtsov assassination.

In February, a Daghestani court sentenced two Chechens to nine and 12 years in prison on for plotting the assassination of Saigidpasha Umakhanov, a rival of Kadyrov's and the mayor of the region's third-largest city.

The FSB also took the lead role in that case. And in a report this week -- note the timing -- Novaya Gazeta quoted FSB officials as saying the assassination was ordered by Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov's cousin and close associate. 

If a battle between Kadyrov and the FSB is about to go full-throttle, it would be a war of the titans that could shake the Putin system to its core.

And Kadyrov's behavior -- from his much-publicized trip to a shooting range this week to the statement he posted on Instagram where he wrote that he would lay down his life for Putin -- suggest that he senses the danger.

But for the time being, at least, Putin is nowhere in sight.

-- Brian Whitmore


Tags: Vladimir Putin,Ramzan Kadyrov,Russian politics,Kremlin clans,Nemtsov assassination

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Rod Simpson from: Canada
March 12, 2015 20:48
Winston said it best. "Watching a Russian power struggle is like watching two dogs fight under a carpet". What he did not say is stand back and never try an separate them. NATO should keep that one in mind.
In Response

by: Anonymous
March 13, 2015 00:32
Did he really say that?

This saw has been making the rounds of American popular pulp for a while now, but as far as Churchill coining the phrase, I would offer one of his verified quotes, "I am reminded of the professor who, in his declining hours, was asked by his devoted pupils for his final counsel. He replied, "Verify your quotations."

I don't think the Russians restrict such endeavors to themselves, or do it with as much frequency as other places. Isn't that the essential problem lately?
In Response

by: Rod Simpson from: Canada
March 13, 2015 09:56
Since our adademic friend "anonymous", very original, seems more concerned by the accuracy of the attibution than the issue itself I will give him another saw. How do you describe four slugs in the back in Moscow. Suicide by Putin.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 16, 2015 17:04
You shifting meaning of what he said (or didn't say).
Stalin was under house arrest since early Spring of 1947.
Russia betrayed all principals of WW2 agreements among
major allies.
They invaded in a big way non-Russian republics and Eastern European countries, overturned their governments.
Churchill was outraged.
He went to USA and called for "Cold War".
He also might mentioned about competition among World Powers, as it was in history ands has to be expected, or he might even minimize it to "dogs under the carpet", meaning
just Russian sinister way of doing it.
Neither it was to negate evil Russian betray after WW2,
nor to dog-size of evil Russian betray of non-Russian nations
and Easter Europe, usurping their victory for bestial Russian
two faced Stervyatnik from real builders of new power and real victor in WW2 - non-Russian nations.

by: Baldurdasche from: botswanaland
March 13, 2015 00:07
If Putin's Russia is the sick man of Europe what does that make Ukraine? Since last February a steadily increasing number of former 'pols' find themselves on the business end of a hunting rifle, a home-made noose or a skydiving accident. They're up to nine, now with two more just last week. As some wag noted 4 slugs in thee back is hard to describe as 'suicide' but then sometimes so is one, or a hanging or falling off your front porch 17 stories up.

Let's face it they're potential regime opponents too, and the sort, accused of corruption and needing 'lustration' who should be standing trial in an open , democratic court.

If Putin was anywhere near them, the rockets would be flying.
In Response

by: Danram from: Houston, TX
March 13, 2015 22:24
Ukraine is "taking out the garbage". They are doing what they must do to survive and break free from centuries of Russian domination, which is to eliminate the pro-Russian "fifth column" in their midst.

Good riddance.

by: Mamuka
March 13, 2015 01:07
Sadly the rumors of the demise of strongmen worldwide have been "greatly exaggerated." Fidel is still with us. Karimov is still alive. Robert Mugabe could live to be 100. Vlad Vladych has many more years to bedevil the West. Он не уходит. He is not leaving.

by: Jack from: US
March 13, 2015 01:29
Just as former members of so-called "Free Syrian Army" were chopping off the heads of American and British citizens in Syria:
"Allah is great" , said McCain having received yet another donation from Saudi Arabia to his offshore account.

by: Francesca from: California
March 13, 2015 03:09
I believe he is planning his next move.
Why Russians has keept Putin in power for do long! The corruption in Russia has never been disclosed until now. The assassination of Nemtsov, was carried on by Putin's gangster's.
In Response

by: Rod Simpson from: Canada
March 13, 2015 10:02
They keep him in power becase they believe in him. When the Ukrainian separatists began describing their regime as Fascist people dismissed it. Read the history of Ukraine in the 1940s and you will see they have a point. Neither side in this now frozen conflict has the high moral ground.
In Response

by: Greg from: Oz
March 14, 2015 12:49
@Francesca: Ordinary Russian voters have no say in who is taking them to hell and back these days. After a few years of experimentation, Russia is back to its normal dictatorship self.
In Response

by: CJ from: Varies
March 16, 2015 00:29
@Rod Simpson

Molotov-Ribbentrop says what? There's only one country in that region which made a deal with Hitler, and it wasn't Ukraine. Various resistance groups in Ukraine killed Russians, Germans, Poles... Well it was fairly bloody, and in the process one person or another attempted to make Adelaide with the invading NAZIs in order to overthrow the invader Russians who had killed a fair chunk of Ukrainians less than a decade earlier in what is known as the Holodomor. Ethnic cleaning vs ethnic cleansing isn't much of a choice, and then using that to describe the modern day democratically elected (by parliament which didn't flee unlike Yanukovych) as fascist is... Well you need to spend less time on RT, PressTV, GlobalResearch, all those troll sites. It's obviously gotten to you.
In Response

by: RodSimpson from: Canada
March 16, 2015 09:32
I never understand why the internet creates the desire to attack the messenger personally. No part of European history is ever that simple nor are my sources that limited. May I suggest you read, Collaborationism in World War II: The Integral Nationalist Variant in Eastern Europe, by John A. Armstrong in The Journal of Modern History Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1968). Also please read my comment again. We were discussing the Russian view of the world which is always special.

by: Ingush from: Nassare, Gelia
March 13, 2015 11:32
Kadyrov is not going to power struggle with Russians. He already has what he wants. He is not a Russian to land-grab other territories, he is a Caucasian.

by: Steven Ben-DeNoon from: Israel
March 14, 2015 16:59
Seems it may be a bit of both scenarios, there has been a very serious flu virus that has crippled peoples abilities to function normally for more than a week, I caught this illness not far from Russia and know its impact. As well The President is dealing with extreme sensitive issues.

by: jerrold from: Laos
March 16, 2015 11:05
Mr Putin is a strong leader, has done a great job in getting rid of chemicals in Syria,unfortunately his crusade against rogue states is the result of his own primitive way of resolving messy situations with messed up and unsustainable solutions.In a global economy there is no room to fight capitalism, its go along with it or push the button.........and that is exactly the reason why he had to take a break..........he overplayed his nuclear hands

by: Yuri Cherniakov from: Manchester
March 18, 2015 16:35
Finally change of power in the Kremlin

May be Russia will wake up now and start behaving as a civilized nation - well, I honestly hope they would

Can't continue as they have been doing for the last few years

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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