Editor's Note: To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.
A bizarre claim by Russia's top general that the Pentagon is developing a strategy involving air strikes and support for protesters sounds like bad news for Russians themselves, or at least for those in the mood to demonstrate against President Vladimir Putin's government, garbage dumps, or anything at all. Meanwhile, a tabloid sends Putin a warning about "the impermanence of power."
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Imagine this: It’s 2022 and Putin’s opinion-poll ratings are lower than ever before, leaving his authority to stay in power by changing the constitution -- or even to secure his future by guiding an anointed successor into the Kremlin -- in doubt.
With Aleksei Navalny leading 200,000 antigovernment protesters in a demonstration on Bolotnaya Square amid rumors that Putin is about to declare an emergency and extend his term by two years, the United States – determined to ensure that he leaves the Kremlin at the end of his term in 2024 – hits a missile-defense facility near Moscow with a “conventional prompt global strike” weapon.
Hard to imagine? Of course it is -- it’s absurd, unthinkable.
But judging by a speech delivered by Russia’s top general on March 2, it’s exactly the kind of scenario that Moscow’s military believes -- or claims to believe (big difference there) – it needs to think about. And prepare for.
“The Pentagon has started developing a completely new strategy of military action, which has already been christened the ‘Trojan Horse,’” said Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff. “Its essence lies in the active use of the ‘fifth column protest potential’ to destabilize the situation along with simultaneous precision strikes on the most important targets.”
Gerasimov, who made the startling claim in a speech at the Academy of Military Sciences, provided no evidence to support it. It came right after he asserted that “the United States and its allies are developing offensive military actions such as a ‘global strike’ and ‘multidomain battle,’ and are using the technologies of ‘color revolution’ and ‘soft power.’”
The goal, he alleged, is nothing less than “the liquidation of the statehood of undesirable countries.”
Fifth Column Fakery?
In painting a picture of the United States using protesters and military strikes in a two-pronged attack, Gerasimov mixed two assertions that Putin has made repeatedly -- but usually separately.
One is that Washington encourages antigovernment protesters in Russia. Recall his claim that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “gave the signal” to demonstrators in December 2011, when the Bolotnaya protests erupted over claims of fraud in parliamentary elections and at his decision to return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.
What the generals and the Kremlin are really scared of…is ordinary Russians."-- Leonid Bershidsky
The other is that the United States is bent on containing Russia, holding it back, and potentially even pulling it apart – and might try to do so if it gains too much of an edge militarily.
In describing the alleged threat of a future attack in which Washington and the West would use both military hardware and protesters, Gerasimov seems to have based his comments in part on real developments or remarks by U.S. military officials – but to have made the “fifth column” element out of whole cloth.
In a March 4 article about the speech, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky suggested that Gerasimov’s claims were based partly on what Russia has gleaned about “U.S. thinking on conventional prompt global strikes (building weapons that would allow America to strike high-value targets anywhere in the world within an hour).”
Bershidsky traces Gerasimov’s talk of a “Trojan Horse” strategy to recent remarks by the U.S. Air Force chief of staff and a German online magazine article about those remarks. However, he points out, neither the air force official nor the article “said anything about the U.S. using a ‘fifth column’” or fomenting unrest.
We Have Met The Enemy
Whether Russian generals and their commander in chief really believe in the potential threat described by Gerasimov is unclear. Propaganda is part of his job, if you judge by his appearances at the conferences Russia held for several years in which it invited foreign military officials and diplomats to upscale Moscow hotels to be lectured on alleged Western aggression.
But whether they believe it may be beside the point. Either way, it looks like bad news for the people they are supposed to protect.
“What the generals and the Kremlin are really scared of…is ordinary Russians,” Bershidsky wrote.
While Putin and the military hand out warnings to the West with sometimes astonishing regularity, this particular one also came with a word of caution for Russians themselves: Don’t protest. If you do, it probably means you’re aiding and abetting Western efforts to undermine your country.
That, after all, is the very real signal sent by several laws Putin has signed in his years in power, most notably the one that enables the state to stamp a “foreign-agent” brand on NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are deemed – by the state -- to be involved in political activity.
'An Unsubtle Hint'
It’s also the message that Putin delivered, in the final few sentences of his state-of-the nation speech on March 20. After setting out ambitious goals, he said they could only be achieved “in a unified society” whose people share “a common confidence in the authorities.”
As RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson put it in our annotation of the address, Putin concluded “with an unsubtle hint that dissent is not to be tolerated, that failing to follow the government's leadership is tantamount to fracturing the country and undermining its development.”
Success, Putin said, will be achieved “by any means necessary.”
By coincidence or not, Putin’s emphasis on confidence in the authorities followed a January survey by state pollster VTsIOM that found public trust in Putin was at its lowest in 13 years. The latest VTsOIM poll found that it had dropped again in late February-early March, with 32 percent of respondents naming Putin when asked which politicians they trust to handle important affairs of state.
If those figures don’t worry Putin, he got a wordier warning from an article in the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) on March 4, whose headline predicted that the Russian people will not lend the authorities a hand “at the moment of their collapse.”
Citing a century of history, from murdered Tsar Nicholas II and dictator Josef Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, it sent the potentially chilling message that the people will lend those in power their silent support – until they don’t.
“At Stalin’s funeral, everyone was crying, seemingly sincerely, but after just three years they calmly accepted the exposure of the 'personality cult' and then the removal of the body of the former chief from the mausoleum” on Red Square, where his corpse had lain along with Lenin’s from 1953 to 1961, the article said.
“Today a mainstream Russian newspaper warns the Kremlin that Russians ‘couldn’t care less about the fate of the authorities when power collapses, which sooner or later it does,’ BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg tweeted.
Or, as author and analyst Mark Galeotti put it in a tweet: “Useful reminder…that even Russians are aware of the impermanence of power + are not willing to indulge any leader forever.”
The Kremlin portrays Putin as a leader who has lifted Russia from its knees. In the MK article, however, Yevgeny Gontmakher argues that it is "the ordinary Russian person" who is “beginning, slowly but surely, to rise up off his knees…and recognize himself no longer as part of the faceless mass of people but as an individual with dignity and personal interests.”
These interests include “doing what one wants,” having the “opportunity to earn a decent living for themselves and their families,” and being able to expect “protection from lawlessness and injustice in court,” it said -- before concluding that “the Russian state that is in place after the current power system will be able to exist as a stable institution only if it serves these interests and not its own.”