The main components of Vladimir Putin's power vertical are untouchable no more.
The government, the prime minister, the Defense Ministry, the State Duma, and the ruling United Russia party have all been subject to withering attacks in recent months.
And the opposition barely needed to lift a finger. Most of the assaults came from within the regime itself.
The latest example of this trend, of course, was the report made public last week claiming that the results of the December 2011 parliamentary elections were rigged to give United Russia a narrow victory it didn't win.
The report by a think tank associated with Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin ally and the powerful head of Russian Railways, set tongues wagging
in Moscow that early Duma elections could be on the way.
Yakunin has since distanced himself
from the report, accused its author of unlawfully publishing it, and criticized
Whether this was a trial balloon Yakunin abandoned or something else entirely is not yet clear.
But the report does fit into a larger pattern that began with the corruption scandal late last year that cost Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov his job -- and could potentially lead to his prosecution.
That scandal, which exposed the murky world of defense procurement, was followed by a series of attacks on allies of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the media and on the Internet. And the trend continued with the outing of parliament deputies who have undeclared property abroad and with the ongoing corruption allegations surrounding preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
It's been a circular firing squad and it has been eroding the legitimacy of Russia's key public institutions.
"During Putin’s earlier presidential term, an attack on the key elements of the vertical could be regarded as an attack on Putin himself. Now figures close to the president are resolving their own political problems, discrediting the fundamental elements of the political system," Tatyana Stanovaya wrote this week on the website Politcom.ru
"Taken together, this can indicate the beginning of the regime’s erosion from within. In this environment, the recognition of the election results as illegitimate by pro-regime players no longer seems fantastic."
Put another way, the current discord inside Russia's Deep State, the few dozen officials close to Putin who truly rule the country, is steadily degrading its formal institutions.
The turbulence in the upper echelons of the ruling class is being driven, on one hand, by the revenge of the siloviki.
Since Putin's return to the Kremlin last year, the security service veterans close to the president have been busy exacting revenge and settling scores against the technocrats who sought to keep Medvedev in power for a second term. They are also seeking to eradicate any and all vestiges of Medvedev's tepid political thaw.
Thus the persistent attacks
on figures like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, Medvedev press secretary Natalya Timakova, and her husband, Aleksandr Budberg. The attacks were generated, according to Russian media reports, by uber-siloviki like Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.
Additionally, with Putin opting for a siloviki-fueled "restoration" there has been fierce jockeying for position and advantage among the security services' many micro-clans. Serdyukov's downfall, for example, appears to have been caused by his long-standing feud with Ivanov, Sergei Chemezov, head of the state-controlled, defense-procurement conglomerate Russian Technologies, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
"Toughening the regime will not make it more effective and will not bring benefits to ordinary people; instead it will increase the siloviki's appetites and definitively turn the president into a hostage of the bureaucracy," political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote this week in the daily "Vedomosti
The result of all this is a creeping legitimacy crisis reminiscent of the latter years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.
And in this sense, things appear to be coming full circle. When Putin assumed the presidency on the first day of the new millennium, following a period of extended warfare among the Yeltsin-era clans, Russia's institutions were in tatters and public trust was at a nadir.
One of Putin's seminal achievements, one that even some of his harshest critics acknowledge, was that he managed to restore a degree of legitimacy and trust. He was thus able to govern with a genuine popular mandate despite gutting any and all vestiges of democratic processes.
So far, the degradation of public institutions hasn't significantly diminished Putin's standing. But if he continues to be either unable or unwilling to rein in the Kremlin clans, and if the institutions that have buttressed his rule continue to bleed legitimacy, then his own devaluation is just a matter of time.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on March 22 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."