Monday, August 29, 2016

The Power Vertical

Through The Crimean Prism: Five Things We've Learned About Russia

Changing the game. Vladimir Putin chairing a meeting with Russia's Security Council on March 13.
Changing the game. Vladimir Putin chairing a meeting with Russia's Security Council on March 13.
Every time Vladimir Putin opens his mouth, the goalposts seem to move.

After speaking with the Kremlin leader by telephone this week, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said Putin told him that Ukraine's 1991 independence referendum -- and therefore the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union -- was "not really legal." 

The Russian president's comment, which spread like wildfire on social media, could not be independently confirmed. But given that Putin has called the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century," it certainly seemed plausible.

And it served as as the latest reminder that with the Crimean crisis, we have entered into a new phase of the post-Soviet and post-Cold War period.

"Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies wrote in "Foreign Affairs." 

The most immediate manifestation of this is in Russia's relations with the West and with its former-Soviet neighbors. But Putin has also initiated a clear game change at home, which is visible in how he makes decisions, the constituencies he appeals to, how he views the Russian economy, and how the Kremlin deals with dissent. 

The Incredible Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

It has gone by different names, from "the collective Putin" to "Putin's Politburo." But Kremlin-watchers have long argued that Russia is governed by an informal clique, a collective leadership of about a dozen key figures -- with Putin as the front man and decider-in-chief. 

Veterans of the security services have always had the strongest voice in this inner sanctum,but they did not monopolize it. They were countered by a group of technocrats seeking to integrate Russia into the global economy -- until now, that is.

The way the decision to intervene in Crimea was made seems to suggests that the "collective Putin" is getting smaller and smaller -- and is entirely made up of of KGB veterans.

Putin, it appears, has made his choice. The battle between the siloviki and the technocrats is over -- and the siloviki have won.

"The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides," according to a recent report in "The New York Times."

"The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions."

According to the report, the group included Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov -- all of whom served with Putin in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Other reports suggested that Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin confidant widely rumored to have KGB ties, was also present.

The Best Laid Plans

In all likelihood, Putin has been preparing for something like the Crimea intervention for some time.

Less than a year after he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, he initiated a campaign to force officials who hold assets abroad to repatriate them. The campaign to "nationalize" the elite was presented as an effort to make Russia less vulnerable to Western pressure. 

The respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said at the time that Putin was seeking to make sure officials were "completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president." 

And with the threat of economic sanctions now looming, those that didn't heed Putin's warnings are probably having regrets.

In a recent post on Facebook, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said based on conversations he's had with insiders, the handful of officials with Putin when he made the decision to intervene in Crimea don't hold foreign assets.

Fortress Russia

Taken together, all of this suggests that Putin is on the verge of sacrificing the economic gains of the past decade on the altar of imperial expansion.

The sidelining of the technocrats and the fact that the Kremlin felt it necessary to compel the political elite to repatriate its assets suggests that Russia is retrenching on its longstanding policy of integrating into the global economy.

Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reports that Moscow is "bracing for sanctions resembling those applied to Iran after what they see as the inevitable annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region." One official said a sanction war with the West "could wipe out 10 years of achievements in financial and monetary policy." Another said it "could erase as much as a third of the ruble’s value." 

Bloomberg also cited Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying Putin met senior officials in Sochi on March 12 to discuss Russia's options in a "difficult global environment."

Russia's main stock market, the MICEX, has had its worst week since 2011 and on March 13 closed 24 percent below its January 2013 high. Likewise, the ruble has lost nearly 10 percent of its value this year.

Putin, Krastev wrote in "Foreign Affairs," is apparently ready to abandon all thoughts of Russia being a European nation in good standing -- far better for it to be a civilization of its own -- and has proved willing to sacrifice his country’s economic interests to achieve his goals."

Tightening The Screws

And as Russia stops to even pretend that it cares what the West thinks -- or does -- it appears that the opposition is in for a rough ride.

From the closure of independent websites like,, and "Yezhednevny zhurnal" to the firing of Galina Timchenko as editor of, it is clear that the crackdown that began when Putin returned to the Kremlin is intensifying. And it is intensifying concomitant with the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

"As Vladimir Putin sends troops into Crimea and hints at following up on this cruel gambit with further moves into eastern Ukraine, he is, step by step, turning back the clock on information," David Remnick wrote in "The New Yorker" magazine. "It is a move of self-protection."

This week's rollback of independent media was preceded by a series of moves earlier in the year that now appear part of clear pattern.

On January 24, the popular social networking site VKontakte came under Kremlin control when Pavel Durov, its founder and CEO, was pressured into selling his remaining shares to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. 

Late January, the opposition-leaning television Dozhd TV came under fire for posting a controversial poll about the Leningrad blockade during World War II. In early February, Dozhd's main satellite and cable providers announced -- one after another -- that they would stop carrying the channel, effectively barring it from the airwaves. 

And on February 28, a Moscow court placed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny under house arrest, barring him from speaking to the media and using the Internet.

Nationalist Love

Suddenly, the nationalists love Putin again.

When the Kremlin leader lost the support of Russia's urban middle class in 2011-12, he began appealing to the the working and urban classes with populist appeals.

There was just one problem with this strategy. The country's nationalist electorate, a key part of this demographic, had turned against him. Indeed, angered by an influx of migrant workers, many had become enamored of Putin's nemesis, Navalny. 

In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop feeding the Caucasus" and various antimigrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Putin's "Chekist regime."

But with Putin flexing Russia's imperial muscles with his incursion into Crimea, all seems to be forgiven.

"The most radical members of the nationalist subculture are rushing before our eyes to become ardent 'Putinists' and are eager to swear allegiance to the current government, which only recently they opposed because of the 'import of Tajiks,'" commentator Aleksei Roshchin wrote in

This week, for example, Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist newspaper "Zavtra," penned a commentary singing Putin's praises in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia." 

"Western pressure on Russia will be enormous," Prokhanov wrote. "But the response will be society's spiritual mobilization and consolidation around their leader -- Putin. He has qualities unsurpassed in world politics. In the image of a spiritual leader, Putin has said 'Russia --  this is your fate.' And now we see how the fates of Russia and its president have merged."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to listen to the Power Vertical Podcast on March 14, when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti and Kirill Kobrin.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: crimea,Vladimir Putin,Russian politics,Power Vertical blog

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: NMremote from: New Mexico, USA
March 14, 2014 12:58
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrives for the meeting with motorbikers at their camp at Gasfort Lake near Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, Saturday, July 24, 2010. (AP)

This was when and where Putin's plan to use his gangster buddies as agitators and subversives in Crimea was hatched!
In Response

by: NC from: USA
March 17, 2014 04:13
you are right: putler started preparation long time ago.
so he is sick on his head not first year. poor Russians still believe him. one day happen and their maidan will more bloody. but I will be not sorry: every population deserved their tsar.

by: martin from: nyc
March 14, 2014 13:14
Crimea AND east Ukraine BELONG to the Russian people. Defacto.
In Response

by: Anonymous
March 15, 2014 22:10
lol sure...just like the "Russian federation" has tons of ethnic groups enslaved under its the rule is.....where there's Russians its Russia...but in Russia that doesn't matter
I think the last game Russia can play is the demographics's losing already
In Response

by: NC from: USA
March 17, 2014 04:06

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 14, 2014 20:23
Guys, you are just amazing! What did you expect that Putin would do once Yanek got deposed? What did you really think that Putin would just stay at home, watch TV, drink tea and do nothing about it?
Get real: once the constitutional order got destroyed by your "peaceful" friends from Maidan, Russia simply did not have any choice: it HAD to react to this unfortunate event.
In Response

by: rick
March 15, 2014 20:59
People , try to reason with me for a moment

QUestion is "Why not ?"

why not take a region that for years wants to be taken from russia ?

why not take a region where majority of citizens are Russians?

why not take a region where history says that it is already yours?

why not take a region that is already semi-independent ?

why not take a region where you already have a strong military presence ?

why not take a region where the central state is completely absent ?

why not take a region where the rent of the naval base was always been a problem ?

why not take a region which is 3 km away from Russia ?

why not take a region strategically very important ?

why not take a region without firing one shot ?

why not take a region without one died ?

and surely many others that you can add


if a country has a leader capable of working always for the benefit of his country

this leader must take an opportunity like this

an opportunity that should not be missed.
In Response

by: BaryG from: Los Angeles
March 16, 2014 06:04
Ukraine had been plundered by a corrupt thug for years. He was finally pushed out and some of the more nationalists took advantage, soon back tracked on. Nothing to do with "friends". Russia is simply trying to re-create it's empire by force. It is becoming totally authoritarian at home because their kleptocracy has ruined the economy. That same weakness will cause Russia to fall again, maybe permanently, but not mainly to the west, instead to China.

by: Idrian from: Surrey, BC
March 14, 2014 21:44
I have to say, this strategy of Mr. Putin's might be the downfall of him, and, maybe, unfortunately of Russia. Let's hope it only ends with him and his buddies, constant or one-time.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 15, 2014 13:26
If "this strategy of Mr. Putin's" will lead to his "downfall", then RFE/RL, CNN and BBC should be glorifying the Crimean annexation day and night: after all, Putin's downfall is all they want to see happen...

by: PermReader
March 15, 2014 07:48
" game changer" ? What game have Western leaders played with Russia? Golf? Russophylia is their sincere feeling to the big strong and dangerouse partner.To compare it to the bunch of small noisy states! Look at the twisted faces of Saakashvily and Klitchko on RFERL`s servile photoes.They like the game.

by: Fred Eidlin from: Prague, Czechia
March 15, 2014 08:45
1. It's too early to draw such conclusions about Russian actions in Crimea. It is more likely that these are moves in a chess game aimed at getting the West to take Russia seriously.

2. Regarding Putin's remark about the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century": Like so many others who cite this remark, Whitmore omits other remarks that Putin has made about the Soviet Union. For example: " The Soviet Communist Party's ideology and its economic and domestic policies led to the country's collapse" and "Whoever does not lament the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants to bring it back has no brains." If the current situation in Ukraine, which is likely to worsen significantly (without any help from Russia) does not add to the already long list of examples of what Putin had in mind, I can't imagine what would.
In Response

by: Panas43 from: US
March 15, 2014 14:09
Putin's actions speak louder than his words. Why does he need Ukraine for the Eurasian Union? Russian Federation is huge. When Putin dreams come to fruition, all former Soviet countries will beg to become part. Why waste all these resources chancing around with the military baggage? Unless his grandiose dreams do resemble those of various fascists.
In Response

by: Fred Eidlin from: Praha, Czechia
March 15, 2014 16:07
It sounds like you already know the answers to your questions. Or, would you like a reading list?
In Response

by: Fred Eidlin from: Prague, Czechia
March 15, 2014 17:27
Even Russia's bitterest foes among Russia specialists understand why Ukraine's participation in the Customs Union is important for Russia. Some even argue that the Customs Union cannot succeed without Ukraine's participation. The key question, however, is why Ukraine should want to participate in the Customs Union. Most obvious is the that the Customs Union is Ukraine's major trading partner. Moreover, 37% of Ukrainians would prefer that Ukraine join the Customs Union rather than the European Union. 39%, only slightly higher and still not a majority, would prefer the EU over the Customs Union. An overwhelming majority would, no doubt favor their country joining both. However, the EU insisted that Ukraine would have to choose one or the other. The EU could have allowed Ukraine to participate in the Customs Union, just as it accepted Canada's participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement when it signed an association agreement with Canada. This is precisely what former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanakovych was trying to negotiate with both trading blocs. The truth of the matter is that the Eastern Partnership was conceived of as a project excluding Russia, one which would pry Russia's traditional partners away from it. It is not surprising that Russia would not be pleased with this. Any country in a similar situation would react similarly..

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 15, 2014 18:51
And yes, guys, while you were "reporting" on Ukraine, on your second front - SYRIA - you continue losing: Bashar is retaking a further strategic town on the border to Lebanon - Yabroud:

So, everywhere, you are losing absolutely everywhere: Afghanistan, Irak, Syria, Venezuela and, obviously, Ukraine. And no cheap propaganda will help you.

by: Mehran from: Iran
March 16, 2014 15:04
I think that annexation of Crimea into Russia is onset for downfall of Putin.growth of civil societies in Russia.

by: PermReader
March 16, 2014 16:36
It`s not just to blame the elites and the servile media only for their impotence to defend the West. The Western people are poisoned enough believing that the "progress" wll correct everything, and besides they are so tired of wars.The dangerous parallel: the Europeans were so tired of great war before Munchen.The shame and the war of Churchill.

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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