Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Power Vertical

Waiting For Vladimir The Wise

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on December 3
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on December 3
Vladimir Putin may be about to undergo an extreme image makeover.
Putin the chest-thumping and siloviki-loving tough guy could be on his way out. And a kinder and gentler Vladimir the Wise might be on the way in.
"Putin's political advisers have decided to abandon the macho image in favor of that of a wise patriarch," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" writes, citing a Kremlin strategy paper.

According to the report, Putin will also seek to "reassure the population" that has become increasingly less confident in his rule by moving closer to the liberal faction of the elite and beginning to curb the powers of the siloviki. But given the amount of power Putin has granted the security services over the years, "it will be difficult to do so without damage."
The impending image makeover and policy shift, along with the ongoing anticorruption campaign, were sparked by a measurable "decline of trust in the country's senior management and the almost revolutionary sentiments in the minds of Russians," the daily wrote, citing unidentified Kremlin officials.
The rebooted Putin, the officials say, will be launched when the president gives his annual address to parliament later this month.
Or maybe not.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly and curtly denied the report, saying it was "from the realm of falsification." But "Nezavisimaya gazeta" stood firmly by the story. Speaking to Vladimir Kara-Murza of RFE/RL's Russian Service, the paper's political editor, Aleksandra Samarina, insisted that the Kremlin report existed and that the paper's reporting was accurate.


So what's going on? Did "Nezavisimaya gazeta" overplay what it had? The paper has a solid track record of strong political reporting and is known to have good Kremlin sources. It identified the document in question as a report prepared by Putin's political strategists for an unidentified regional governor.
So is Peskov just stonewalling? Possibly. As Samarina pointed out, it would have been strange for him to come out and just verify a story based on a leaked Kremlin strategy paper and anonymous officials.
But documents like this don't just leak without a reason. Such instances are almost always part of a larger game in which one Kremlin faction or another is attempting to advance its agenda. Rarely do they reflect settled policy.
As has been widely reported, the Russian elite has long been locked in a bitter "cold war" between its siloviki and technocratic factions over how to deal with the country's rapidly changing political dynamic.

Likewise, the ranks of Kremlin political strategists are also split between those loyal to the regime's current chief ideologist, Vyacheslav Volodin, and holdovers from the team of his predecessor, Vladislav Surkov.
The hard-liners in this constellation -- the siloviki and Volodin -- have had the upper hand since Putin returned to power in May, as evidenced by the regime's harsh suppression of dissent. The technocrats and Surkov's people have been waiting for the crackdown to fail, which would give them a chance to push for, if not a full-fledged thaw then at least a softer and subtler alternative.
"As with so many strategy documents over the years, this is probably an attempt to try to influence a process, but it likely isn't a blueprint," Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told me.
Nevertheless, there are also signs that the time might be right for the authorities to switch paradigms.
The leaks about Putin's impending image makeover and policy shift come amid persistent reports about the president's poor health that the Kremlin has been unable to squelch.
Whatever is or isn't going on with Putin's health, the unrelenting speculation about it has severely damaged the image the regime would like to project. Kremlin strategists have long used Putin's virility and vigor as a metaphor to illustrate Russia's revival during his rule. This was easy when he was in his 40s and 50s. It will only get more difficult as the now 60-year-old president continues to age.
"He needs to be able to construct a public narrative of success and competent authority and leadership, which is where his own physical fitness and Russia's return to economic health are in many ways overlapping," Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West," said in a recent interview.
"It's very hard for him to do that now, when people laugh at you and when you seem visibly uncomfortable appearing in public. He's a fast-decaying asset, both in terms of being able to project the regime as a success and in being an internal arbiter in its many disputes."
Moreover, on the same day the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" story appeared, the Moscow Carnegie Center released a report titled "The Russian Awakening" that painted a bleak picture of the health of Russia's political system.

Among the report's conclusions are that the political system Putin created "has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the more dynamic, modernizing, and now politically active segments of society."
Moreover, Russia's economy, based on the collection and distribution of natural resource rents, "is cracking" and volatile energy prices have "put the Russian economy at risk" as "the government struggles to meet its massive social obligations."
And Putin's vaunted "power vertical," in which officials offer "fealty toward the Kremlin in exchange for a license to grow super rich, is crumbling as Russia’s leaders are seeking to discipline the elite in order to save the system."
Whether Putin's image is Vlad the Tough Guy or Vladimir the Wise -- and whether he is in good health or ill -- this is the dire reality he needs to address.
"There is no overlap between the image [the Kremlin is creating] and what is actually going on in the country," Samarina said.

The first hint about what, if anything, will change should come with Putin's much-awaited address to parliament in a few weeks.

 -- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Russian politics

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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
December 04, 2012 19:44
Well,the left cheek hurts a bit after that slap in the face by Mad dog an,but the pain in the head from the Kabayeva upper cut is almost gone.But you can wait forever and a day for Vlad the wise,my friends,cant you??? Eugenio,Jack and Vakhtang will get wise sooner than The Man.And dont ask about Andrew from Auckland!!!

by: Anonymous from: USA
December 04, 2012 21:17
There is no doubt in my mind that Putin is leading the Russian Federation into oblivion. It will collapse just like the USSR and be replaced by something else, quite possibly a Russian Republic. I predict that Russia will lose the Caucasus and Kaliningrad by 2050. Siberia is harder to predict because it is so underpopulated. China would be a major factor in that case. What people seem to forget is that Russia has a long history of imperial conquest that still haunts it to this day, hence the desire by some to eliminate minority languages from schools throughout the Federation, redraw the geographic borders of the Federation, and rename regions in order to eliminate ethnic identities. It will FAIL completely. Russia is changing, but Putin and his Soviet-era inner circle are desperately trying to keep the Federation together and keep it subservient to Moscow.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 05, 2012 12:08
Russian economy is growing, Islamist separatist movements have been effectively suppressed everywhere except Dagestan and even that one is a low intensity conflict, brief protest movement vs. Putin has died away, government coffers are full of cash. Don't see any real evidence to back this constant stream of assertions that Putin's regime is on the verge of collapse, or in this case, liberal transformation. Besides that why would Russia want to become a liberal Western-style society (and one whose interests are subordinanted to the West)? Why? The liberal 90s in Russia were an unmitigated disaster. Besides current Western political and social models are completely unsustainable in their current forms. The EU is largely bankrupt, and we here in the US just print and spend. Big changes are coming , and they will be painful.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
December 06, 2012 01:43
1. Russian economy has slowed considerably in the last year, this after contracting a few years ago--thanks to a lack of diversity and modernization, combined with capital flight. Oil and gas will only generation so much revenue...

2. Islamic separatist movements were "suppressed" as you said (along with a lot of other movements), which has driven them underground waiting to the right opportunity to come back.

3. Government coffers are only full of cash because they haven't been paying down the debt leftover from the USSR. Russia has ENORMOUS debt, thanks to Soviet Era bonds issued in the 1980's that Russia has pledged to pay back to pensioners---and still hasn't. That combined with a growing number of people retiring at age 55 and increases in defense spending. PriceWaterhouseCoopers issued a report a few years ago predicting that Russian debt would exceed 600 percent GDP by 2030. Your assertion that Russia is doing better than the West is laughably incorrect. In fact, Russia is guilty of the same spending sprees that has bankrupted Southern Europe. Literally billions of dollars are stolen each year by corrupt bureaucrats which costs the Russian government even more money. Many of those bureaucrats are Putin's personal friends.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
December 06, 2012 08:42
Marko is saying: "The EU is largely bankrupt, and we here in the US just print and spend. Big changes are coming, and they will be painful." A very good point, Marko, you just put your fingure on it. And it's more than that: the painful changes are ALREADY affecting the population of a (growing) number of EU member states: unemployment in such EU and NATO members as Greece and Spain has reached 25 % (the youth unemployment is close to 50 % in both cases); Greece has lost about 1/5 (!!!) of its GDP in the last 4 years; traditional systems of political parties are collapsing in Greece, Spain, Italy, France etc.
If the "painful changes" continue at the same paste, a year or two from now these (and other) EU and NATO member states will end exactly where EGYPT is today: on the brink of a civil war. What we are witnessing is the coming END of a number of central states and societies of the global capitalist system.
Ah, ok, and in the meantime the RFE/RL will entertain us all with a few more stories about the Pussy Riot ...
In Response

by: American Troll
December 06, 2012 09:30
"Islamist separatist movements have been effectively suppressed everywhere except Dagestan"

Kazbek Gekkiyev should do a special on that.
In Response

by: marko from: USA
December 06, 2012 12:15
The Soviet era bond issue is bogus. External Soviet era was paid off by Putin-- the situation that you are describing is far more analogous with Japan-- the debt is domestically held (and not nearly as big a problem). Those "obligations" were also from a now defunct government and haven't been paid and won't be. Social benefits can and will be cut slowly or not paid at all. Currency reseves are currently massive. Comparing Russia's situation to Italy or France is not accurate. That debt is externally owed-- big difference; it won't just go away. I haven't seen the latest figures, but Russia's debt is somewhere around 12-13% of GDP where in the West, even the US and UK are heading toward 100%. Now, the US has unique advantages in terms of the dollar being the world's reserve currency so that situation isn't analogous either. Besides all this rather arcane financial stuff, I'd love to see you or Brian W. make the case that liberalism would help whatever Russia's problems are... rather the liberal Yeltsin era CAUSED the problems that Putin has partially cleaned up...

by: Mamuka
December 05, 2012 01:47
Vladimir Mudriy. And the False (reformer) Dmitriy.

by: Gordon Ball from: Ottawa Canada
December 05, 2012 02:01
So Vladimir Putin has handlers. Guess Russia really is becoming a democracy.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
December 05, 2012 02:02
Here we can see only one obvious thing-Putin and his entourage wants to stay in power until the end.
Already there is talk in Russia, that in USA was President Roosevelt, who was respected and loved, especially when he was rolling on the White House in his wheelchair.
Next phase of the FSB propaganda,will be story a la Gogol "Vij", when Putin will fly in the coffin to the church with candles in his hand.
We see that Putin and his loyal gangs, ready to keep the power not only with change of the image of Putin, as a consequence of a natural biological process,they ready also to more radical things. If, for example, one day Mr. Whitmore will fall out of favor with Putin or one of Putin's sixes,because of his way of dressing or appearance, Mr. Whitmore will disappear from our dark world without a trace.
It is possible that the appearance on Radio Liberty, a camel from the cave of Kurdistan,has to all this a direct bearing...

by: ChristisKing from: Louisiana
December 05, 2012 06:54
Pray for everyone to follow Jesus Christ for life eternal. Amen. It's not to late for Muslims to find the truth and life. Sorry it's too late for those who lived and died without believing that Christ is Lord.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
December 05, 2012 11:14
Should the speculations currently circulating in some Western media - according to which the US and their friends are preparing to invade Syria - turn out to be true, we might very soon see the very same Vladimir the Wise that we saw in August 2008, when the US lackey called Mischa attacked the Russian troops stating in S. Ossetia.
Only this time around the game will be much more dangerous: a number of NATO and EU member states are STUCK in a never-ending recession since 2008 already and are rapidly loosing ground in the Middle East (IRAQ kicked out the US troop out of it soil and is now governed by a pro-Iranian Shia govt, while Russia has become the second biggest arms supplier for this Arab country; the situation is EGYPT is getting completely out of the Beavuses' hands: they wanted to continue controling the country though the military and the judiciary, and now it looks like the military signed some kind of non-interference deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas the judiciary is getting sidelined; the HAMAS-led govt in GAZA that the US have for years been going out of their way to sideline is slowely getting international recognition and is forcing Israel into sensible concessions).
So, one thing NATO needs RIGHT NOW in order to somehow divert the attention of their own electorates from all those problems is a "fast and victorious war" and I bet they are crazy enough to think that a military adventure in Syria might offer them an occasion to have one.
Thus, should such an intervention happen, one can be damn sure that we will see Vladimir the Wise and even Mahmud the Wise who will make the Trurks and other NATO members REGRET about their excessive strategic ambitions FOR A VERY LONG TIME. So, just bring it on, guys, et que le meilleur gagne!!!

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
December 05, 2012 13:03
Nice post and the beginning of wisdom might be the realization that the current strategy is no longer adequate. Alas, I’m not sure that Putin and his coterie have reached this conclusion. From what I can tell, they still believe that the tsar can sit at the head of the conference table and read out orders from his set of note cards in the hope that the adoring nobles and gullible serfs will carry out faithfully. This image is not very convincing if you are stuck in endless traffic, without hot water, or forever waiting to get your child enrolled in kindergarten.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 05, 2012 23:54
Good lord. What DIFFERENCE does it make how "convincing" the image is when the people of Russia are slack-jawed sheep who will not demand any better no matter how wretched their lives become? Have you read Russian history AT ALL? Have you followed current events, and seen Putin anointed ruler for life while the protest movements evaporates? There is absolutely NO REASON WHATSOEVER to believe that Putin is in any kind of jeopardy regardless of his policies.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 05, 2012 13:20
"As has been widely reported, the Russian elite has long been locked in a bitter 'cold war' between its siloviki and technocratic factions over how to deal with the country's rapidly changing political dynamic."

Umm, what planet are we on here? Rapidly changing political dynamic? HUH???

Here on this planet, Putin was just given power for life by a landslide, and United Russia crushed all rivals. Just Russia was liquidated in parliament. Navalny is facing multiple indictments. Street demonstrations have dwindled to a silly trickle.

The political dynamic is the same. Only more so. Rapidly.

by: Jalmer Osmth from: USA
December 06, 2012 18:22
Much can be said about Vladimir Putin. Some can be rejected , but his rise to recognition is one only he could have achieved by pulling himself up by his own boots. If he meets with his contemporaries one on one, and is a good listener, Russia will determine the best middle ground to guide a prosperous future.
State craft fails when it is based on clandestined desires, and refuses to believe that commerce is just as important to all people no matter whom, when or where it comes from.
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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