Stratfor: Kremlinology today

A four-part Stratfor analysis on the tactics involved in studying Russia’s internal political struggles.

Part One: Studying the Kremlin in Soviet Times

Winston Churchill once said, “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” It is true that studying the Kremlin’s internal struggles is more an art than a science. Stratfor uses systematic approaches in much of its work, though the art of Kremlinology involves watching hundreds of seemingly unconnected events and pieces move while attempting to draw common threads into a narrative. It is an imperfect art but an important one nonetheless, and it is back in demand now that the Kremlin is facing multiple crises.

Soviet-era Kremlinology was akin to sifting through mounds of pine needles before stepping back to see the whole forest. Kremlinologists studied every meeting to see who participated, looked at published photos to see who stood next to whom, and took note of who attended social events, such as the Bolshoi Ballet, to see which box each member of the elite sat in. Certain factions used various media outlets to publish formal agendas, gossip, slander and disinformation. The Communist Party used Pravda; the Soviet military used Red Star.

Through these varying levels of hints and information, a Kremlinologist could make sense of the ever changing web of alliances, rivals and influencers. These relationships and the struggles between them reflected the power and stability of the leader of the Soviet Union, the power and distribution of assets of Russia’s most influential institutions, and the overall strength of the state. The difficulty for outside observers lay in the fact that changes in these relationships and balances of power mostly took place in secret.

After Josef Stalin’s death, a power struggle took shape among members of the Kremlin elite. The fight lasted five years, until Nikita Khrushchev managed to purge his opponents. During the struggle, alliances and clans among the elite constantly shifted between personalities, control of assets and levels of power. For example, in the months after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev aligned with the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, to oust Communist Party leader Georgy Malenkov. Three months later, Khrushchev teamed up with Malenkov to remove Beria.

At the time, it was inconceivable to outside observers that anyone other than the deceased Stalin could take down Beria. He was, after all, in charge of the most powerful organization in the Soviet Union: the NKVD, which later evolved into the KGB and today’s FSB. Malenkov and Khrushchev, who believed Beria would take them down eventually, were careful in their plan, understanding that Beria had eyes and ears in every dark corner. The men knew the only way to take Beria out of the picture was with the support of the Soviet military. They spread rumors that he was a U.S. agent and organized a swift confrontation by calling him to a presidium meeting, where they laid all his transgressions before him while the military waited in the wings to arrest him.

An important aspect of this power shift was that Malenkov and Khrushchev were able to take down the mighty Beria in extreme secrecy. His disappearance went unnoticed for two days, and authorities kept his arrest secret for two weeks before executing him nearly five months later. The first evidence of Beria’s fall was his absence from a performance at the Bolshoi Ballet, followed by rumors of arrests of top NKVD officers.

Secrecy also played a key role in Leonid Brezhnev’s plan to oust Khrushchev from office. Knowing he would need a group of power players within the Communist Party on his side, Brezhnev set his plan in motion some six months before Khrushchev stepped down. During these months, evidence that Khrushchev was on his way out mounted: Anti-Khrushchev rhetoric increased in Pravda, the Communist Party’s media outlet, and Khrushchev took more vacations away from Moscow, giving Brezhnev room to work more openly against him.

After Brezhnev took office, hints of a significant struggle between the new Soviet leader and Yuri Andropov emerged in media and in anti-corruption campaigns. Brezhnev’s control over the KGB began to erode when Andropov took over the organization, even though Andropov did not have a background in intelligence. Andropov began a media campaign to boost the popularity of the KGB by planting pro-KGB stories in Pravda and other outlets on the 50th anniversary of Soviet intelligence apparatuses and on the 100th anniversary of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky’s birthday.

Andropov also began increasing the KGB’s importance by lobbying Politburo members for expanded powers to combat infiltration by Western intelligence. At the same time, the KGB spread rumors throughout the Soviet media that corruption within the government was rampant under Brezhnev’s watch. When the Politburo granted the KGB jurisdiction over economic crimes, the organization launched a campaign against Brezhnev’s loyalists and family members and purged them from the KGB ranks. These moves solidified both Andropov’s power base and the KGB’s weight, eventually enabling Andropov to succeed Brezhnev.

Kremlin politics do not occur in a vacuum, though, and events throughout Russia and the world can shape how and when such intrigues take place. For example, Beria’s ouster was postponed by a rebellion in East Germany that required a Soviet military response.

In each political transition, countless seemingly unconnected pieces could be detected, but as Churchill said, the victor was a mystery until he emerged from under the rug. The same is true today in the Kremlin, where a struggle for power over policy, assets and funds is taking place.

Such struggles are hardly new, but this one comes as Russia is facing a series of crises, such as the standoff with the West over Ukraine, plummeting government revenues because of low oil prices, and growing discontent among the Russian people. It is this confluence of factors that makes it more difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to arbitrate between members of the elite and protect his own position. But to know how significant the current power struggle is, we must return to the old tactics of Kremlinology.

Part Two: Deciphering the Kremlin Today

Understanding current Kremlin intrigues calls for tactics similar to those used during the Soviet period. Because Russia is more open than the Soviet Union, more pieces are visible, which can either confuse or help Russia experts. Today’s Kremlinologists still study official meetings and personnel shifts in government posts, particularly changes in who oversees the most influential government institutions and businesses. With the fall of the Soviet Union, ownership or influence over both state and independent assets became crucial. Assets and companies give the elite not only tools to shape policy but also sources of profit.

Many Kremlin factions still use particular media outlets for their preferred leaks, agendas and gossip. For example, the Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly uses Itar-Tass, Izvestia and Sputnik (formerly RIA Novosti) to leak information and push its agenda. It also uses Russia Today to spread propaganda. The elite tied to Russian natural gas firm Gazprom subtly spread information via Echo of Moscow, one of the last independent media firms in the country. Russia’s more liberal opposition groups go to Novaya Gazeta or Moskovsky Komsomolets, and anti-FSB members of the elite reportedly push their leaks through Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

An additional tool for watching members of the Kremlin elite is social media, particularly VKontakte, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Most of Russia’s top leaders do not use social media, though there are some important exceptions, such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov. Watching the family members of the Kremlin elite on social media is another way to gather hints.

Current Kremlin Elite
In studying the Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Stratfor has seen many iterations of who and what are considered the most powerful elite and institutions because Russia’s political cycle is directly tied to the country’s overall cycle of power and stability. Putin came to power on the heels of Boris Yeltsin’s disastrous presidency, which left the country economically weak, regionally fractured, socially disillusioned and politically disorganized while facing a major security problem in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Putin’s ascent did not eliminate the elite who were in place before he became president. He had to contend with countless factions vying for power: Yeltsin loyalists, oligarchs, Communists, liberal parties, the FSB, St. Petersburg politicians who bled into the FSB, Chechen clans and more. While Putin was still Russia’s FSB chief and prime minister, he began collecting loyalists who later helped him consolidate power during the first few years of his presidency. As he designed his power base, Putin stabilized Russia economically and regionally and clamped down on the North Caucasus. He centralized political parties, various institutions, assets and businesses under his new government.

During the stabilization process, Russia caught two lucky breaks. First, the West and particularly the United States became preoccupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, oil prices skyrocketed, giving the Kremlin a massive financial windfall. Both of these expedited the Kremlin’s ability not only to consolidate power within Russia but also to begin its resurgence in the former Soviet space and beyond.

By the mid-to-late 2000s, the most powerful influencers and institutions in Russia began to settle into place. These are not the richest or most vocal Russians, nor are they necessarily connected to Putin, but they are the parties that can change Russian policy and strategy and make decisions for the country both internally and abroad. Though hundreds of players and institutions in Russia could be considered influential, approximately 18 personalities and 19 institutions currently stand out.

The power of these influential people and institutions rises and falls, as it did during the Soviet period. Putin is also constantly adjusting the influence they hold to create a balance of power beneath him and to address different situations inside Russia and abroad.

Thus far, Putin has acted as the grand arbitrator among these power players, and he has had the final say in struggles between them. His personal position has rarely been called into question during the first 15 years of his leadership, and no single actor has had the clout to potentially challenge Putin or his presidency.

It was fairly easy for Putin to manage the competition among the elite while he was very popular and while Russia was experiencing growing wealth, sufficient assets for each member of the elite, a return to the international stage and stability in the North Caucasus. However, this period of harmony has ended for both Putin and Russia.

Russia’s Turning Point
The crisis in Ukraine has proved that neither Russia nor Putin are the unstoppable forces they appeared to be after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Since then, Western powers have teamed up against Russia by cutting their large investments into the country and levying a series of sanctions that are picking away at the Russian state and its banks and major firms. The West has turned Putin into the new international pariah, and the Kremlin is being forced to bail out many of Russia’s large businesses and banks. Oil prices have dropped, biting into the Kremlin’s revenues, and the Russian economy has plummeted into its second recession in six years. The Russian people are more concerned with the state of the economy than any other issue, including Ukraine. Moreover, Russia is losing Iran, one of its tools against the United States, as Tehran and Washington engage in negotiations.

All of these crises naturally affect the Kremlin in several ways. Members of the elite are blaming each other for failures in Ukraine. Moreover, there is less money to go around, and Western sanctions targeted many members of the elite or the institutions they control. This has led to increased infighting among the most influential players in Russia. Although there are always disagreements and power struggles among the elite, the current circumstances have made the competition more difficult to contain. Putin’s ability to remain arbitrator among these dueling factions — and Russia’s unchallenged leader — is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Part Three: The Kremlin’s Current Intrigues

To understand how unstable the Kremlin and Russia are and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin could face a challenge to his hold on power, we must return to the difficult study of Kremlinology. As in the Soviet period, the Kremlin’s instability and challenges are not public or overt. Piecing together events, rumors and media stories, however, can give indications about significant changes on the horizon.

Stratfor is beginning to see these pieces fall into place. This is not to say that the Russian government is on the verge of collapse, or that Putin will soon fall from his position as president. However, it does indicate that a dangerous struggle is underway that could bring about a significant change in the country’s power structure.

Of all the battles currently going on inside the Kremlin, one has risen high enough to cause noticeable instability. Stratfor has meticulously gathered a timeline of events, rumors, lies, meetings and other clues pertaining to the actors and institutions involved in this struggle. Because Kremlinology is not a perfect science, many items do not fit into the narrative and many items critical to the narrative are not known. Some items may just be coincidence, while others could be fabrications or disinformation.

The struggle primarily revolves around influential individuals connected to the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s most powerful institution. Putin is cut from the FSB cloth, though he has never been its center of power. Putin led the FSB in 1999, but there have long been rumors that he relied on members of the FSB elite to garner loyalty within the organization. Those FSB elite now hold some of the top positions in the Kremlin: Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov, Rosneft chief Igor Sechin and Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. In addition, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, and State Duma Chairman Sergei Naryshkin are rumored to have been members of the FSB (or its predecessor, the KGB), and the current mayor of Moscow is reportedly loyal to this clan and, more broadly, the FSB.

Individually, none of these men can challenge Putin, but when united, they could act with impunity. Putin knows this. On occasion he has allowed the FSB to push ahead with its agenda, while at other times he has balanced the interests of the FSB group with those of other clans. Putin has also ensured that many non-FSB clans and individuals such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov remain extremely loyal to him. The FSB clan has long been at odds with Kadyrov and Surkov, and though Putin initially acted as an impartial arbitrator in the clashes between them, he now may be forced to choose a side.

Like most of Russia’s current troubles, the most recent dispute likely began with the crisis in Ukraine. Many of the indicators of a serious power struggle within the Kremlin have emerged over the past 17 months, since the Ukraine conflict began. Together, they create a relatively clear narrative — by Kremlinology standards — of a potentially significant change in Russia’s power structure ahead.

During the Ukraine protests that led to the fall of President Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Russia government and its replacement with a pro-West government, hints of a heavy FSB presence emerged. Ukrainian activists claimed that the FSB aided the Ukrainian government’s Berkut security forces, which were cracking down on the opposition. Furthermore, when the Western-friendly government came to power, it accused the FSB of ordering Yanukovich to crack down on the Maidan protesters. Overall, people ultimately regarded the FSB as having miscalculated and failed in Kiev.

In the months following the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian government’s accusations of FSB meddling lessened, while its accusations against Russia’s Main Intelligence Administration (GRU) became more numerous. This shift was important because Ukraine had long been considered the FSB’s territory for intelligence. Media agencies independent of the FSB began to pick up on the GRU’s gains in Ukraine, reporting that Putin was bolstering the GRU and containing the FSB. Indeed, Putin had awarded Surkov, a rumored GRU member, the Kremlin portfolio overseeing the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine by the start of May 2014.

The same month, the FSB clan initiated a power grab at home by taking the Main Directorate of Economic Security and Anti-Corruption, a key part of the Interior Ministry. The FSB has long sought to influence the Interior Ministry because it does not have a military or police force of its own, and the Interior Ministry commands more than 200,000 troops and police.

In June 2014, Kadyrov announced that he would set up his own intelligence and policing forces in Chechnya, similar to the FSB and Interior Ministry forces. Kadyrov hired a former FSB major, Daniil Martynov, to help design the forces — a move Martynov’s former cohorts say the FSB did not sanction. Kadyrov had sidelined the FSB in Chechnya for nearly a decade, and with his own Chechen version of the FSB (in addition to approximately 40,000 Chechen soldiers he already commands), Kadyrov would become far more powerful in both Chechnya and Russia proper.

The jockeying for power between the FSB and Russia’s other influential players is just one signal among many that the competition within the Kremlin is becoming more volatile.

Part Four – The Kremlin’s Current Intrigues: Emerging Clues

Kremlinology is more art than science. It requires a constant awareness of potentially pivotal events, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s temporary disappearance this spring, which fueled a great deal of speculation. Rumors that Putin is ill have abounded for years, but his absence from the public eye at the culmination of struggles between Federal Security Service (FSB) and non-FSB players in the Kremlin adds to the intrigue surrounding his disappearance. Putin remains at the heart of the Kremlin, and his brief absence could signal his weakening ability to arbitrate clan feuds.

A series of odd circumstances surrounding Putin began Aug. 7, 2014, when Svoboda Radio, a series of Duma members and state television operator VGTRK reported that Putin planned to give an “emergency speech” about Ukraine that night. Russian media speculated that the speech could signal a change in Russia’s tactics in Ukraine and possibly a military intervention. However, Putin’s emergency speech never happened. That night, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said no speech was planned. Speculation rose that either something was wrong with Putin or there was a division within the Kremlin on Ukraine.

The following week, Putin gave a speech in Crimea that was set to air live across all Russian time zones on multiple state television stations. However, the speech was never broadcast. Four hours after Putin gave his speech, small pieces of footage appeared on state-controlled television with no audio. Instead, a news anchor read a transcript published by Interfax and Itar-Tass, both FSB-controlled media outlets. Rumors re-emerged that Putin was ill or that something occurred that the FSB had not approved.

In early September, Putin casually mentioned in an interview that the FSB would undergo a “restructuring.” The president did not indicate what the restructuring would entail, and other than rumors of layoffs in the middle tiers of the intelligence organization, the restructuring’s intent is unclear. The next month, Putin behaved oddly once more by celebrating his 62nd birthday in the Siberian forests instead of in Moscow or working as he had in previous years. With the declining economy, the critical situation in Ukraine and intensifying internal struggles in the Kremlin, Putin’s trip to Siberia could have been an indicator of the pressure he was under or evidence of illness, as the media has frequently speculated.

By October, the competition within the Kremlin began to escalate. Rumors from media outlets independent of FSB influence suggested that Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev would soon resign and be replaced by First Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Zolotov. Zolotov once served as Putin’s bodyguard and is known to be extremely loyal to the president. The rumors could indicate that Putin was concerned about the FSB’s influence in the Interior Ministry and needed to ensure that the ministry’s powerful security forces were directly under his command. Though the rumors have not yet proved to be true, they have been mentioned frequently since they emerged.

In December 2014, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov gathered some 20,000 of his troops, fully armed and wearing backpacks, in a sports stadium in Chechnya. Kadyrov told the troops that they could resign and volunteer to go fight in Ukraine but that he was awaiting Putin’s order. He ended the speech by rallying the soldiers, chanting, “Long live our national leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin!” That same month, Stratfor received a report that influential FSB figure Nikolai Patrushev would soon be dismissed as the head of the Security Council — a rumor that also has yet to come to fruition.

In early February, Putin began consolidating lesser intelligence groups under the Interior Ministry, the FSB’s rival. By the end of the month, events began to unfold rapidly and became even more confusing.

Accelerating Oddities
On Feb. 27, leading Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge near the Kremlin. On March 4, Kadyrov posted a picture on Instagram showing himself with Putin, laughing and embracing, and posted a message that he would lay down his life for Putin. That same day, Vladislav Surkov, Kadyrov’s ally and an anti-FSB power player, left Russia with his family. It is possible that Putin went “missing” the following day, although the public did not know of the president’s absence until March 10.

On March 8, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov announced the arrest of two suspects in the Nemtsov assassination and the detention of three other suspects, with a sixth having committed suicide while being apprehended. All of the suspects were Chechens, and one of them (Zaur Dadaev) had personal ties to Kadyrov. Kadyrov took to Instagram to call Dadaev a “true patriot.” During the next week, rumors erupted that the FSB was targeting Kadyrov, with some theories speculating that Kadyrov ordered Nemtsov’s death to show the FSB that he could get away with such a public assassination. Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that Putin had awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, a clear sign of support for the Chechen president.

On March 11, the Kremlin canceled Putin’s March 12-13 trip to Kazakhstan to meet with the Kazakh and Belarusian presidents, as well as a meeting with a South Ossetian delegation that was already in Moscow. Peskov said the meetings were simply “postponed.” The Kremlin also posted a picture of Putin holding a working meeting with the head of the Republic of Karelia — a meeting that was confirmed to have taken place six days earlier, meaning that Putin was out of the public eye and his whereabouts were unknown.

The day before the story broke that Putin was “missing,” the FSB’s top brass began to make a show of important meetings. Patrushev met with Kadyrov after a Security Council meeting. The following day, Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin convened with Russian Orthodox Church officials. The FSB also held one of its large annual meetings, which Putin missed.

The president was not seen for 10 days, raising rampant speculation in the media about his whereabouts, whether there was a coup, and if he was ill or dead. Rumors spread of various members of the elite being killed or fired and of the Russian military deploying on the streets of Moscow, none of which transpired as far as we know. Peskov was hammered with questions about Putin’s location, to which he gave a string of contradictory explanations before ordering the media to stop asking. When Putin finally emerged 10 days later in a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart, he remarked, “Life would be boring without rumors,” a fitting response to the Kremlinologists trying to untangle this string of events.

Questions Linger After Putin’s Absence
Though the struggles between the FSB and non-FSB members of the elite are fairly clear, two key questions emerged after Putin’s disappearance. First, has the FSB interpreted Putin’s affinity for loyalists such as Kadyrov and Surkov as a stance against the FSB? If so, then this is a power struggle between the FSB and Putin. Second, has the struggle already been settled behind the scenes in the FSB’s favor, and the security agency is now acting as the puppeteer behind the Putin presidency?

Once again, we must sift through a series of clues to form a complete answer. Since Putin’s vanishing act, the FSB has made a series of power grabs in key areas. FSB counterintelligence chief Oleg Syromolotov was appointed deputy foreign minister and charged with managing counterterrorism operations. State Duma deputy and FSB Col. Igor Barinov was appointed head of the newly created Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs. The two appointments put FSB personnel in positions that oversee many issues regarding Chechnya and Kadyrov.

In addition, Russian commentators in social media and on Russian television channel NTV frequently mention the feud between Patrushev and Surkov over the Ukraine portfolio. It is possible that this battle could lead to an attack on Surkov. For example, Russian ultra-nationalist Ilya Goryachev will be going on trial any day now for allegedly masterminding 10 high-profile murders carried out in recent years by the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists. Goryachev has said Surkov was actually the mastermind behind the assassinations, and media outlets have said the FSB is orchestrating the trial to give Goryachev the opportunity to accuse Surkov.

The largest indicator that the FSB has gained the upper hand in the ongoing struggle is reports from Ukraine that pro-Russian Chechen forces fighting there are leaving. If Surkov and Patrushev were struggling over control of the separatists in Ukraine, the exodus of the forces that report to Kadyrov, Surkov’s right hand, could signal that the FSB has greater influence over the Ukraine portfolio.

Together, the indications that the FSB has gained strength could explain why both Kadyrov and Surkov have once again begun acting strangely. When Interior Ministry forces killed a suspected criminal in Grozny on April 19, Kadyrov took to the media to order Chechen interior forces to “shoot to kill” any non-Chechen forces in the republic. Later that day, he again took to the media to clarify that he was not at war with the FSB. A week later, on April 30, Kadyrov said that he was prepared to resign from the Chechen presidency and that he had asked Putin to allow him to do so. All of these events could signal an FSB-induced crackdown on Kadyrov behind the scenes. In addition, Surkov took to Instagram during Victory Day celebrations to congratulate the FSB on the holiday, an odd singling out of the security services.

Each day a few more clues emerge, but the direction and magnitude of the current Kremlin struggle are difficult to see clearly. Like many previous competitions for power, it could take days or years for the most recent contest to settle or spur a change within the Russian government. As Winston Churchill said, the nature of the Kremlin’s intrigues is not clear until a victor emerges from the obscured fight.

Interactive Graphic: Russian Influence Circles

[Source: Stratfor, May-June 2015]

‘Kremlinology’ is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Over Hans de Vreij

Retired Dutch journalist. Covered EU, NATO, UN, security & defense. Was correspondent in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Prague. Studied Russian language & literature.
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