Putin’s rise to the presidency was rapid and unexpected. In March 1999 a distinguished group of scholars assembled in Washington DC to discuss the likely candidates for the June 2000 presidential election. The name Vladimir Putin was not mentioned – not even among the dozen or so possible outsider candidates.
Vladimir Putin's meteoric rise from relative obscurity to the Russian presidency in the course of a few short months of 1999 has been attributed to his intimacy with the "Family" as a protege of Berezovsky and Yumashev. By the end of 1999 the Family had persuaded Yeltsin to name Putin his political successor and candidate for the presidency.
Berezovsky's acquaintance with Putin dated back to the early 1990s, when the latter, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, helped Logovaz establish a car dealership. They enjoyed friendly relations; on occasion, Berezovsky took Putin skiing with him in Switzerland.
In February 1999, when Berezovsky's political standing looked uncertain because of his clash with Primakov over Aeroflot, Putin, then Director of the FSB, made a bold gesture of friendship by showing up at a birthday party for Berezovsky's wife. "I absolutely do not care what Primakov thinks of me", Putin told Berezovsky on that night. That was the beginning of their political alliance. According to the Times, Spanish police discovered that on up to five different occasions in 1999 Putin had secretly visited a villa in Spain belonging to Berezovsky.
In mid-July 1999 the Family dispatched Berezovsky to Biarritz, where Putin was vacationing, to persuade him to accept the position of prime minister and the role of heir apparent. On 9 August Yeltsin sacked the government of Sergei Stepashin and appointed Putin prime minister.
The December 1999 Duma election, and not the March 2000 presidential poll, was the key electoral event in Putin’s rise. In the course of the year a powerful movement had emerged among regional leaders anxious to consolidate the autonomy they had won during the Yeltsin years.
The initiator was Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who formed his Otechestvo (Fatherland) movement in December 1998, which claimed to be running against the oligarchs who dominated the federal government. However, most governors remained wary of a movement led by the mayor of the rich and privileged city of Moscow. In April 1999 Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and St.Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev created a rival movement, Vsya Rossiya (All Russia). In August Luzhkov joined them to form the Fatherland/All Russia alliance (OVR), under the leadership of ousted premier Primakov.
OVR was a serious threat to Yeltsin, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Stepashin in August was in part due to his failure to prevent its emergence. Victory in the Duma election could propel Luzhkov or Primakov into the presidency in June 2000.
Perhaps Berezovsky's most serious impact on the election was the creation of the the new faction supporting Putin, the Unity party, which won the largest share of seats in the Duma with a campaign in which it put forth no serious platform or policy positions.
In 1999 – 2000, mr. Berezovsky had full controll over the main state television channel, ORT, which during these years has played a decisive role in promoting Mr Putin and his Unity party, destroying his rivals Yuriy Luzhkov and Evgeniy Primakov for the Russian presidency.
The most brutal propaganda came in the “author’s programs’ of Mikhail Leont’ev and Sergei Dorenko. ORT newscasts devoted 28% of time to Unity, twice as much as to OVR, and the former coverage was positive while the latter was mostly negative. On the other hand Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV and Luzhkov-controlled TV-Tsentr backed.
OVR. See the report from European Institute for the Media, Monitoring of Media Coverage during the Parliamentary Elections in Russia in December 1999, Dusseldorf.
The news and slander programs on the Berezovsky-controlled ORT television station launched a devastating propaganda blitz against Primakov and Luzhkov. Luzhkov was accused of everything from running a private army to sheltering the Japanese terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo. (Some of thecharges were even true.) Unity’s philosophy was simple: support for Prime Minister Putin, who was leading the fight against the Chechen “bandits.” The official leader of Unity was the ambitious young Minister for Emergency Situations, Sergei Shoigu, who explained “Many people call us Putin’s party.
Well, it’s true.” Putin, as premier and then acting president, was closely associated with Unity, although he only formally endorsed it in November. It is difficult to explain Unity’s success: it had no program to speak of, its leaders were not well-known. Its association with the increasingly-popular Putin seems to have been the decisive factor.
As Putin’s rating rose the Yeltsin camp became increasingly confident that they had found the ideal successor. Yeltsin’s decision to step down and appoint Putin “acting president’, but more importantly, it boosted Putin’s chances of winning the election. Putin would have the crucial advantage of incumbency: the ability to use the presidential office to mobilize support and cultivate an image of leadership. It seemed that Putin’s popularity had already reached its peak and would erode over time – especially if Russian forces were to suffer setbacks in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s resignation minimized this risk by bringing forward the election from June to the end of March, since the constitution decrees that elections must be held within three months of a presidential resignation.
Although Putin himself seemed to come from nowhere, there was one aspect of his rise that was predictable: the institutional mechanics of his elevation. Yeltsin created a political system that was held together through patronage, and in which political succession hinged was the prerogative of the incumbent leader. There were two other striking regularities of political succession under Yeltsin: the use of the post of prime minister as a sounding-board for potential successors, and increasing reliance on the security organs as a source of candidates. (Three of the four prime ministers appointed in the last 18 months of Yeltsin’s rule came from the security apparatus).
Yeltsin had very practical reasons for being concerned about the identity of his successor. In the winner-take-all world of Russian politics, there were no guarantees that a future Russian president (under pressure from the Duma, for example) would not seek to strip Yeltsin of his government-provided villas, medical services, and other privileges, and even sanction his criminal prosecution. The same held true for the members of Yeltsin’s circle: his daughter and “image consultant” Tatyana Dyachenko, his other daughter’s husband Valerii Okulov, an Aeroflot executive, and the rest of his entourage known as “the Family.” Again, however, it is important to remember that Russia is not unique in facing this problem of indemnifying corrupt or repressive leaders as an unpleasant precondition for removing them from office. It is a feature of democratic transitions from Indonesia to Chile. (Yeltsin’s case differs slightly, in that he is a transitional figure, intermediate between the old regime and a democratic future.)
Putin, the ever-loyal apparatchik, was trusted to meet this criterion for office. The day after Yeltsin’s surprising resignation on 31 December, Putin as “acting president” signed a decree granting Yeltsin and his immediate family immunity from prosecution. (The same day he also made a well-publicized trip to Chechnya.)
In a 20-minute televised interview Tuesday, Putin gave the first detailed description of the sequence of events leading up to Yeltsin's unexpected announcement Friday that he was stepping down. Putin acknowledged that Yeltsin's surprise move gave him a substantial advantage in the presidential campaign before a special election tentatively set for March. Yeltsin, he said, was primarily motivated by his desire to continue controlling Russia's destiny after leaving office.
Two deputy commanders of a battalion in the Luhansk People’s Republic were arrested for wreaking havoc “within their territory,” and are accused of abusing peaceful civilians, taking fighters from other units as prisoners, killing their supposed brothers-in-arms who did not condone their lawlessness, or simply to loot their belongings. One fighter miraculously survived after he was shot in the head by commanders, another was shot four times and then buried alive but managed to climb out of his grave.
Marina shows me a message from her former commander via Skype. The girl is in a panic: the commander is threatening to “obliterate” her together with her husband Evgeny and their little boy. Marina is now in Russia, but even though she is away from LNR, she is rightfully afraid. According to her, the battalion commander is a certifiable maniac, and he has many Russian subordinates who can go anywhere in Russia to find her. There is plenty for which he could seek revenge. The fighters who escaped are prepared to tell the whole truth about the armed unit that controlled the entire city in the LNR, murdering and burying anyone who they found undesirable.
Our battalion is called “Bryanka USSR” and it’s located in the city of Bryanka. The battalion has about 400 people. My husband Zhenya (call sign “Arbat”) was the deputy battalion commander for logistics. People came to him for everything. From businessmen to deputies and the mayor; whoever wanted to get anything done in the city came to see him.
I’m just Arbat’s [Zhenya’s] wife,[Zhenya’s]n so easily go in the cellar, what can I say about the commanders.
— How many prisoners are there on the base? — From one to 30 or 50. — What did they do with them? — Most of them are killed, slaughtered, raped like girls, abused, shot, tortured. If someone pays money for them, like their parents or relatives, they’re released unharmed. They just get a beating on the back with a shovel. — Men raped other men? Can this really attract someone? — How can I explain this to you? The battalion accepted anyone, many were mentally unstable. — What sorts of torture? — Well, for example, let’s see what happens if we cut off your penis. — Did they actually cut off penises? — They really sawed people up with a power saw. — All 400 battalion fighters were like this? — There were many normal guys too. But you couldn’t just leave the base. You could only go “through Odesa” as they say, meaning, you wouldn’t come out alive.
P.S. The Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Luhansk People’s Republic confirmed that a special operation is ongoing and a criminal investigation is under way in connection with the armed group “Bryanka USSR.” However the head of investigations declined to comment. Meanwhile URA.Ru has been able to establish independently that two deputy commanders have been arrested – “Krym” and Senya “Vostok.” But the Battalion Commander, Dmitry “Lyuty” Pendyurin remains at large.
Sergey Aleksashenko wants everyone to stop calling Russia weak. He contends that Russia is actually stronger than many people believe to include U.S. President Barack Obama and British military historian Lawrence Freedman among other prominent voices. But Russia is weak and Russian President Vladimir Putin is even weaker. Aleksashenko misunderstands Russian strength because he makes three critical errors. First, he assumes that strength and weakness are static and so fails to look at trends. Second, by focusing on the weakest of Russia’s neighbors, he fails to notice that most Eastern European states are not intimidated by Russia. Finally, he wrongly believes that Russia’s strengths can be effectively used by Putin to maintain his grip on power.
First, strength and weakness are dynamic—that is, they change over time. In spite of Russia’s current displays of military strength in Ukraine, the former superpower is steadily and irreversibly weakening. As Aleksashenko knows—better than most officials in Moscow, in fact—Russia’s current economic crisis cannot be willed into recovery, and the economy is set to break through one false bottom after another.
What is less obvious for many Russia-watchers is that the military strength demonstrated so pompously on the Red Square during the May 9 Victory Day parade is also in decline. In Ukraine, the lack of any meaningful political or strategic Russian goals erodes the morale of the troops who are clandestinely deployed there. Nervous about the domestic political consequences of growing casualties, Putin has classified information about warzone deaths as a state secret. The costs of the war are mounting, and over-spending in the Armaments 2020 priority procurement program is yet another item in the list of embarrassing fiscal setbacks. It is clear to serious Russian economists that military expenditures have been out of control for the last four quarters at least. Such spending cannot be sustained indefinitely, and deep cuts in the defense budget are certain this year.
Second, Alakshashenko’s description of Russian intimidation of its neighbors misses that many of Russia’s neighbors do not find it fearsome. While Georgia sees the need to tread carefully and avoid confrontation (even when signing an association agreement with the EU), Estonia and Latvia have turned their exposure to Russian pressure into a strategic advantage, requesting and receiving substantial support from NATO. Moscow continues its military provocations in the Baltic theater, but it realizes that the military balance there is ultimately not in its favor. In the Arctic, Finland has joined the international Arctic Challenge 2015 exercise, which makes use of the Rovaniemi air base; Finland is apparently unperturbed by the fact that Russia’s newly-formed Arctic brigade is deployed just 30 miles across the border from this city.
It is prudent of NATO to be vigilant along its northern flank, but Russia has little or no capacity for simultaneously waging two “hybrid wars.” Back in 1940, Stalin amassed some 600,000 troops for the swift occupation of three defenseless Baltic states; now, Putin can deploy only about 50,000 troops for the (very probable) upcoming offensive in Donbass.
Finally, even the strengths that Russia genuinely possesses do not necessarily strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s grasp on power. The example of Russian gas exports to Europe is a case in point. As Aleksashenko rightly points out, Russia has leverage in some ways. Russian gas exports to Europe, for instance, are essential for the economies of both, whatever proposals for alternative “green” sources the EU energy strategy entertains. This is a main source of Russia’s economic and political strength. (Though, even here, the opportunities for converting these exports into an instrument of security policy are curtailed by the joint stance of the consumers led by Germany.)
Putin’s dominance over Russian politics used to be based on redistributing the ever-expanding petro-revenues that resulted from this Russian strength among greedy stakeholders, while also ensuring some trickle-down. However, as energy prices fell and the economy tanked, he had to re-invent himself as a war leader. The triumphant Anschluss of Crimea accomplished this trick. But his sky-high popularity is fragile, requiring a massive propaganda campaign as well as new victories. Putin feels empowered by the wave of public support, but he cannot allow his artificially boosted approval ratings to start declining. He is the only decider and the only possessor of all state secrets. But managing a war, even a “hybrid” one, requires a team of able and loyal lieutenants. Putin knows uncomfortable truths about the Kremlin, rife with petty quarrels and ill-begotten fortunes, and knows there are limits to its trustworthiness. His supreme authority is, therefore, far more vulnerable than it appears. He is perfectly aware of the ugly end of quite a few fellow autocrats, who had looked so secure in their palaces, until they were not.
Putin is caught in a classic trap: Russia’s military advantage is fading and certain to decrease further. He needs to exploit that advantage sooner rather later. Putin likely views the pause in the Ukraine conflict as a losing proposition, and the big guns that have resumed cannonade recently in the suburbs of Donetsk very probably spell the end of the Minsk ceasefire. Russia, having boldly skipped the phase of melancholic stagnation (zastoi), is now witnessing a rapid deterioration. Its leaders are in desperate need of a new victory to sustain public support. One thing Sergey Aleksashenko has right is that the West cannot accept the status-quo in war-torn Ukraine, cannot expect the current pause to last—and should work on non-traditional responses to Putin’s aggressive revisionism.
But such responses are more than U.S. State Secretary John Kerry was apparently able to muster during his four-hour meeting with Putin in Sochi last month. The length of that monologue (Kerry hardly had anything to say) is a good measure of Putin’s anxiety. He needs to make a decision on Ukraine before the logic of Russian weakness asserts itself. In the end, Putin is not a natural crisis manager or risk-taker and he can be deterred if the West asserts its strength.