Volume III, No. 7 @eurasiaanalyst March 27, 2015
The Glint of Light on Broken Glass
By Susan J. Cavan
Professor Uri Ra’anan, former Director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy at Boston University used to like to tell a story from the bad, old Cold War days when the not yet geriatric members of the Soviet Politburo, struggling with leadership and succession issues after Stalin’s death went out for an evening at the Bolshoi. The usual crowd was there: Molotov, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Bulganin, etc., but not Beria. Beria’s name then remarkably did not even appear on a published list of Politburo members. Sovietologists understood something had gone very wrong with Beria and the Soviet leadership. A newspaper editorial chided, maybe Beria just doesn’t like ballet. Beria had, of course, been removed from the Politburo and the succession struggle (having been arrested, tried and then executed—although not necessarily in that order).
There has been some scorn as well for the modern day forms of Sovietology that noted Putin had been absent from public view for quite some time earlier this month. The story was good copy and got picked up, discussed, spawned trending hash tags, and eventually, exaggerated and spent, was discarded and derided when Putin reappeared looking not particularly worse for wear. Despite whatever the Putin story became, one thing is clear: something was wrong. When one of the critical defects of a regime is its complete lack of an accepted method for succession and political transition, it is at the very least unwise to remind your enemies or even your nearest, dearest apparatchiki that you could disappear at any moment and leave the entire ungainly system of your own construction utterly vulnerable. And yet, if we are to believe reports, Putin got quite a chuckle out of stirring up the gossips with rumors of his death, disability, or daddyhood.
Putin’s “disappearance” was neither as long nor as dramatic as the stories it sparked. On the day after his withdrawal from public view, he held a meeting with the Security Council, (1) and it is likely that any pressing issue, illness, or perhaps even his emergency contact information, was passed along to his trusted associates at that point. He also appears to have been in touch with some leaders, such as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, by telephone during this absence. (2)
The problem for the Kremlin arises from two fundamental flaws in the Russian presidential administration. The first involves an inability to be forthright about any problems with the president’s health. As Julia Ioffe described, “Putin’s carefully cultivated image rests on never showing weakness, which is crucial in hypercompetitive Russia. If one shows some weakness, then one is all weakness—and therefore prey.” (3) An explanation as simple as a bad case of flu was therefore a far worse possible option than no explanation at all.
The Kremlin administration also responded in a way that drew strong parallels to Putin’s predecessor when it released a video of Putin that had no date stamp and was widely believed to be old footage of a meeting with Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev. (4) Boris Yeltsin, whose health and habits made for tumultuous appearances and sporadic disappearances, may have been the means to Putin’s accession to the Kremlin, but it has been a very long time since Putin emphasized his connections with the former president of Russia’s chaotic 1990s. If there was a more palatable means to avoid this comparison with Yeltsin, it is unlikely that the Kremlin apparat would have resorted to such a tactic. Putin certainly has cultivated an image as a sober, disciplined, and vigorous president that, until now, had invited contrasts to rather than comparisons with Yeltsin.
Despite earlier claims that plans had been made for the Federal Counter Narcotics Service to be merged within the MVD, it now seems that reports of FSKN Chief Viktor Ivanov’s political demise were premature. A decree, apparently leaked from the Kremlin, indicated that the FSKN would lose its separate status by March 1st. Instead, Ivanov has announced plans for layoffs at the agency, apparently without directions from the president or government: “We have begun to optimize our expenses without waiting for orders,” Ivanov said. “In my opinion, the optimization process will be complete by summer.” (5)
It is nonetheless curious that the FSKN document, which appeared to be a legitimate decree, was obtained and published by the Moscow Times. It was not unusual in the Yeltsin era for infighting among apparat factions to result in the drafting, and occasionally publication, of decrees that targeted individuals, factions, or organizations controlled by rival factions. Until now, however, it had appeared as though Putin had maintained control of the decree process. This Ivanov case may be simply a blip or aberration in Kremlin operations, but the timing—coinciding with the Nemtsov assassination, Kadyrov braggadocio and possible FSB infighting, as well as the Putin disappearance—bears consideration as indications of a more complicated struggle underway.
Apparat shuffle confirmed
A personnel change in the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate that was rumored to reflect a dispute over Ukraine policy has finally been announced. Tatiana Voronova has been appointed as Chief of the Directorate, replacing Oleg Morozov. (6) Initially, it was reported that Voronova would assume a leading role in the regional affairs division, but has instead taken over the Directorate, as Morozov leaves citing family obligations. (7)
The Directorate, under the general supervision of Apparat First Deputy Chief Vyacheslav Volodin, has been tasked with preparations for next year’s parliamentary elections. Volodin previously had been involved in formulating Ukraine/Crimea policy, but was reported to have been moved over to elections as Vladislav Surkov took the lead on Ukraine/Crimea. (8) According to an official report on the Domestic Policy Directorate’s functions, there is plenty of leeway in directing its work: “The presidential directorate for domestic policy is one of the 21 main departments at the Russian president’s administration. The office assists the president with “carrying out his constitutional duties by providing informational, analytical and organizational support in setting the main course of Russia’s domestic policy”. It facilitates presidential relations with the Russian parliament, regional and municipal authorities, political parties, religious and public organizations.” (9)
The most notable postponement of Putin’s absence earlier this month was his speech to the Federal Security Service (FSB) Board meeting, which had been scheduled for March 12. Putin’s inability to deliver the speech that day caused a spike in rumors regarding his health, but the meeting was rescheduled for March 26. In the remarks he eventually delivered, Putin reiterated the justification for involvement in Ukraine after “a state coup provoked civil war in Ukraine” and tasked the FSB with preventing terrorist attacks or incursions into Russia, and destroying the ability of terrorists “to move between regions or penetrate the new regions of the Russian Federation – Crimea and Sevastopol.” (10)
Putin also chose this occasion to emphasize that the decision by the United States, made over a decade ago, to withdraw from the ABM treaty was the root cause of international disorder: “I would like to remind you that the unilateral withdrawal by the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has toppled the very foundation of the modern international security system.” He followed this reminder with a warning that “new systems are being developed capable of dealing a ‘lightning global blow’ and conducting operations in outer space. However, it is obvious that nobody has ever managed to intimidate this country or put pressure on it, and nobody ever will.” (11)
It seems curious that Putin would strike out in this “Star Wars” direction at a board meeting of the FSB—unless, perhaps, the FSB have been somehow tasked with developing a counter measure to space-based weapons? It stirs conjecture over control of Russia’s GLONASS system (which has both civilian and military uses). Ostensibly, the satellite-based system is currently under the control of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces. However, Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s Chief of Staff previously had supervision of the development of GLONASS and was responsible for the wider development of its civilian capabilities. Colonel-General (ret) Ivanov had a long career in the KGB, then FSB, before retiring from service and later serving as the first civilian Russian defense minister, then First Deputy Prime Minister (and first runner-up as Putin successor in 2007) in the Russian government. His unorthodox, hybrid biography was well suited to oversight of a program that may yet need to serve a number of diverse functions, if not different masters.
Susan J. Cavan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1) Meeting with Permanent Members of the Security Council, 6 March 2015, Official Kremlin website, via http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/23684.
2) Weekly Information Bulletin, March 9-16, 2015, via email from “kremlin.ru” email@example.com.
3) “This is why it’s impossible for the Kremlin to lie about Putin’s weird disappearance,” by Julia Ioffee, Washington Post, 14 March 2015, via http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/14/this-is-why-its-impossible-for-the-kremlin-to-lie-about-putins-weird-disappearance/.
4) See, for example, The Interpreter Russia Update by Catherine Fitzpatrick for questions about the video footage of Putin and Lebedev, via http://www.interpretermag.com/russia-update-march-13-2015/.
5) “FSKN to complete 15% redundancy dismissals by summer,” Interfax, 20 March 2015; Russia & CIS Military Newswire, via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
6) “Apparat Tremors,” by Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, 23 January 2015, Vol III, No.5, via www.eurasiaanlayst.org
7) “Russian opposition is indifferent about change of head of presidential depart-ment on domestic policy,” Interfax, 23 March 2015; Russia & CIS General Newswire, via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
8) See “Apparat Tremors,” by Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, Vol III, No 5, 23 January 2015 and “New Curators” by Irina Nagornykh, Kommersant, 23 December 2014; What the Papers Say Press Digest, via LexisNexis Academic.
9) “Putin’s Administration gets new domestic policy department head,” TASS news agency, 23 March 2015; BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
10) Federal Security Service Board Meeting, 26 March 2015, Official Russian President’s Website, via http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/23772.
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