ON MY MIND
You don't hear much about the "collective Putin" anymore. Ditto for the "Putin Politburo."
For most of Vladimir Putin's long rule, the assumption among most Kremlin watchers was that he was essentially the front man for a oligarchic elite that ruled Russia collectively. Like the Soviet general secretaries, Putin was first among equals, to be sure. He was the key figure and the decider. But he had to find consensus and balance among the Kremlin's competing clans.
Now that appears to be changing. As political analyst Nikolai Petrov noted in a piece in Vedomosti (featured in yesterday's Morning Vertical), Putin is moving away from the collective leadership model to one centered on the leader himself. As Petrov dramatically put it, Putin is moving away from the governing model of Leonid Brezhnev and toward that of Josef Stalin (minus the mass repression, of course).
The first clue that this was the case came in late 2014 when reports surfaced that Putin had been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow -- recruited by the security services and vetted for loyalty to Putin -- reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image. The next clue came a year ago, when Putin dismissed his longtime crony Vladimir Yakunin -- a perennial and allegedly untouchable member of the "collective Putin" -- as head of Russian Railways. And the next came last month, when another old Putin crony, Andrei Belyaninov, was targeted and publicly humiliated in a corruption probe.
And then came last month's massive shake-up of regional and federal elites -- and reports in the media that more are on the way. Moreover, there are persistent reports in the media that more "untouchable" old Putin cronies, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, are out of favor -- and possibly in danger.
How far this will go, and how much pushback there will be, is still an open question. But these are far from normal times for the Russian ruling class.
IN THE NEWS
Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May have agreed to meet "in the near future" to try to improve poor relations between Moscow and London, the Kremlin said.
Several hundred people have protested in a wooded park in northeastern Moscow against new antiterrorism legislation that critics have denounced as a massive state encroachment on privacy and civil liberties.
Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to open a new period of close relations as they rebuild ties between their countries after Ankara's shooting down of a Russian warplane last year.
A raft of countries from Russia to Kyrgyzstan won medals on the fourth day of the Rio Olympics on August 9, but doping offenses continued to shadow the games.
The International Olympic Committee stripped Ukrainian javelin thrower Oleksandr Pyatnytsya of his silver medal from the 2012 Olympics after a retest showed he tested positive for drugs.
RBK is citing a Kremlin official as saying that the media is conducting an organized campaign against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
A poll by the Levada Center has found that Russians are finding Putin less likable and less trustworthy.
WHAT I'M READING
Vladimir And Nicholas
In a piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague, argues that Vladimir Putin's rule increasingly resembles that of Tsar Nicholas I.
"Putin is a keen student of history and has repeatedly paralleled himself to tough-minded reformers, from modernizing Tsar Peter the Great to Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, perhaps the last hope of imperial Russia," Galeotti writes.
"Instead, though, Putin now seems to be metamorphosing into Tsar Nicholas I, the unyielding autocrat who viewed his people with disdain and suspicion, and earned the title 'Gendarme of Europe' for his attempts to prevent the spread of liberal and democratic ideals."
In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky points out the hypocrisy of Moscow officials' outrage over the ban of Russia's Paralympic team from the 2016 games in Rio.
"The decision to bar Russia's entire team from the Paralympic Games in Rio has stirred passionate reactions in Moscow, suggesting President Vladimir Putin's brand of patriotism cares more about Potemkin-style medal-winning than how the country treats its disabled nonathletes," Bershidsky writes.
Reassurance And Deterrence
Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Kennan Institute, has a post on the Russia Files blog evaluating NATO's efforts at deterrence in the Baltics.
"Since 2015, NATO has steadily become consumed with the issue of deterrence, a seemingly ancient word that dominated Cold War discourse, which, along with other classical military terms of art, was recently reawakened in light of the Russian threat," Kofman writes.
"After the 2014 Wales Summit, the Alliance sought to reassure nervous Baltic allies, increase the visibility of its presence, and jump-start a regiment of training and exercises. However, the further defense researchers and other analysts dug into the Baltic security issue, the more obvious it became that NATO indeed had a serious problem. The military reforms Russia launched in late 2008 and the expensive modernization program running since 2011 have restored its armed forces as a useful instrument of national power. While there are a host of limitations and caveats to this accomplishment, the reality for NATO is that the size and presence of the Russian military makes defense of the Baltics a dubious proposition at best."
Deconstructing The F-Word
Numerous commentators have referred to the Putin regime as fascist, among them Rutgers University-Newark Professor Alexander Motyl. Now Motyl has taken a scholarly look at its application to the Russian regime in a piece in the academic journal Communist And Post-Communist Studies titled Putin's Russia As A Fascist System.
"There is a broad consensus among students of contemporary Russia that the political system constructed by Vladimir Putin is authoritarian and that he plays a dominant role in it. By building and expanding on these two features and by engaging in a deconstruction and reconstruction of the concept of fascism, I suggest that the Putin system may plausibly be termed fascist," Motyl writes.
Putin's Syria Trap
Sarah Lain, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, argues in The Telegraph that Putin is losing control of the narrative in Syria.
"In contrast to in Ukraine...where it was able to steer events towards its ultimate goal -- the destabilization of eastern Ukraine and a sustained conflict for Kyiv to fix -- in Syria, Russia finds itself more limited," Lain writes.
"By wishing to check the U.S.’s 'rule-setting' ability, Russia has become embroiled in the exact type of intervention it has criticized the West for throwing itself into so thoughtlessly. Russia has legitimized its involvement as coming at the invitation of the Syrian government, but it now shares the Western problem of becoming stuck in a never-ending, in some ways unresolvable, conflict."
Vedomosti has an editorial looking at Putin's busy week of diplomacy, which included meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fund-Raising, Putin Style
Slon.ru looks at how Vladimir Putin finances his pet projects with "donations" from Kremlin-connected oligarchs.