First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report: (more…)

No Coups Today…

"Nah, nah, he's only resting."

“Nah, nah, he’s only resting.”

Putin’s continued absence from the public scene and his unexpected calling off of a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart led to a tsunami of rumour, supposition, denial and outright fantasy. He was dead. He had had a stroke. He was in Switzerland on the birth of his latest love-child. He was hiding from having to make difficult decisions between Kadyrov and the FSB. There had been or was a coup… I’ve no idea where Putin is now, and what’s his health like. Unless the Armenian president is part of a conspiracy — not impossible, but unlikely — then we do know that he (or, if you really want to follow the paranoid route, and go for a really, really unlikely possibility, a gifted mimic) had a phone conversation with Putin on Thursday 12th. A phone conversation could have been patched through from wherever, and Putin could have spoken from a sick bed, so other options could still apply, but at least this suggests no need to start planning the state funeral.

What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against. The military does not have a tradition of political involvement (remember, most held back from active support of the 1991 August Coup and Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against the Supreme Soviet alike), Shoigu is hardly the kind of bloody-handed adventurer we’d see as a likely prospect, and there is a powerful control network. The FSB and FSO (Federal Guard Service) both monitor the loyalties of the military and the balance of forces in Moscow itself (two army divisions, the FSO’s Kremlin Guard, the Interior Troops’ ODON ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, plus the police and FSB) is to a large extent an exercise in ensuring no one agency could mount a swift seizure of power itself.

Besides, were this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’s be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.

Whatever the reason for Putin’s current absence — and it could yet be something serious — this is being handled clumsily, yes, but the Kremlin spin is definitely that there is nothing to see here, move right along. It is instead I feel a mark of the heightened and even feverish mood amongst the Muscovite chattering classes and their Kremlin-watching interlocutors and counterparts outside the country that this is being made something more than it probably is.

And yet that mood in itself matters. The news of the phone call — and the rumours of another mini-Putin — have helped dampen the flames, but still the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health (so no still publicity shots, nor yet footage of insider meetings that could easily have been taken previously), then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired. And then all bets are off; so much of Putin’s self-image but also public persona are tied into his image as the bare-shirted Chuck Norris of leaders, that although there may be no practical reason why he could not still rule, he will probably get a first-hand lesson in how far politics is a subjective rather than objective art.

The ‘long 2012’: the year Russia started to move…


There’s no phoenix-like firebird in Tsar Vladimir’s fairytale…

The end of the year is a traditional time for Janus-faced retrospectives and looks to the future. Trying to encapsulate Russia’s 2012 offers up an interesting contrast between what seemed at times to be a year full of drama and event, from the Presidential inauguration to Pussy Riot, and the sense that nothing much has changed. Have we just seen the emergence of the ‘New Normal‘ — a status quo that enthuses none but is tolerable to all — or did the new opposition politics start with a bang only to end with, if not a whimper, at least a yawn and some bickering?

I think that in historical perspective, 2012 will be regarded as a pivotal time, or at least the ‘long 2012’ that started with the ‘castling’ in September 2011 and dragged through to Putin’s lackluster State of the Union Address and press conference in December 2012. Why?

1. The Putin regime finally exhausted its creative potential. Tempting as it is in some quarters to paint Putinism as some terrible blight, there is no denying that not only did it do much that was worthwhile (just contrast it to the miserable 1990s) but also the regime was often shrewd, nimble, in touch with the national zeitgeist. Like it or not, Putin proved himself to be a state-builder. However, that energy and creativity seem gone now. The dearth of new and big ideas this year, the clumsy handling of challenges and opportunities alike, the renewed dependence on often-spiteful acts of repression and the apparent loss of nerve which I feel were behind both the ‘castling’ and the decision not to seek some rebranding of the regime in December all attest to this. When regimes stop evolving, they start dying…

2. The ‘Putin Vertical’ replaced the ‘Power Vertical.’ Putin’s personality (cult) has always been a crucial ingredient in his style of rule, but the essence of the ‘Power Vertical’ was that the state machine should be greater than the man behind the big desk in the Kremlin. This was given further expression by the willingness to place Medvedev in the presidency. What mattered was not just one man, it was the ‘deep state’ of an elite-wthin-an-elite that he figureheaded, united and cohered. However, that ‘deep state’ seems in disarray, and the personalization of governance is, if anything, being increased by the present anti-corruption campaign, where today’s able administrator becomes tomorrow’s interrogation subject. The ‘Putin Vertical’ is by definition much more brittle, dependent on the skills, judgement and stamina of one man, a man with many considerable abilities but also, it seems, a weakening grasp of the realities of his own country.

3. Politics are beginning to return to Russia. It’s easy to despair of the inability — indeed, sometimes I would suggest willful refusal — of the opposition movement to reach out beyond their narrow constituencies to the country as a whole. Indeed, they seem to be shrinking in stature and appeal alike, getting mired into disputes of platform, precedence and procedure. However, this is hardly surprising. The failure of the Soviet experiment tarnished much of the rhetoric and process of politics, and the Yeltsin years arguably did even more to depoliticize the country. It is, after all, an interesting question which was the greatest windfall Putin received: this or hydrocarbon revenues. It will take time for Russians to regain faith in politics, let alone a language, structures, ideologies. That will probably emerge, in part, from what will look like pointless and self-destructive rifts within the protest movement. But it will come.

So will 2013 prove to be a momentous year? Probably not; I don’t expect any dramatic collapse of the regime or, for that matter, a revitalization of Putin and his regime. Its symbol is, after all, the double-headed eagle rather than the Phoenix or Firebird. But will it be part of a momentous transition, as Russia moves inexorably, even if haltingly, towards greater democracy? That, I certainly believe.

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