Russia's Predicament and Putin's Problem

Written by By John Miller


By John Miller*

Just a few days before Christmas and a look at the world situation presents a difficulty for the most seasoned observer. The Internet is full of sites which predict an apocalypse or most horrific happenings for the same time next year December 2012. Then turning to the US media, the preoccupation naturally enough is with the economy, the presidency, next year's election and the possible Republican candidate to face President Obama. I have written before of the other presidential election of substance that takes place next year, at the end of March 2012 but no one really wants to know. From an outsider's viewpoint, it's quite fascinating that a country with which the US was toe-to-toe for the best part of three quarters of a century tends to be of little concern these days.

Apart from the continuing war that nobody wishes to name because of its origins, namely the global war on terror (remember GWOT?) problems with Pakistan, the final withdrawal from Iraq and the almost unceasing turmoil in the Middle East, coverage of regional elections in Russia two weeks ago have enjoyed little coverage and it was only demonstrations and recriminations after the vote that took up the attention of the US press. As I read most of the major English-language publications from around the world, Russia for the most part has been relegated to the inner pages. Yet here is a situation which needs to be taken seriously in every major Western capital and in most major powers outside the Western world.

Statistics both baffle and fascinate me because I know how easily they can be manipulated or fudged, depending on how you want to describe their use. Apart from his brutal regime, Josef Stalin, the Russian tyrant once observed that a single death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic and therein lies the problem.

Russians turned out to vote in an ostensibly democratic election on the weekend of December 2-3 2011, with the ruling United Russia party appearing to have a winning hand before the start. Shrunken from superpower status, Russia remains an important compound country by which I mean it is like a series of concentric patterns that overlap in places and differ widely in others.

For example, Moscow and St. Petersburg are very much like major Western cities and life is not that different, yet everyone I know who has been through the interior points to the busts of Lenin and Stalin that still stand and the elderly who long for the good old days when the Soviet Union was a force with which to be reckoned and of which they could be proud, while conveniently ignoring the predations of the Communist Party and the knock on the door at 2 a.m. when neighbors or friends vanished, sometimes never to be seen again, especially if they were deemed to be enemies of the state. Vodka prices vary but at least the peasantry can grow its own food and raise livestock to offset the worst of the weather and shortages of high prices. And for the most part, they can grumble without fear, which is a sign of real progress.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has a managed vertical democracy: managed from the top by Putin and his key allies and for the last 15 years, I have written about the slow accretion of state power especially in the energy sector, the continuation of foreign relations with allies of old, a massive increase in espionage in the West conducted by the successors of the KGB and the little mentioned Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian army, which has changed little since its establishment. Why bother? Who wants to know? And that is probably as good a reason as any to terminate this part of my writing life yet so much has happened in such a short space of time, leaving a state of uncertainty in Russia and for those who bother, something of an enigma to be worried about, like something stuck in the molars and no floss.

The Elections of December 2-3 2011 and The Aftermath.

The outcome of the first round of regional elections surprised many observers at home and abroad and with good reason. The governing United Russia party suffered largely unexpected losses, gaining just under 50% of the vote with nearly 95% counted. This was followed by a rally estimated at 5000 by the Western press in Moscow on the 5th December, with several arrests made of prominent anti-government activists. A lesser but also vocal crowd repeated the performance the following night, again to be met by riot police in full equipment.

The basis of the protests appeared to be claims of corruption in government and fixed/rigged elections. The tenor of the protests was bluntly summed up in the words of a well-known blogger Aleksey Navalny, who branded United Russia as “the Party of Swindlers and Thieves” (New York Times December 6, 2011). The ‘official’ number of arrests released via the Interfax news service was 300 on the first night and 250 on the following day.

By Western standards, crowd sizes were laughably small but there can be no effective comparison. Western nations are used to demonstrations numbering in the thousands and hundreds of thousands as the recent “Occupy” activities have shown. By contrast, Russians still harbor deep suspicion of government and authority, even twenty years after the final collapse of the USSR.

However, a week later, the Moscow Times reported on a new demonstration in the center of Moscow a week later that drew a crowd of between 25,000 and 100,00 and that is quite a development as well as a discrepancy. A wide range of critics charged the authorities with electoral fraud and called for a new election. Conspicuous by their absence were figures from the government but Moscow Times, which is in Russian terms, well outside official channels, virtually mandated the demonstrations as being in the name of ordinary people and the citizenry of Moscow (December 10, 2011) Interestingly, the Associated Press tended to confirm crowd numbers.

Apart from the stock-standard criticism of the US for instigating public unrest, the official reactions thus far have been muted, although some United Russia officials have recognized that there is a problem but rather lamely pointed to pro-Putin counter demonstrations, which by most accounts were small and ineffective, with signs of protestors having been conscripted or coerced into joining.

Putin's Rise and Hold on Power

My unpublished thesis on the rise of Putin and the form of his government is fairly long and complex: suffice to say the first term of his presidency was hallmarked by what I described as “Putinization,” the accretion of power from the ashes of the Yeltsin years and the demise of many of those whom Americans could well call carpetbaggers but were alternatively described as the kleptocracy (rule by thieves) or oligarchs - big business.

Those who chose to resist the forces surrounding Putin (the siloviki – literally men of power) found themselves marginalized and occasionally jailed or forced abroad for the good of their health – London being a well-patronized destination. Indeed while the coercive powers of the former Soviet state have been greatly reduced, become somewhat more civilized, with a nod to the rule of law, investigative journalism is a hazardous occupation, with many 'unexplained deaths' and a seemingly reluctance by the authorities to apprehend those responsible, quite possible because removal of critics acts as a reminder of the past.

Since Putin took power as Yeltsin's designated Prime Minister in 1996 and then became the duly elected President, Russia has been relatively stable, occasionally cooperative and a far cry from the days of Brezhnev, Andropov and the sinister presence of the KGB. Putin's personal popularity for the most part would have been the envy of many Western politicians, despite the claims of self-aggrandizement and accumulation of personal wealth often found on the Internet and among the disgruntled. Visitors to Russia I have met, describe a feeling that Russia could become great again, although the definitions of that term are vague.

By and large Putin and his ruling class, (the Putinistas or siloviki literally men of power) have presided over freedom of travel, assembly, organization (with limitations) and placed the Russian Orthodox Church back to where many, not all believers, thought it should: be central to the regime. The KGB was dismantled and two successor organizations the SVR (foreign) and FSB (internal security) took its place. A number of senior officers from the old organization were retired but many remained and the political system of Putinism was characterized by slow accumulation of power, especially in the power and energy sectors. Together with huge natural resources (especially in the energy sector) modern Russia has the potential to dominate Europe by economic means, while for the most part much of the equipment of the Russian Armed forces rusts away quietly or become a relic of the nostalgic part.

(right) Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin when he was in the KGB in the 1980s…(att. Wikipedia) "An undistinguished officer" (Sundry KGB defectors20111207_PutinKGB

The dominant Russian political Party, United Russia and its youth wing Nashi (Ours) has continually eyed with grave suspicion the upheaval and revolutions in the former parts of the dismantled USSR. Belarus, a near neighbor is governed by a tyrannical regime seemingly bent on reunification with Russia, although on the Russian side, there are feelings that this could be a mixed blessing given the parlous economy and political unrest in the neighbor. On the other hand, there appears to be great apprehension about Ukraine, based on its "Orange Revolution" and more accommodating stance towards the West in general and the European Union in particular.

Such has been the strength of United Russia and Nashi that until this year, it dominated constituent assemblies and in public, Putin appeared to be a latecomer to its ranks. The extra-parliamentary opposition is divided, turns on different personalities and operates from a base of poor organization and coordination, although as usual the Western media has played up the role of electronic means, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet but its significance at this stage is problematic. The protests will undoubtedly continue but there were reports of Ministry of the Interior troops being deployed to assist police to counter the demonstrations that followed in the first few days after the regional polls. Commenting on this situation over a week ago, I was moved to say that it was almost impossible to predict whether the protests would slowly fizzle out or a gain in strength – it’s virtually a case of “Ask your expert,” and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

The answer came within a week, quite literally and in many respects I was rather surprised. What might be called the second round of demonstrations were as much as 10 times larger than those of December 4 and 5. Great publicity was given to criticisms of electoral fraud from across the Russian political spectrum and there were demands for recounts or new elections from influential Russian people. Most interestingly, the Russian Orthodox Church lined up with the dissenters. Under different circumstances, this could have been front page material in many Western newspapers and indeed, looking for coverage, one is struck by the vapid comment by Western observers especially in august journals such as the New York Times. If events in Russia were being taken seriously, then the only sign was Putin's reversion to Soviet style criticism of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had publicly questioned the outcome of the revolution and been condemned for interfering in Russian affairs, a charge that was repeated several times. Old Soviet tactics remain in vogue.

The Russian Orthodox Christmas falls later than that of the Western church and at present, it is difficult to get reliable information on exactly what is going on in Russia. For example, only fools and idiots take any notice of the so-called liberal Moscow Times and even less of some of the left-wing journals which state that the solution to Russia's problem is communism.   Where I come from, we tend to say “been there, done that,” but the fact remains that the Communist Party in Russia has little public support.

It would be very interesting to learn authoritatively of the post-election wash-up in the Kremlin. Certainly more prominence will be given to Putin’s profile and ensuing policy changes. The natural temptation will be to step up ‘internal discipline’ while still presenting a popular face to the Russian people. Old habits die hard and it should never be forgotten that Putin still celebrates KGB Day regularly on December 20 each year at the old KGB headquarters at the Lubyanka and nor should the West ever forget Putin’s words that the dissolution of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 2oth Century,” although this view was only first articulated in public in his annual state of the nation address in April 2005, really not that long ago.

Other habits have never changed – Russian espionage in the West exceeded Cold War levels in the mid-1990s and has continued to increase, especially in the field of technological and scientific intelligence.

Not that these factors impact that greatly on the US and Western governments, distracted as they are by Islamic terrorism, elections and economics. With the approach of Christmas holidays and the New Year, it can be expected that the international media become ever more preoccupied with the forthcoming US presidential election. However, it is vital that we pay no less attention to Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 4, 2012.

Not for a moment have I ever doubted that the leading contender and probable winner will be Vladimir Putin, Russian President for two consecutive terms following the rule of Boris Yeltsin; and President Putin’s replacement as Prime Minister will be his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, President for the past four years, universally hailed as a "stand-in" President until the legal niceties of the Russian Constitution were met and Putin could again be eligible. However, no matter how many sympathetic photo shoots take place, he is now nearly 60 and age has taken its toll.

I fully expect that in the run-up to the election there will be will that greater emphasis on Putin's achievements and like many Western candidates in elections, he will promise many things that he cannot deliver. Yet a victory for him and United Russia would represent a consolidation of the politics and    the Putinist ruling class, but there have been suggestions that Putin will distance himself from the party and hype up the individualism. As some cynical observers might say, it has been all according to plan, at least until the protests and this presents a dilemma should they continue. Given a whiff of freedom and democracy can a grassroots movement spring up in time to make a significant challenge? I rather doubt it.

At this stage, the only declared challenger for the Presidency is the perennial communist candidate, 67-year-old Gennadiy Zyuganov, who has no realistic hope of taking the election to a second round of voting, especially as Putin remains popular among the Russian people and is viewed as a strong leader in a way that Russians appreciate.20111101_PutinDress

..and I'm qualified

(And they muttered darkly among themselves…"Wouldst thou buy a used Lada from this man" with apologigies to the late Orson Welles)

Many, especially outside the major cities, still retain nostalgic memories for the stability and certainty of communism; but, realistically, most Russians today have a longer life span, enjoy freedom of travel and religion and, like many citizens in the West, are perplexed by economic cycles and vagaries of life. It is doubtful whether longings for the past can ever be realized.

However, over the past few years, there has been intermittent academic speculation about the prospects for a new Cold War. Some of Putin’s more intemperate utterances about the West have done little to kill off this speculation.

A new Cold War is something of a non-issue, in the sense that Russia is no longer a superpower and has as many reasons to adopt a more reasonable tone in its dealings with the West, and the US in particular, than to throw its weight around in international affairs.

For example, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is as real for Russia as for the West, irrespective of whether this is recognized in the Kremlin. In the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, Russians are no less infidels than Americans. Moreover, the Russians are closer to the Middle East and the Afghan-Pakistan region. Furthermore, al Qaeda and linked organizations have strong support in many of the former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, closer to home, in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, North Ossetia, Abkhazia and Dagestan, home to the disparate arms of the Caucasus Emirate, now a US State Department proscribed terrorist organization.

I have little information on the much-touted intelligence cooperation between the Russian FSB, the American FBI and other Western anti-terrorist groupings and remain skeptical about its real value. Certainly, I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of any information exchange, probably out of morbid curiosity.

Russia and the West have so many pressing issue they face in common, especially the threat from global terrorism, that the Russians would be well advised to cut back on the continuing high levels of espionage operations against the West.

Russia is notoriously difficult for the West to work with, even 21 years after the collapse of communism. Developments in foreign affairs, especially in relation to Libya, Syria and Iran, have shown that there is no desire in Moscow to follow the Western lead, and Russia still gains from selling weapons systems to countries hostile to the West.

The Texas-based think tank, Strategic Forecasting, Inc., which prides itself on providing timely intelligence, recently claimed that Russia was rebuilding an empire while it could. (See Lauren Goodrich’s article in Stratfor magazine, October 31, 2011).

In light of this warning, it would do well to be skeptical about the likelihood of the US “becoming friends” with Russia any time soon. Indeed, we should heed the testimony of the late Colonel Sergey Tretyakov, a former KGB/SVR intelligence officer who defected to the US in 2000, and whose remarkable story is recounted in Pete Earley’s book, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War (2008). Tretyakov bluntly and convincingly warned that "Russia would never be America’s friend."

While Lauren Goodrich’s Stratfor analysis makes some valid points about Russia’s nostalgia for its lost empire, it is perhaps better to regard current Russian actions as consolidation of economic power and strategic alliances that could give it more international clout.

Countering Stratfor’s view was a recent trenchant editorial in the Russian business daily, Vedomosti [The Record], entitled “The Kremlin’s imaginary world” (reproduced in the Moscow Times, November 22, 2011). In plain language that no Russian would have dared to use during the time of communism, the Vedomosti editorial ridiculed Moscow’s imperial delusions. It said: “In the Kremlin’s imaginary, utopian world, Russia is the core of a powerful regional alliance stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. That union is a force with which the whole world must reckon, especially because the Russian military will be armed with cutting-edge technology and weapons and will overwhelm the entire world.”

While I regard the Russian election as being won four months out, the indications of continuing domestic discontent with Putin will be worth monitoring. Those few accounts from BBC reporters and US media in Moscow and St Petersburg reflect the stirrings perhaps of a desire for more change rather than a reversion to the past but we really don't know and I doubt whether my former colleagues can provide greater enlightenment.

What troubles me more is the fairly generalized groupthink in Western academic circles, which routinely seems to preclude any in-depth analysis of Russian intentions and long-range goals. Probably nothing is more discouraging to foreign affairs realists than the number of articles written by those who still persist in seeing Russia through rose-tinted spectacles.

Other commentators of a more conspiratorial disposition dismiss the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and claim that the dissolution of the USSR was little more than a very clever Russian tactic to outflank the US.

In light of this latter view, it is rather ironical — tragic, even — that Mr Gorbachev has tried to set up in Russia a European-style social democratic party, but was quietly "discouraged" by powers from behind the scenes.

Western diplomacy also appears to succumb to more wishful thinking than sober appreciation of the moves among the Russian ruling classes. Important developments are routinely overlooked. Added to that, the quality and depth of Western commentary on the forthcoming Russian election reflect a degree of academic inertia.

The US conservative publication National Review recently produced an article entitled, “Whither Russia?” (November 21, 2011). It consisted of a two-part discussion, which purported to assess the personalities of Putin and Medvedev as well as the future prospects for Russia’s shaky democracy.

The arguments have very little to commend the publication, but, in discussing the change of leadership from Putin to Medvedev and back to Putin, mention was made of a significant background figure working for the Putin campaign — a person jocularly described as a Karl Rove-like figure.

This mysterious person has been described elsewhere as “the grey Cardinal of the Kremlin”. He is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov, and has been described by the all-knowing New York Times as the third-ranked power figure in the Kremlin after Putin and Medvedev.

It has been speculated that he has political plans of his own, described by some as reformist. Among the very few things we know about Surkov is that he is a somewhat retiring 47-year-old, who formerly worked as “an agent for a crack intelligence special operations unit in the Red Army’s intelligence corps” (World Politics Review, August 9, 2007).

In the language of intelligence services, this translates into the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, or GRU, the foreign military intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (formerly the Soviet High Command).

The GRU’s existence was practically unknown in Russia until the time of Mr Gorbachev’s perestroika. During my service in Western intelligence, I observed some Soviet GRU officers in action. Their level of professionalism was generally exceptional and there were far fewer defectors from the GRU’s ranks than from the better-known KGB’s, or from other branches of the Soviet government. Having a former GRU officer close to the locus of power in Russia is something new and interesting. The GRU has survived every major upheaval in Russia since the early years of Bolshevik rule and still prospers today, ironically under the rule of a former member of its sworn enemy, the KGB. If the rumors of paying for results are any guide, this trend will continue whatever happens after the next presidential election.

On the other hand, the Russian Army has a problem with morale, numbers and conditions. Many veterans were present at the demonstrations and as one former Soviet veteran of the abortive campaign once told me personally, the historic hatred of the Soviet military for the Communist Party and the KGB was legend and one day there would be a reckoning. I am not suggesting that the reconstituted Russian High Command has any desire to play a political role but soldiers, sailors and airmen have families who are finding life difficult. The Armed Forces remain subordinate to the elected assembly but many of their veterans are among the ranks of the siloviki and presumed to support Putin. Again, our knowledge of the internal workings of this group or even whether it is a cohesive group remain conjectural. For the moment, the balance of power remains with Putin and his followers but change can occur rapidly and with little warning, hence it is vital to keep an eye on the 'ole Bear and perhaps devote more time to thinking seriously about our options. I have several suggestion but they will keep for the moment.

*John W. Miller is a former senior intelligence officer with NATO and allied forces, with considerable experience in Russian (Soviet) affairs and counterterrorism.


Kevin Daniel Leahy, “Vladislav Surkov: Putin aide could be Russian kingmaker”, World Politics Review, August 9, 2007.

Pete Earley, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War(New York: G.P. Putnam’s/Penguin Group, 2008).

Lauren Goodrich, “Russia: rebuilding an empire while it can”, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Austin, Texas), October 31, 2011.

Ellen Barry, “Operating in the shadows of power in Russia”, New York Times, November 4, 2011.

John Dunlop and Daniel Foster, “Whither Russia?”, National Review (New York), November 21, 2011.

The Kremlin’s imaginary world”, editorial in Vedomosti [The Record] (Moscow), reproduced in Moscow Times, November 22, 2011.

"What Really Happened in the Russian Elections" and "Russia and the Return of the Repressed" both by Israel Shamir in www.counterpunch.org are a truly delightful neo-communist, anti-capitalist view of the events. Read and laugh.


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