By Anders Aslund. Published May 24
Something is seriously wrong in Moscow. The question is not whether Russia is in crisis, but how severe the crisis is and whether it is enough to unsettle President Vladimir Putin. Based on current evidence, I would be surprised if he can rule Russia until the end of this year.
Global media are lost when it comes to reports on what is going on in the Kremlin because there is a lack of both official information and informal contact with Russian decisionmakers. They therefore either report little or nothing. Meanwhile, tabloids such as the New York Post, Daily Mirror and Daily Mail are having a heyday, bringing their readers all the exciting rumors and analysis that the mainstream media should also be able to offer.
Yet, for an old Kremlinologist, the current sources offer a gold mine. The situation reminds me of the old Soviet days when leftwing Western Sovietologists claimed that we must not listen to dissidents and refugees because they were biased but had to stick to official information. Well, that generation of Sovietologists went out of business with the end of the USSR.
Then as now, it’s important to look closer and pay attention to the emerging signals.
The first observation is that the Kremlin must be starting to panic, having suddenly imposed a Stalinist extreme censorship on truth.
The second is that Putin’s war in Ukraine is an outstanding failure for which he is guilty in every regard. His aim – the whole of Ukraine – was far too grand and arrogant, while his resources – only 200,000 soldiers –far too meagre.
Then, he decided to command the war himself, just like Tsar Nicholas II and Adolf Hitler, demonstrating his ignorance of military matters. When things went bad, he centralized his power further, aggravating existing mistakes.
The destruction of the Russian military is evidence of Putin’s rule of authoritarian kleptocracy. Since everyone from the top down has followed his legacy of maximum corruption, the Russian military has been stolen empty by everybody from Putin, to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin to Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov and down the line.
Not only does Putin not understand much to begin with, but he has isolated himself with two nutcases – Yuri Kovalchuk, his corrupt crony from St. Petersburg, and Nikolai Patrushev, his extreme nationalist national security advisor. Few advisers would be worse.
Foolishly, Putin did not understand that the West was serious when it threatened him with severe sanctions if he attacked Ukraine. He carried on regardless and the West followed through with a tidal wave of devastating sanctions on Russia. The soft consensus expects a GDP fall of only 10%. My guess is 20%.
However incompetent the Russian military may be, deep down they understand that Putin embarked on a conquest of madness. A vocal military opposition member reacts by calling for full mobilization, recognizing that 200,000 soldiers was not enough and that 800,000 were needed. Others noted that the war as such was simply unrealistic.
Putin’s aides who previously seemed moderate, such as former President Dmitri Medvedev and former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, have suddenly radicalized and joined the party of war, seeing it as the way to Putin’s heart. Kirienko has successfully replaced Putin’s former Ukraine officials Vladislav Surkov and later Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak (who have disappeared from public eye) in taking responsibility for the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.
Following long periods of public silence, Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Valeriy Gerasimov are still in place but have clearly lost official prominence and presumably Putin approval.
There are many reports of the sacking of top military commanders, while the Ukrainians claim to have killed no less than 12 Russian generals and 40 colonels. The Kremlin has sacked at least two top military commanders: Vice Admiral Igor Osipov as the chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet after the sinking of its flagship the Moskva, along with Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel, commander of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, for failing to capture Kharkiv.
One of the most mysterious and odious parts of this story is that at least eight top Russian businessmen in the Gazprom, Gazprombank and Novatek sphere have committed suicide after first having stabbed their families to death. These look like obvious FSB murders, rumored to be based on Putin’s complaints about FSB leaks to the U.S.
We know that Putin is afraid of meeting his closest collaborators in person, yet is seemingly content meeting air hostesses. This cannot be about Covid-19 but about Putin’s fear of being murdered by his closest associates.
To these many facts, we may add strong rumors. The most prominent are claims that Putin is suffering from blood cancer, is interacting daily with doctors and is about to undergo a major operation. Some publications even cite Parkinson’s and dementia. Meanwhile, even madder Patrushev is supposed to be in command, while legally it should be Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
The excellent investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have reported major divisions between the militant military and the cautious FSB foreign service, whose head, General Colonel Sergei Beseda, is reported to have been arrested.
It would be very surprising if Putin survives the biggest Russian military loss since 1905, dragging the Russian economy back to 1991 and dividing the Russian security forces as never before.
Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and the author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.