This is not a question that figures in our Western commentary and analysis, since it is universally assumed that one man, Vladimir Putin, dominates Russian political life for a good reason: his unique ability to tame the contending factions at the center of power in Russia. He is the indispensable lynchpin.
However, I insist that this assumption may have become threadbare, and that there may well be a power struggle going on in the Kremlin today which Vladimir Vladimirovich no longer controls. Indeed, it appears he is receiving his script now from the stronger of the contenders around him and is not comfortable with his lines.
I hinted at this three days ago in my analysis of his address to the nation on the coronavirus, saying that perhaps “Putin’s command of the situation is faltering.”
Mary Dejevsky, a shrewd and experienced journalist who served as foreign correspondent in Moscow of The Guardian, the next day posted the following in her Comment on my article:
“Agree. Especially on Putin’s decline in authority – I thought his actual demeanor during nationwide broadcast looked less ‘in command’ than usual.”
In what follows, I describe a set of developments, some interrelated, some coming from unrelated contexts, but all pointing to Putin’s loss of control of the political agenda in Russia starting from his annual state of the nation address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January 2020.
His state of nation speech was noteworthy for raising the question of amending the Russian constitution with an aim to rebalancing the powers accorded to the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the federal level, in effect reducing the imperial presidency put in place by Yeltsin in his 1993 constitution. This would introduce checks and balances that would reduce the possibility of some successor taking domestic or foreign policy in some wholly new direction. It would also make it easier for someone else of less stellar quality to fill Putin’s shoes at the presidency after he leaves office in 2024.
Exactly what would be conceded to the Duma was not clearly stated in Putin’s speech. Would the Duma actually name the cabinet. This was never stated explicitly but was implied by Putin’s saying that the president could not refuse them. His only hope would be to remove ministers after they took office and proved unable to implement the agreed policies.
This crucial nature of the proposed constitutional reform morphed into something quite different by the time it left the Duma and and was ready for presentation to the public in a referendum scheduled for 22 April. The reassignment of powers in the direction of parliamentary rule has disappeared. Instead the Constitution is being pitched to the Russian electorate as the embodiment of national values of a social economy, a country that upholds traditional family values, religion and patriotism, that provides employment with living wages, real inflation indexed pensions, universal free quality medical care and education. And into this “apple pie” recipe, at the very last moment before it was voted through by the parliament, an octogenarian deputy, first female astronaut, heroine from the 1960s who has hardly been heard from since, Valentina Tereshkova, added that missing element which explains and justifies the whole operation from the standpoint of the Kremlin: the “reset” of Putin’s service as president to zero so that he can enter the 2024 elections.
What happened to the Constitutional reform was, to anyone with any political experience, a sham, a staged process. And it bore the fingerprints we have now seen on other key political developments, most recently when, on the day before Putin’s address on the coronavirus, Moscow mayor Sobyanin, was allowed to deride the official statistics on the infections in Russia and to announce on state television that Russia was facing a possible medical catastrophe similar to what is now going on in Italy or Spain, that has been widely reported on Russian media as if it had no relevance to Russia. Sobyanin was now a play actor under the same stage direction as Tereshkova had been. He has no past role speaking on the national level. He has had great authority but at the municipal level only.
Meanwhile, in the period since Putin’s 15 January speech, there has progressively been a striking change in the programming of Russian state television. To be specific, the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma and a great many other political celebrities have disappeared from view.
Note that immediately following that speech, these same leaders were interviewed by the television news and invited to comment on the prospect of greater role in shaping the cabinet. In anticipation of good things to come, they were quite upbeat. However, as the weeks passed Sergei Mironov of Just Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist LDPR and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists faded from view. This disappearance was especially telling for Zhirinovsky who had been in the past a regular guest on the major political talk shows such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. No longer.
Instead, the only political leaders we see speaking on television regularly now aside from Vladimir Putin are Duma Chairman Volodin, Prime Minister Mishustin, Moscow mayor Sobyanin. Federation Council chairwoman Matviyenko is from time to time quoted. The long serving and well known Minister of Defense Shoigu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov, Minister of Finance Siluanov still appear in front of the cameras, but in vignettes, often silent.
Vyacheslav Volodin, former chief of Putin’s presidential administration, was until recently seen on television only on the dedicated once-weekly program devoted to parliamentary affairs. Now he is a regular. Moreover, he is the one who so vigorously defended Tereshkova and her amendment giving Putin a free pass to rule until 2036 if he so wishes, more or less telling everyone else just to shut up.
Add to this Vladimir Putin’s answer to a question about his long term political plans put to him during one of his encounters with the general public. Does he intend to be president after 2024? He said that he had no desire to stay president unless the people so mandated. A bit too clever by half? Or the genuine admission by a man whose career path is now out of his hands.
Twice in the past four years, spokesmen for the Russian government have asked who is in charge in Washington, the elected President or the Deep State. In Russian parlance, the Deep State means the intelligence services, the military, those who in Moscow are called the siloviki, or “power ministries.”
The first time when the Russians spoke publicly about their anxiety that the U.S. government was out of control came towards the close of Barack Obama’s second term, on 17 September 2016, to be precise, when under instructions from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, US fighter planes bombed the Syrian outpost in the southeast of the country at Deir ez-Zor, killing more than 70 Syrian soldiers and probably some Russian officers embedded with them. As was surely Carter’s intention, that attack sabotaged the just concluded Syrian ceasefire agreement negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry under the approving eye of President Obama.
The second time the Russians aired their nervousness over who is calling the shots in Washington came less than six months ago, when FBI agents detained and interrogated Russian State Duma deputy Inga Yumasheva who had arrived to participate in a conference on improving bilateral relations hosted by the Fort Ross Dialogue. She alone from among the invited Russian delegation was subjected to questioning, because she alone had received a US visa; all the others were denied visas and stayed at home in Moscow. As Sergei Lavrov now remarked, this harassment under the nose of the State Department made a mockery of the Trump administration’s stated goal of improved relations. He asked rhetorically who in fact represents the United States?
Now, as I said at the outset, the shoe is on the other foot: we can ask the same about Russia: who is really in charge in the Kremlin.
The problem we face as we approach this question is that nearly all of our Russianists and other generalist commentators are unprepared. They have either never studied Kremlinology or forgot what they once learned. They have not been looking into Kremlin factions for years, because as we all know Vladimir Putin has consummate skills as broker and could keep the rivals in check by being indispensable to them all. Moreover, as we all know, Putin is power mad. To understand any given development in Russian politics we need only consider how it serves his personal interests. Constitutional reform, you say? It only serves the purpose of extending his rule beyond 2024 to 2036. Contradiction between what he said the reform entails on 15 January and what is in the proposition being offered to the electorate for the referendum? You need only examine his thought processes, to find how the changing calculus of the political landscape compelled the changes.
I submit that this approach is rubbish and that we have to look beyond Putin to understand what is afoot.
Is it important to know who is really pulling the strings today? Only in that way can the United States, Europe and other powers understand what reactions to expect from Russia to any given policy stand they assume and to understand the respective risks of war. Are ultra-nationalists calling the shots? Or is it the pro-Western Liberal contingent from the Medvedev wing? Or yet some other unidentified group?
At this point, my objective has been to set up the question. For answers we all have to wait a bit longer for more evidence to emerge. But I can share this preliminary speculation. Moscow gossips speak of a power struggle between the premier Mishustin and the mayor of Moscow Sobyanin. Sobyanin it appears has been given extraordinary powers to deal with the coronavirus threat. Otherwise it is also likely that in Russia there is the same struggle of interests going on now between defenders of the economy and defenders of public health in the face of the coronavirus tsunami as we see in the United States or in Western Europe.
Decisions on preventive measures have been incomplete and contradictory. On the same day as Putin delivered his address on the coronavirus, Russian media were carrying news of promotional airfares at 30 percent discount being offered by Aeroflot for domestic flights. Today it appears the government is about to issue a shutdown of those flights. This is not a tight ship.
And in the background we are told there is a deep divide in opinion of Kremlin elites over the oil production and pricing war being waged against Saudi Arabia at the initiative of Rosneft boss, Putin ally Igor Sechin. Does this explain the fade-out from media coverage of both Gazprom’s Alexei Miller and Minister of Energy Alexander Novak?
In light of these troubles around him, is it any wonder that the body language of Vladimir Putin during his speech on the 25th indicated to the Russian speaking analysts among us that he did not like the script he had been given to read and was possibly losing his grip.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020