Kremlinology 2.0: Is Vladimir Putin Still in Charge in the Kremlin?

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.”

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Putin’s Nationwide Address on the Coronavirus Epidemic

As is his custom, this afternoon Vladimir Putin delivered a well-constructed speech to the nation in which, after expressing the nation’s gratitude to its medical cadres and other front-line personnel dealing with the coming epidemic, he spoke next about the issue that everyone knew was at the forefront of his concerns, the 22 April referendum on the Constitutional Reform. The referendum will now be postponed indefinitely, pending recommendations from health experts. As Mr. Putin reminded his audience the lives, health and security of the nation are the highest priority of his administration. In and of itself, this is a rather comforting message that contrasts with the confusion over serving the economy and serving the public health that we find in many Western countries, including the USA.

Then Mr. Putin set out an extensive list of immediate government measures intended to deal with the oncoming epidemic, which has in the past few days shown an exponential rise in the number of proven infections, generally in line with the experience of China and most recently of Europe. The need to act, the need to see the corona virus as potentially as devastating in Russia as it has shown itself to be in Italy, Spain and France, indeed the need for this address was tipped off yesterday by the televised remarks of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

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The Tereshkova Amendment and ‘Friends of Russia’

There are many in mainstream media who insist that the dissonant voices about Vladimir Putin’s Russia whom they derogatively call “useful idiots” are no more than propagandists for the Kremlin.

As a card-carrying member of the “friends of Russia” club, I have in the past never hesitated to acknowledge that perhaps 10% of our number indeed have no interest in following the facts wherever they may lead and spreading truth as they see it. Instead they argue from “the end justifies the means” reasoning or “what-about-ism.” I said as much in reporting on my participation in the international election monitoring of the 18 March 2018 presidential elections where I and 20 other foreigners were sent to the Crimea and delivered our conclusions that same evening at a press conference in one of the mayoral buildings in Simferopol.

However, I believe that the majority of my peers in “friends of Russia” strive to be objective and seek the microphone only in order to denounce the rampant Russophobia and dangerous vilification of Mr. Putin in the major media of the West, all of which has greatly increased the chances of a war, unintended, unwanted but apocalyptic. Sometimes they even decide to speak truth to power, and it is in that spirit that I deliver my verdict below on the amendments to the Russia’s Fundamental Law now being prepared in the Duma and Federation Council under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin. The document which emerges is going to be put to a nationwide referendum on 22 April, a vote which once again I may be watching on the spot as an international observer.

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The Valdai Rest Home and Gagarin

I open this essay about the Russian middle classes at leisure with one essential definition.

If you go to www.booking.com and type the transliterated Russian name of the establishment from which I am writing, “Dom Otdikha Valday,” in the Search box, you be surprised by what you find.

The word for word translation from the Russian, namely “Valdai Rest Home,” can lead speakers of English into confusion. That this is NOT an old folks home, you will see at once from the photos on the website. It would better be described as a hotel and wellness complex. Let us just say that Russian can be as quaint in its own way as the “Ye Olde” term so widely used in tourist English.

This year-round resort has a rich history dating back to Soviet times when it catered to Communist nomenklatura. About a decade ago, it was reconstructed and expanded to world class four or five star standards in preparation to receive what has become Vladimir Putin’s annual gathering of political thinkers, mostly academics, from Russia and abroad known now as the Valdai Discussion Club. But the swelling numbers of invitees outgrew the physical capacity of the 250 seat conference hall in Valdai after the very first event there. The place name remains while the de facto location for the meetings has been in Sochi these past several years.

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Further Thoughts: Vladimir Putin’s Planned Constitutional Changes

I had the good fortune to be among the first non-mainstream commentators to publish an in-depth analysis of the planned constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin set out on Wednesday in his annual Address to Russia’s bicameral legislature. “Vladimir Putin Plans His Succession” was a runaway success in readership, attracting many times the normal daily number of visitors to my website in a global audience that reached 82 countries. I owe this success in large part to the generous references to my article made by bloggers with large established audiences, in particular to investment analyst Tom Luongo of Gold, Goats ‘n Guns (re-broadcast by Tyler Durden’s zerohedge.com) and to the Canadian retired diplomat and active online commentator Patrick Armstrong, who commands several sites. The article was also re-posted in full by Antiwar.com, who frequently carry my essays, as well as by Johnson’s Russia List, which has a select audience among U.S. universities.

Now, in these “further thoughts” I will address several important issues surrounding the planned constitutional reforms which I did not have the time or space to deal with in my first essay. Moreover, I must consider here elements of the ongoing flow of news from Russia bearing on any evaluation of the reforms, namely the results of the first meeting of the 75-member Working Group on constitutional change which Vladimir Putin convened already on Thursday and the exchanges between the incoming prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and members of the State Duma during and after his confirmation hearings.

I will deal in this essay mainly with significant matters that have not been discussed in the alternative media, not to mention in the establishment media, both of which have devoted a great number of column inches to the reforms since I first went to press.

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Rapprochement With Russia?

Starting in July and running to the present day, there have been repeated calls from mainstream media, from leading statesmen and from diplomats, in the United States and in Europe, for some kind of rapprochement with Russia to be put in place. This is remarkable given the continually escalating informational, economic, military confrontation between Russia and the US-led West over the past five years. That confrontation has emerged in two waves of anti-Russian hysteria: the first, after the daring (or brazen) Russian reunification with (or annexation of) Crimea in March 2014, and the second, with still greater momentum towards war, following the November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, which was accompanied by allegations of Russian collusion with candidate Trump and other meddling in the U.S. election processes.

Since the United States initiated the New Cold War, it is only fitting that the first steps towards its resolution are coming from there. And it is not in the least surprising that these steps were taken in the aftermath of the April 2019 release of the Mueller Report, which showed that the allegations of Russiagate were without merit or not actionable. Trump’s political enemies were compelled to move on to other issues of contention that would serve better in the next presidential campaign, which is quickly approaching.

That is the context in which I place the fairly amazing editorial of The New York Times dated 21 July 2019 entitled “What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?” The NYT, which along with The Washington Post, had been among the most fervent disseminators of Russiagate theories and of poisonous characterizations of the “Putin regime” now was calling for…re-establishing civilized relations with Russia in order to draw the country back from its growing alliance with China.

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