[FoRK] Putin - The Sick Man of Moscow

Joseph S. Barrera III joe at barrera.org
Fri Mar 13 08:05:52 PDT 2015


Vladimir Putin may well be seriously ill, or worse.

He hasn't appeared in public in a week, he just canceled a trip to
Kazakhstan and a series of meetings in Moscow, and the hashtag #ПутинУмер
(Putin Died) is trending like mad on Twitter. There have been reports in
the Russian media that he's had a stroke.

Whether Putin is sick, or "is feeling fine," as his spokesman Dmitry Peskov
insists, the system he presides over is far from healthy. Even if Putin the
man is in top form, the "collective Putin," Russia's informal ruling
circle, is showing signs of deep distress.

In fact, over the past two weeks, since the February 27 assassination of
opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, it has appeared to be in the throes of a
crisis. Informal rules have been violated, rivalries among figures near the
top of the power pyramid have escalated into open conflict, and Putin has
been conspicuous by his absence.

And while it is impossible for outsiders to truly know what is going on in
the opaque world of the Kremlin's inner sanctum, there seem to be two
possible explanations for Putin's disappearance from public view.

Either he is fine and furiously working behind the scenes to calm the clan
warfare that has emerged in the wake of the Nemtsov assassination.

Or Putin is truly sick and incapacitated and the recent turbulence we have
witnessed -- from the assassination to the muddled narratives in the
investigation to the open conflict between the Federal Security Service
(FSB) and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- are symptoms of a highly
personalized system that has lost its head.

New Rules?

In a political system like Russia's, where formal institutions are weak,
court politics are paramount, and personal ties mean everything, obscure
signals and gestures matter a lot. So do informal rules. They have to,
because the law doesn't apply to those on the top.

This was one of the reasons why the Nemtsov assassination was so shocking.
Killing somebody this prominent -- and certainly doing the deed blocks from
Red Square -- was against the rules.

As Ivan Yakovina, a former political correspondent for Lenta.ru, wrote
recently in the Ukrainian newspaper Novoye Vremya, "Moscow's unspoken
rules" forbid killing those other top politicians. Even those such as
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, who had gone into opposition.

The killing, therefore, was "a signal to all representatives of this
class," Yakovina added.

And if the Nemtsov assassination has violated one of the cardinal edicts of
Putinism, the aftermath violated another: Clan warfare among top members of
the elite must not be played out in public.

When the FSB named Zaur Dadayev -- a man with close ties to Kadyrov - as
the mastermind of the Nemtsov assassination, it was interpreted in the
elite as a direct assault on the Chechen strongman.

Kadyrov is powerful. Perhaps one of the most powerful men in Russia. He has
thousands of loyal armed men at his disposal; he has a strong lobby in the
Interior Ministry; he counts key Kremlin power brokers like Vladislav
Surkov as his allies; and he has long enjoyed Putin's support.

But he has also acquired powerful enemies, including Kremlin chief of staff
Sergei Ivanov, Kremlin political overlord Vyacheslav Volodin, and FSB chief
Aleksandr Bortnikov.

And Kadyrov's enemies now appear to be using the Nemtsov assassination to
take him down.

In a recent interview, the prominent journalist and Kremlin-watcher Oleg
Kashin noted that it was significant that Dadayev and the other suspects in
the Nemtsov case were arrested by the FSB and made public by Bortnikov

"Up until now, Bortnikov was not a public person who announces somebody's
arrest," Kashin said. "This is usually done by Investigative Committee
spokesman Vladimir Markin."

This, Kashin added, also reeked of a "siloviki war" -- a showdown among the
security services -- since Dadayev served as deputy commander of Battalion
Sever, an Interior Ministry paramilitary unit formed by the Chechen leader.

"Bortnikov struck a blow against Kadyrov," journalist and political
commentator Orkhan Dzhemal told Ekho Moskvy.

"There's a battle going on. The Spasskaya is fighting the Borovitskaya," he
said, metaphorically referring to the two famous Kremlin towers.

Battle Of The Titans

The battle played out in media reports about the Nemtsov investigation,
too. A report in the pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets claimed that
Dadayev had retracted his confession and claimed he was tortured

There was also a story in the opposition Novaya Gazeta that quoted
unidentified law-enforcement officials who claimed the authorities know who
really organized the Nemtsov hit -- a mysterious Chechen security officer,
also with close ties to Kadyrov, identified only as "Major Ruslan."

In fact, the FSB assault on Kadyrov appeared to commence in earnest before
the Nemtsov assassination.

In February, a Daghestani court sentenced two Chechens to nine and 12 years
in prison on for plotting the assassination of Saigidpasha Umakhanov, a
rival of Kadyrov's and the mayor of the region's third-largest city.

The FSB also took the lead role in that case. And in a report this week --
note the timing -- Novaya Gazeta quoted FSB officials as saying the
assassination was ordered by Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov's cousin and close

If a battle between Kadyrov and the FSB is about to go full-throttle, it
would be a war of the titans that could shake the Putin system to its core.

And Kadyrov's behavior -- from his much-publicized trip to a shooting range
this week to the statement he posted on Instagram where he wrote that he
would lay down his life for Putin -- suggest that he senses the danger.

But for the time being, at least, Putin is nowhere in sight.

-- Brian Whitmore

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