National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012

The West's failure to understand Putin's Russia

by John Miller


In the United States this year, most of the media is preoccupied, naturally enough, with the economy, the fortunes of the Obama presidency, and increasingly the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s challenge to President Obama. I have written before of the other presidential election of substance that took place on March 4, 2012, but no one really wanted to know. From an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s quite fascinating that a country, with which the US was toe-to-toe under the threat of a nuclear exchange for the best part of three-quarters of a century, tends to be of little apparent 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?), the West’s war in an increasingly hostile Afghanistan, its problems with Pakistan, the final withdrawal from Iraq and almost unceasing turmoil in the Middle East, coverage of regional elections in Russia last December enjoyed little coverage, and it was only the subsequent demonstrations and recriminations after the vote that grabbed the attention of the US media. As I read most of the major English-language publications from around the world, Russia for the most part was relegated to the inner pages, except for terrorist attacks. Yet here was a situation that needed to be taken seriously in every major Western capital and among significant powers outside the Western world.

Statistics are an integral part of our life and they have the potential to baffle and fascinate, because they can easily be manipulated or fudged, depending on how you want to employ them. The murderous dictator of the former Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, once observed that a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. Therein lies the problem. Statistics play quite a part in the body of this paper for good reason, and the intention is to explain my reasons.


Russia’s elections (December 2-3, 2011) and the aftermath

Russians turned out in acceptable numbers 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. I maintain that the importance of these elections were not grasped sufficiently outside the USSR for many reasons; but the internal consequences deserve equal scrutiny, especially after the presidential election of March 4, 2012, which was won by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

After the Cold War and the fall of communism, Russia was forced to cede independence to many of the strategically important minor states to its east, where there is a potentially troublesome vein of Islamic extremism. Much of Caucasus is ruled indirectly from Moscow; but Chechnya and Ingushetia pose challenges from insurgents under the aegis of the Caucasus Emirate.

Shrunken from superpower status, Russia remains an extremely large important compound nation, defined as 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 vast interior of the country points to the busts of Lenin and Stalin that still stand and hear talk, mostly among 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 neighbours or friends vanished, sometimes never to be seen again, especially if they were deemed to be enemies of the state.

These days, vodka prices vary and the state attempts to reduce alcohol-related disease; but at least the peasantry can grow its own food and raise livestock to offset the worst of the weather, shortages or 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” ruled from the top by Putin and his key allies. 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; and a massive increase in espionage against the West conducted by the successors of the KGB and the little-mentioned Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian army, the GRU, which has changed little since its establishment.


An unexpected reverse with ongoing problems

The outcome of the first round of regional elections last December surprised many observers at home and abroad, and with good reason. The governing United Russia party suffered largely unexpected losses, gaining just under 50 per cent of the vote with nearly 95 per cent counted. This was followed by a rally in Moscow, estimated at 5,000 by the Western media, on December 5, with several arrests made of prominent anti-government activists, although afterwards released fairly promptly by Russian standards. A lesser but also vocal crowd repeated the performance the following night, again to be met by riot police in full equipment and with a similar outcome.

The basis of the protests appeared to be claims of corruption in government and fixed or 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”.[1] 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” movement has shown. By contrast, Russians still harbour deep suspicion of government and authority, even 20 years after the final collapse of the USSR; but the fragile flower of democracy, as we understand it, lacks roots, and suspicion of corruption and doubts cast about the legitimacy of election results appeared to have provided more than a spark of warmth in the early days of the Russian winter.

A week after the first round of demonstrations, the Moscow Times reported on a new demonstration in the centre of Moscow, and then, a week later, another that drew a crowd of between 25,000 and 100,000. That is quite a development as well as a discrepancy. A wide range of critics from all walks of life and age groups charged the authorities with electoral fraud and called for a new election. Conspicuous by their absence were figures from the government; but Moscow Times (December 10, 2011), 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. Interestingly, the Associated Press tended to confirm crowd numbers, but a difference of 75,000 is not easily explained away and casts doubts on those who made the estimation.

Apart from the stock-standard criticism of the US for instigating public unrest, along with a few harsh words for the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, official reactions were initially muted, although some United Russia officials have recognised 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. However, the signs that there is an increasing disenchantment with Putin probably stem from the fact that he already served two presidential terms, then stood down to be Prime Minister, while his protégé Dmitry Medvedev occupied the presidency for a single term. Significantly, protest signs appeared in English and other languages apart from Russian (Cyrillic), and furthermore the messages, “Russia without Putin” and “Russia Yes, Putin No”, and were shown in the Russian media. Clearly, while there was a general expectation that Putin had spent the Medvedev years waiting to become president again, times have changed since 1996, and a brief examination of the recent historical period provides some guide to the course of Putin’s current third term as president.


Putin’s rise and hold on power

My unpublished thesis on the rise of Putin and the form of his government is rather 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 debris of the Yeltsin years and the demise of many of those whom Americans would call carpetbaggers but were alternatively described as the kleptocracy (rule by thieves) or oligarchs (big business). The bitterness in Russia towards America in particular is in no small measure due to the influence of US business interests which went to Russia after the demise of the Communist Party, ostensibly to act as advisors on economic reconstruction but instead behaved like a wrecking-ball on what was left of the economy, leaving it in the hands of the so-called oligarchs who became very rich men. As a consequence, the helter-skelter presidency of Boris Yeltsin was bound to lead to a tough regime, and the hand-picked successor was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. It must be said that he restored a measure of order. His power-base consisted of the siloviki, a word that is translated by some Russians as “men of power” or simply “power guys”. As those with some hostility to a third Putin term were retired, the nature of the siloviki became clearer.


Emergence of the siloviki

The strength and depth of the siloviki as a ruling class can only be understood by looking at a model of Russia as a vertically integrated state. There is little difference between that and Lenin’s democratic centralism in organisational terms, although, to give him due credit, Putin has allowed more religious freedom, thus removing a great sense of oppression. The chaos and confusion of the Yeltsin years resulted in chronic economic problems, which partly explains the rise of Vladimir Putin as a result of the traditional Russian longing for a strong leader. It is extremely difficult to calculate the number and influence of the siloviki upon whose support Putin has depended since 1996. Statistics can be extremely misleading; but five years ago Dr Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Russian sociologist at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow and director of the Center for the Study of Elites, stated:[2]

“If in the Soviet period and the first post-Soviet period, the KGB and FSB [people] were mainly involved in security issues; now half are still involved in security, but the other half are involved in business, political parties, NGOs, regional governments, even culture: — they started to use all political institutions.”

Dr Kryshtanovskaya also analysed the official biographies of 1,016 leading political figures — departmental heads of the presidential administration, all members of the government, all deputies of both houses of parliament, the heads of federal units and the heads of regional executive and legislative branches. The scope of her research is almost unprecedented. She found that 26 per cent had reported (my emphasis) serving in the KGB or its successor agencies. In addition, a more microscopic look at the biographies, she said — examining unexplained gaps in résumés, unlikely career paths or service in organisations affiliated with the KGB — suggests the startling figure of 78 per cent. She estimated that a quarter of senior federal bureaucrats are from the siloviki, with backgrounds in the armed forces and security services She went on to say that the proportion rose to 75 per cent if people simply affiliated to the security services were included. They are psychologically a homogenous group, loyal to the roots that go back to the Bolsheviks’ first political police, the Cheka. As President Putin himself is fond of saying, apparently repeatedly: “There is no such thing as a former Chekist.”[3]

For those looking for any particular key to Russian politics, a thorough understanding of what that means is essential. Just before his election to the presidency, Mr Putin stated that the KGB’s successor, the FSB, was successfully fulfilling its task. A former KGB general, Aleksey Kondaurov, stated to a Western journalist that in Soviet days the KGB had been a state within a state; and now the FSB has become the state itself.

The general has gone on to be a member of the Russian state parliament, the Duma, and remains a communist despite being a millionaire. Asked about the apparent contradiction, he said: “There’s no contradiction. Engels was an oligarch and Lenin hardly a vagabond.” General Kondaurov’s views were consistent with other senior ex-Soviet figures at the offices of the Moscow committee of the Russian Communist Party. Vasily Ponomaryov, the secretary for ideological issues, was at pains to express a sense of historical continuity. He said: “If we look to Russian history the Decembrists who fought to overthrow the Tsar were all well-to-do people. Engels was a well-off manufacturer.” But a regional party official said: “We’ll take the oligarchs’ money. It’s the people’s money. When we come to power we’ll remember the help they have given us and we’ll reward them. They’ll end up on the sunny side of the gulag.”[4]

This is the mindset that had led Kondaurov to proclaim, “I will prove to you that your victory will be short-lived” when the statue of the Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was taken down in 1991. He was also quoted as saying: “There is nobody today who can say no to the FSB.”[5]

Thus, in many respects, it is almost impossible for outsiders to estimate the extended power and influence of the siloviki and its genesis. In the 1980s, the Chairman (Head) of the KGB created a special reserve of the KGB comprising undercover officers pretending to assume various jobs and professions for which they were not necessarily trained. They served both at home and overseas until their existence was revealed in the Western media. They typically occupied such positions as deputy directors of scientific research (although these people were seldom scientists) or deans responsible for foreign relations in academic institutions of the USSR. Other officers were trained for certain civilian jobs, usually translators, journalists, telephone engineers, or doormen in hotels that served foreigners.

The active reserve was significantly expanded in the post-Soviet era, when a majority of positions in the Russian power elite were occupied by acting or undercover officers of the reformed Russian state security services, the FSB (internal security) and the SVR (foreign espionage). Says Dr Kryshtanovskaya: “The only difference between them [officers of active reserve] and regular civil-servants is that they have an extra duty: writing reports every month for the FSB. They are the eyes of the master.”[6] This is a level of saturation unbelievable in the West. It facilitated Putin’s triumph over the Oligarchs and provided a strong reservoir of support for the President, the change to Dmitry Medvedev and the recent re-election of Putin. It is interesting to note that the FSB now numbers far more than the KGB in its heyday, and includes regular officers and border guards.

In the early years, those who chose to resist the forces surrounding Putin found themselves marginalised and occasionally jailed or forced abroad for the good of their health — London being a well-patronised destination. Indeed, while the coercive powers of the former Soviet state have been greatly reduced and become somewhat more civilised, 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.[7]

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. Following acts of terrorism in the Caucasus, Putin’s personal popularity for the most part would have been the envy of many Western politicians, despite the claims of self-aggrandisement and accumulation of personal wealth often discussed 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 have presided over freedom of travel, assembly and organisation (with limitations), and placed the Russian Orthodox Church back to where many, but not all, believers thought it should be; that is, central to the regime. The KGB was dismantled and two successor organisations, the FSB (internal security) and the SVR (foreign espionage) took its place. A number of senior officers from the old organisation were retired; but many remained, and the political system of Putinism was characterised by a slow and steady accumulation of state power, especially in the power and energy sectors, first privatised then renationalised.

Together with its 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 has become a relic of the nostalgic past.

The dominant Russian political party United Russia, and its youth wing Nashi (Ours), has continually eyed with grave suspicion the upheavals and revolutions in the former parts of the dismantled USSR. Belarus, a near neighbour, 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 neighbour. On the other hand, there appears to be great apprehension about Ukraine, based on its 2004/05 Orange Revolution and its more accommodating stance towards the West in general and the European Union in particular. The fear of a Russian uprising inspired by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution is thematic among those who stand to lose the most in Putin’s Russia, and quite possibly acts as a brake on the energies of protestors and reformers alike.

Such has been the strength of United Russia and Nashi that, until late last year, it dominated constituent assemblies. In public, Putin appeared to be a latecomer to its ranks, although suspicion exists that this was a political ploy on his part so that he appeared to be above party politics and then “reluctantly” consented to head United Russia. Parliamentary opposition is insignificant in effectual terms, and there was something almost sad about the 67-year-old Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, now legal again, being seen as the alternative candidate to Putin, and with Mikhail Gorbachev vainly calling for real democracy and being ignored or treated with thinly-veiled contempt.

The extra-parliamentary opposition is divided, turns on different personalities and operates from a base of poor organisation and coordination, although as usual, the Western media has played up the role of electronic means, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet.


The second round of public demonstrations

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, 2011. 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.[8] Under different circumstances, this could have been front-page material in many Western newspapers. However, one was 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 a second Soviet-style criticism of US Secretary of State Clinton who had publicly questioned the outcome of the electoral process and been condemned for “interfering” in Russian affairs, a charge that was repeated several times. In that sense, old Soviet tactics remain in vogue.[9]

Over the Western and Russian Orthodox Christmas period, it was difficult to get reliable information on events and manoeuvres 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. The fact remains that the Communist Party in Russia has little public support.


Old habits die hard
Vladimir Putin in uniform after becoming a KGB officer
Vladimir Putin in uniform
after becoming a KGB officer

However, 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. Nor should the West ever forget Putin’s words that the 1991 dissolution of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”,[10] although this view was only first articulated in public in his annual state of the nation address as recently as April 2005.

Other habits have never changed. Russian espionage in the West, in the mid-1990s, exceeded Cold War levels and has continued to increase, especially in the field of technological and scientific intelligence and political intelligence-gathering, although it is extremely difficult to find a great deal of Western interest in these activities except in niche journals or, when a case is too big to ignore, such as the case of the “illegals” in the US in 2011. A successful 10-year counterespionage/counterintelligence operation run by the FBI resulted in the arrest and subsequent exchange of 10 SVR illegal operatives.[11]

For the most part, the world media failed to see the significance of the integration of Russian citizens into US society to the point where they appeared to be like everyone’s next-door neighbour and, although none had access to classified information, it rather misses the point of illegal intelligence operations, which have a long and complex history with the GRU, KGB/SVR and its forerunner organisations. No one stepped forward, as they would have done in Cold War days, and given a concise explanation of the case and the fact that is was a brilliant success, although foiled by the FBI and probably defector information. I have long lamented the fact that Mr Ed O’Malley, a senior FBI officer who had quite a reputation for briefing the media is retired and his commentary would have been more relevant than some who pretend to be experts.

The situation in Russia during the time of Putin’s election as president tended to be obscured by the frantic international situation, which has been mistakenly christened the “Arab Spring” by the media, regarding changes of government by various means in countries across the Middle East. These included the toppling of Egypt’s long-standing ruler Hosni Mubarak, the death of Libyan dictator Gaddafi and ongoing upheavals in other states, particularly Syria, and the ongoing challenge likely to be presented by the Iranian nuclear program.

In addition, Western governments and US were distracted by Islamic terrorism, their own elections and the worsening international economic outlook. However, I have argued repeatedly that it would be extremely foolish to ignore developments in Russia. Not for a moment did I ever doubt that the leading contender and likely winner would be Vladimir Putin, Russian President for two consecutive terms following the rule of Boris Yeltsin. Once again, his replacement as Prime Minister, as expected, is Dmitry Medvedev. As President for the past four years, Medvedev was 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, Putin is now nearly 60 and age has taken its toll.

The electoral victory in March for Putin and United Russia represented a consolidation of the politics of the Putinist ruling class, but there have been suggestions that Putin will distance himself from the party and hype up his own image as leader. As some cynical observers might say, it has all been going according to plan.

There were no declared challengers with a realistic hope of taking the election to a second round of voting, especially as Putin has remained popular among the Russian people and is viewed as a strong leader in a way that Russians appreciate. The apparent indecision in the populace has given way to the belief that Putin holds all the cards. 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 realised; but progress and change are glacial and may require much more time to effect. There are reasons, too exhaustive to be spelled out here, to believe that Russia may find trouble from some of its tools turning in its hands.

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 recognised 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 organisations 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 organisation.

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 sceptical about its real value. Certainly, I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of any information exchange, probably out of morbid curiosity, for I have a fairly strong suspicion of Russian intentions given that they have continued to provide aid for countries which sponsor or turn a blind eye to terrorism.

Russia and the West have so many pressing issues they face in common, especially the threat from global terrorism, to the extent that the Russians would be well advised to cut back on the continuing high levels of espionage operations against the West. This will not happen: it’s habitual and any more talk of “re-setting buttons” on relations with Russia can certainly wait, barring the unforeseen, such as a nuclear strike in the Middle East. Along with China, Russia has sided with the Syrian and Iranian regimes in old-fashioned Cold War style if not language. As events have shown, Russia is notoriously difficult for the West to work with, even 22 years after the collapse of communism. Developments in foreign affairs, especially in relation to Libya, Syria and Iran, have show 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.

Lauren Goodrich, writing for 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.[12] In light of this warning, it would do well to be sceptical 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, “Russia would never be America’s friend.”[13]

While 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 the consolidation of economic power and strategic alliances that could give it more international clout.

Countering Stratfor’s view was a trenchant editorial late last year in the Russian business daily, Vedomosti [The Record], entitled “The Kremlin’s imaginary world”. 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:[14]

“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.”

We expect political leaders facing elections to present a platform or manifesto, setting out what they hope to achieve if elected. I have not been able to trace English copies, but an opinion piece the English-language edition of Gazeta ru, by Russian writer and editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Fedyor Lukyankov, reports that Mr Putin produced the seventh article in a series looking at Russia’s future (printed in Moscovskiye Novosti, February 26). Lukyankov’s piece concludes rather gloomily with the following remark:[15]

“So Putin sees Russia as not only necessary opponent of USA in the global system, as many think, but a guarantee of certain relationships and attitudes in the global system, that are shared as he thinks, by all the BRICS countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa]. This is a classical world of international independence, state sovereignty and balances of powers. Alas in the end, the description of these realities, both current reality and the one desired, looks more convincing than the summary of measures we need to cope with it.”


The poverty of Western analysis
The Kremlin's third man? Vladislav Surkov
The Kremlin's third man?
Vladislav Surkov

What troubles me more is the fairly generalised 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.

There are of course other commentators of a more conspiratorial disposition who dismissed as a calculated deception, 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 ironic — tragic, even — that Mr Gorbachev tried to set up in Russia a European-style social democratic party, but was quietly “discouraged” by powers from behind the scenes. At this stage there is no foundation for such a party and, despite admiration in the West, Mr Gorbachev is not very popular with the Russian people. 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 last year produced an article entitled, “Whither Russia?” (November 21, 2011).[16] 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.[17] It has been speculated that he has political plans of his own, described by some as reformist — a word fraught with many meaning in Russia. 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”.[18]

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 prospers today, ironically under the rule of a former member of its sworn enemy, the KGB. If the rumours of paying for results are any guide, this trend will continue beyond the recent presidential election.

Since the massive public protests of February 2012 — large by Russian standards — Mr Putin has raised his profile more recently with a series of thunderous denunciations of the West’s stand on events in Syria, an old Soviet client-state and purchaser of Russian arms. Moreover, Russian news services and other media have coarsened their attitude. These have gone hand-in-glove with Putin’s announcement or claim, reported not unexpectedly in Pravda, that the Russian economy was among the best in the world.[19]

Scholars in the West have also failed to appreciate or publicise Russian efforts to upgrade their armed forces with new designs of air superiority fighters and, perhaps more significantly, a new class of nuclear submarine which will cause some concern in Washington and other Western capitals because it appears they are to be built in substantial numbers and, superficially at least, would appear to match frontline US and UK boats.[20] However, there is much to commend the cynical question often thrown around in Australian domestic politics, “Where’s the money coming from?”, because the cost of these systems is perhaps beyond the capacity of the government to pay.


Ominous trends

Mr Putin’s bellicosity has also extended to extolling the virtues of the FSB with an ominous ceremony, complete with pomp and military goose-stepping, and the unveiling in late 2010 of a memorial plaque to one of the KGB’s most celebrated if not necessarily prolific spies, Kim Philby depicted as the two-faced Roman god, Janus. To many of us this is an extraordinarily provocative move.[21]

With the fall of the Soviet Union there were no tribunals to bring to justice those responsible for communism’s murderous rule or those who had ordered military action against uprisings in the former client states. There was no system that could be equated with denazification, despite the fact that Soviet communism under Lenin and Stalin had been far more murderous then Hitler’s Nazis. The consolidation of the position of the siloviki has provided ample reward for many former servants of the state, no matter what nefarious activities they may have been involved in. Quite clearly, in this instance the claim to have been following orders is deemed legally acceptable.

The Russian army, despite being promised new weapons and equipment, has a problem with morale, numbers and conditions. Many veterans were present at the anti-government 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 legendary, and one day there would be a reckoning.


Future prospects

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 Russia’s 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 as cohesive as in earlier years, remains 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.

There was little repression evident at the pre-election demonstrations. It is one thing to see FSB and Ministry of the Interior troops cordoning off areas in cities where terrorist attacks have taken place, but quite another to predict what would happen if the Putin administration called out troops to crush the still-embryonic democratic movement.

I have maintained for years that Western-style democracy, which took long enough to evolve, cannot be grafted onto the stump of the communist regime, especially when so many of its apparatchiks retain power and the memory of the USSR remains with so many of the population. Limited democracy may well limp along, but the problem of who commands the real power remains an open, unanswered question. One is almost tempted to ask whether Russia can tolerate another term of the Putin presidency, let alone a fourth one to follow.


Assassination plot?

Lastly, earlier this year, on the eve of Russia’ presidential election, Moscow’s TV Channel One carried reports of an assassination plot aimed at Vladimir Putin. Surprisingly, it carried little weight in the Western media and perhaps it was because that bastion of centre-left freedom and democracy, the New York Times discovered from Russian TV that two suspects had been arrested “weeks ago” in the joint operation conducted by the Russian and Ukrainian intelligence services. At least one of those detained was from the Caucasus and Channel One claimed that two suspects were arrested in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, while a third had been killed mixing chemicals for an explosive device. The “authorities” also said that the mission had been directed by the Chechen militant leader, Doku Umarov, the probable head of the so-called Caucasus Emirate. The names of those captured were given as Ilya Pyanzin and Adam Osmayev. Interestingly and unusually, the FSB declined to comment on details of the plot and the suspects.[22]

Mr Putin’s reported reaction was to blame unnamed opposition figures and, although he was not specific, appeared to link the attack with his previous claims that the US is encouraging and funding protest leaders in order to weaken Russia.[23] However, there was apparently widespread scepticism about the authenticity of this proposed attack. One Moscow news report went as far as to say[24]

“News of the alleged plot came a week before the March 4 presidential polls in which Putin claimed a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Some analysts and opposition figures have said the plot was fabricated to boost Putin's percentage.

“Reports of thwarted assassination attempts against Putin appeared in advance of every election since the former KGB agent came to power in 2000.”

According to another source, Putin himself claimed that opposition forces were planning to kill one of their own leaders and blame it on the Kremlin in order to disrupt his expected electoral victory, while FSB spokesman announced that it was a Chechen plot to kill the president.[25]

Vladimir Putin would be an important target for the Caucasus Emirate and, had the plot been successful, we can only speculate about what would have followed. In the days of communism, martial law and crackdowns took place on far smaller pretexts, with trials that handed down sentences of varying severity.[26] In those days, the communist hierarchy had much bigger bodyguards; but for the most part, the recent threat was more likely to have come from within. From what I have seen of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev on television, they are surrounded by armed detachments very similar to those that accompany the US president, and there appears to be no great drama. Some Western newspapers have been moved to comment that details of the plot were held closely and then released nearer to the election in order to improve Mr Putin’s chances.

Lacking sufficient evidence, I can make no claim on this idea but it would not be anything new or innovative. However, had the assassination attempt been directed against the US president, the Chechen suspects would have been correctly described by some as Islamic fundamentalists. If this were a genuine plot, Mr Putin and his advisers would be well advised to become more interested in patterns of Islamic fundamentalist operations.

I have maintained for many years that many in the Russian ruling circles believe that Islamic fundamentalism does not threaten them. It would be extremely shortsighted for the FSB and the Russian power elites to ignore or downplay what has been going on globally, including attacks on Russian soil.

Western observers should remember that in Russia, as in many of the other former Soviet republics, the intelligence and security services have merely changed their names, many of their respective officers having formerly served with the Soviet KGB and GRU.

The degree of organisational and operational cooperation between old colleagues cannot be known for certain, but one could expect cooperation where the objective is assassination, especially of a foreign leader. This case will be monitored and any significant developments will be reported in News Weekly.

Lastly, with the current slaughter in Syria, and with Russian and Iranian support for the current Assad regime, it appears that Russian ruling circles are determined to profit from the conflict by selling the latest helicopter gunships to Damascus, although the first shipment was thwarted by British naval forces. More disturbing again has been the recent renovations of the old Soviet naval base established at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast under a 1971 treaty between the Soviet and Syrian governments. The base has been maintained with Russian personnel and there have been reports of extensive upgrades since 2008, along with Russian marines to be deployed to “defend the facility”. And Russian naval vessels stationed there could possibly challenge a blockade.

As recently as June 18, the Toronto Globe and Mail cited reports from the Associated Press and the Russian Interfax newsagency that an unidentified Russian navy official had said that “the two amphibious landing vessels, Nikolai Filchenkov and Caesar Kunikov, will be heading shortly to the Syrian port of Tartus, but didn’t give a precise date”. The report continued:[27]

“The official said the ships will carry an unspecified number of marines to protect Russians in Syria and evacuate some equipment from Tartus, if necessary.

“Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks, according to Russian media reports. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria, signalling that Moscow is becoming increasingly uneasy about Syria’s slide toward civil war.”

Interfax also quoted a deputy Russian air force chief as saying that Russia will give the necessary protection to its citizens in Syria.

It gives this writer no pleasure to state the old axiom, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Even more risible has been the suggestion, reported in The Australian of June 19, that President Obama is under pressure “to press Putin over the slaughter in Syria”.[28] The idea that the US is in any real position to act in this way, with its President facing an election at the end of this year, suggests undue wishful thinking on the part of those who permeate academe and still have stars in their eyes about Russian intention. If recent experience is any guide, and it usually is, Russia under Putin remains hostile to the West and, while Russia is in no position to become a superpower again, the presidency of Vladimir Putin will be seen as internationally divisive and quite possibly more repressive at home.

The lesson is that where Russia is concerned, it is unwise to engage in the luxury of wishful thinking. As for the Australian government, a statement on Russian intelligence activities is long overdue; but, respectfully, I suggest that readers do not hold their breaths.


About the author

John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer with NATO and allied forces, with considerable experience in Russian (Soviet) affairs and counterterrorism. He wishes to express thanks for an old friend and colleague who, as a scholar/observer of the USSR and Russia for nearly 50 years, defined Putinization — and Putinism, the completed model. Prior to the final draft of this article, he mentioned that a later round of anti-Putin demonstrations had occurred in Moscow and that Putin’s face had been altered to resemble Adolf Hitler — an extremely savage visual comment for a country battered close to military disaster by the Nazis.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012



[1]    Ellen Barry, “Rousing Russia with a phrase: blogger Aleksei Navalny rouses Russia”, New York Times, December 9, 2011.

[2]    Cited in Peter Finn, “In Russia, a secretive force widens”, Washington Post December 12, 2006.

Also “The making of a neo-KGB state”, The Economist (London), August 23, 2007.

[3]    Olga Kryshtanovskaya, cited in “The Making of a neo-KGB state”, The Economist (London), August 23, 2007.

[4]    “Oligarchs take a Left turn on the road to the Duma”, The Telegraph (UK), November 22, 2003.

[5]    The Economist, op. cit.

[6]    Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia— Past, Present, and Future (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994), pages 56-57.

Olga Krychtanovskaia, Anatomy of the Russian Elite (2004). An English translation of this citation is printed in Le Monde by Robert Amsterdam, in “How to get to the top in Russia”, Le Monde, January 19, 2007.

[7]    Discussion of the role and fates of investigative journalists is time-consuming and unrewarding. Some have undoubtedly been murdered (Anna Politkovskaya springs to mind) and others have disappeared in strange circumstances. Many point to the FSB as perpetrators but this is a murky issue. For those with a deep interest I suggest as basic Internet search and then following leads, with the proviso that as with all things Russian, they are not always as they appear.

[8]   The Russian Orthodox Church was critical of possible electoral fraud after the elections of late 2011. During his Christmas interview with the Rossiya-1 TV channel, the Russian Patriarch Kirill called on the Russian government to listen to the people protesting against the Duma elections results and to correct the country’s political course accordingly. But being ecumenical, it criticised the organisers of protests planned for February 26-7, which coincided with the commencement of Lent, and on the same day backed Putin for President.

“Russian Church criticises organizers of protest rally for choosing wrong date”,, February 24, 2012.

“Russia: Religious leaders back Putin for president”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 9, 2012.

[9]   Feodor Lukyanov and Semyon Kvasha, “The frightening world of the third term”,, February 27, 2012.

[10] Gleb Bryanski, “Putin prasied by leaders of ex-Soviet states”, Reuters, May 15, 2012.

[11]   Fred Burton and Ben West, “The dismantling of a suspected Russian intelligence operation”, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Texas), July 1, 2010.

John Miller, “When it comes to spying, when will they ever learn?”, Family Security Matters (Center for Security Policy, Washington DC), July 6, 2010.

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

[13]   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).

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

Two additional articles are noteworthy:

Israel Shamir, “What really happened in the Russian elections?”, CounterPunch (Petrolia, California), December 7, 2011.

Israel Shamir, “Russia and the return of the repressed”, CounterPunch (Petrolia, California), December 13, 2011.

Both of Israel Shamir’s articles are a truly delightful neo-communist, anti-capitalist view of the events. Read and laugh.

Author’s comment: I strongly believe in reading comments from all sources when writing as I think the “other side’s” view is important. Less strident than many, and better written by most, the English language edition of Russia in Global Affairs is definitely a cut above most.

[15]   Russian government condemnations of the West over Syria and Iran are everywhere, e.g:

“PM Putin slams West over Iran”, Sky News (Australia), February 12, 2012.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Clinton has been given more personalised messages:

David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, “Putin contends Clinton incited unrest over vote”, New York Times, December 8, 2011.

“War of words: Putin, Clinton clash over election protests”, Worldnews on MSNBC, December 8, 2011.

“Putin blasts Clinton for encouraging protesters”, CBC News, December 8, 2011.

One of the crudest attacks was:

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, “Despicable is Hillary Clinton”, Pravda, February 26, 2012.

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

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

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

[19] Olivia Kroth, “Putin: Russian economy among the best worldwide”, Pravda, February 21, 2012.

[20] Naval conventions state that warships are ships but submersibles are traditionally called boats.

[21]   Nick Squires, “Russian spy agency unveils Kim Philby memorial plaque”, The Telegraph (UK, December 9, 2010.

[22] Michael Schwirtz, “Days before presidential election, Russian TV reports a weeks-old plot to kill Putin”, New York Times, February 27, 2012.

[23] “Putin warns opposition ahead of presidential vote”, ABC News (United States), February 29, 2012.

[24] “Would-be Putin assassins charged”, RIA Novosti (Moscow), March 21, 2012.

[25] “Putin warns opposition ahead of presidential vote”, op. cit.

[26] Fred Weir, “For Vladimir Putin, winning Russia’s presidency may be the easy part”, Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2012.

Kathy Lally, “In Putin’s Russia, allegations of a KGB-like plot”, Washington Post, March 1, 2012.

[27] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russian navy ships set to sail to protect military base in Syria”, Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 18, 2012.

[28] Brad Norington, “Barack Obama to press Vladimir Putin over slaughter in Syria”, The Australian, June 19, 2012.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012