December 9, 2016
With the recent arrest of the Russian economy minister Aleksey Ulyukaev by the FSB, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, the president Vladimir Putin’s purge of the liberal faction within the Kremlin nomenklatura is now in the full public view. This faction is headed by the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev who succeeded Putin as the president from 2008 to 2012. It now appears that Medvedev is in danger of losing his position and perhaps, just like Ulyukaev, his freedom as well. In fact, the last month’s sudden cancellation of Medvedev’s trip to Serbia, which at this time is the only (and hence very significant) official Russian ally in East-Central Europe, demonstrates that his authority is already seriously eroded.
Therefore, there are two questions that require a thorough investigation. First, why would Putin conduct the purge at this time (or at all)? And, secondly, if the purge of Medvedev does indeed take place, who will be his replacement?
The Russian Liberals’ Fault
We first need to define what it means to be a liberal in the Russian government today. The designation does not refer to political positions (like in the U.S.) as much as it highlights the approach to the economy. Liberals in Russia are those who believe that the role of the state should be minimized and that private, corporate ownership is the best way to run the economy. They are also advocates of Russia’s full-fledged participation in the international economic system dominated by the so-called Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. Obviously, this means a commitment to the so-called free trade and opposition to any policy of tariffs and import substitution.
The liberals were politically dominant in Russia during Boris Yeltsin’s two-term presidency in the 1990s. Those who brought Putin to power in the late 1990s (the intelligence and military networks) made an uneasy compromise with the liberals, which lasted throughout Putin’s first two presidential terms (2000-2008). The liberals even seemed in ascendance after Medvedev replaced Putin at the helm.
However, soon afterwards, in August 2008, a surprise military attack by the Georgian troops, heavily assisted by NATO and the U.S., on the rebellious enclave of South Ossetia defended by the Russian “peace-keepers” took place. Consequently, the Russian military directly intervened and the Georgians were pushed back. That was the first time since the end of the Cold War that the Russian military crossed the borders of Russia. This created a pattern that will later be repeated in Ukraine, Syria, and no doubt in other places in the future. The genie was out of the bottle.
This was the beginning of the end for the Russian liberals who counted on honest and friendly relations with the West and believed in the existence of a fair playing field for Russia in the global economy. It became clear that the West would allow nothing of the sort. No wonder then that Putin, who initially was ambivalent about running again, returned as the president in 2012.
In the late 2013, the conflict in Ukraine flared up. The U.S.-engineered coup in Kiev, the annexation of Crimea (or the re-unification, as the Russians call it), the rebellion in Donbass, the U.S. and the EU economic sanctions, all followed in quick succession. There was now no going back. The liberal road proved to be a blind alley.
The parliamentary elections in September 2016 put the last nail in the liberals’ coffin. Though Medvedev is a nominal leader of the ruling United Russia party which won two-thirds of the seats, it is clear to all that the real leader is Putin. This is why it will come as no surprise when we soon read in the Russian press that Medvedev no longer heads the party.
Putin is now embarked on a different, non-liberal economic road for Russia. He plans to orient Russia toward building up regional economic and political alliances with its neighbors in East and Central Asia. The Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (in which China is a member), the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the BRICS grouping, will all be strengthened at the expense of the Bretton Woods institutions mentioned earlier and supported by the liberals. This is why liberals will increasingly be pushed out, with some of the most prominent ones arrested in order to send the waves of fear through their ranks.
The ordinary Russian people have no pity for the liberals because they know well the extent to which liberal politicians and their business cronies got rich abusing governmental power for private gain. The recently arrested Ulyukaev is the case in point. Most liberal politicians can easily move to the West – their apartments, yachts, and bank accounts are waiting for them. This is why the majority of the population will support Putin’s purge, even though the purge will be far from democratic and may at times turn violent.
The New KGB Aristocracy
Putin will replace the purged liberals by his trusted allies from the intelligence and military structures. One of them Sergey Naryshkin, the former president of the Russian Parliament, has been appointed to the position of the chief of the Russian external intelligence agency (SVR) immediately after the elections results were in. I have discussed Naryshkin’s appointment in detail in an earlier article, but what is important to keep in mind here is that by appointing a long-time friend and fellow intelligence operative, Putin has cut off any possibility of the liberal insiders at the top leaking national security information to the West. In other words, Putin has built up another layer of protection around the future Russian military and intelligence agenda. In my opinion, he demonstrated that he had no trust left in the West and that he was getting the country ready for a possible military confrontation.
It is precisely this trend that I see continuing, regardless of the fact that, unexpectedly for many, Donald Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, was elected to be the next. U.S. president. In fact, those in the pro-Clinton defeated faction of the U.S. establishment, including the CIA and the Pentagon, who have built their careers and made their fortunes on the gospel of Russophobia, may precipitate a serious incident in Europe and blame it on the Russians, thus presenting Trump with a fait accompli when he gets inaugurated. The Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius, who calls Russia “not a super-power, but a super-problem,” has already started the tour of NATO member states claiming to his interlocutors that Russia might use the U.S. presidential transition period to “test” Europe. This statement has to be taken seriously because NATO has a long history of blaming the consequences of its own subversive activities on its opponents. One needs only to think of the Operation Gladio.
This is why I think that, parallel with his efforts to develop a detente relations with the U.S. under Trump, Putin will bring in more personal loyalists into the highest offices of the Russian government. Considering the power of the U.S./NATO lobby working against it, the chances of an authentic detente (unfortunately) do not look very good and Putin knows that he must not make a misstep. He may not have another chance.
In this kind of game with very high stakes, Medvedev, who was already criticized by Putin over his lukewarm reaction prior and during NATO intervention in Libya, is simply not reliable enough. In my opinion, this is why Putin will replace him with Nikolai Patrushev, the current secretary of the Russian National Security Council and essentially Putin’s national security advisor.
Patrushev is one of the top members of the so-called KGB aristocracy of whose mission to lead Russia he himself spoke in an interview more than 15 years ago at the time when Russia was in the midst of the Chechnya crisis that dangerously threatened its very foundations. Such an early mention of this powerful group, which later came to yield tremendous power in the Russian political life, shows that Patrushev was one of its main driving forces.
Nikolai Patrushev’s Political Profile
Over the years, Nikolai Patrushev has been even closer to Putin than Naryshkin. They are almost the same age and their friendship goes back to the 1970s KGB days in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In the late 1990s, Patrushev’s rise closely followed Putin’s. It is very significant that it was Patrushev who succeeded Putin as the head of the FSB and held this position for nine years (1999-2008), which is longer than anybody since the Communist Yuri Andropov who was the KGB head from 1967 until 1982 and then became the leader of the Soviet Union (that is, the general secretary of the central committee of the Soviet Communist party).
This analogy may not be accidental. After all, in 2006, there was some speculation that Patrushev would succeed Putin. However, the position went to Medvedev, a member of the liberal camp and not a KGB aristocrat. I believe that now the political tide has turned.
In his interviews with various Russian newspapers, Patrushev, who has a doctorate in law, reveals himself as a serious scholar of the post-WWII global politics. He is a strong critic of the U.S. foreign policy claiming that the U.S. involvement in the world is bent on regime change and state fragmentation. He blames the U.S. for the break-up of Yugoslavia, the numerous so-called color revolutions, the putsch in Ukraine, and the carnage in the Middle East. In fact, he asserts that the wars of the Yugoslav succession were nothing else but the testing ground for the ongoing efforts to break up the former Soviet Republics, including Russia itself. In all of this, he discerns a malicious Western anti-Russian prejudice that is grounded in the historical push for the control of the Eastern territories and resources. This puts Patrushev firmly in the tradition of the Russian Eurasianists. As a result, if chosen by Putin to be the next prime minister, he can be expected to formulate and oversee a very hawkish foreign and national security policy.
I think the odds of Putin making this decision sometime soon are high. In the difficult weeks and months ahead, he needs to stabilize the Kremlin and get it ready for likely provocations both inside the country and on its borders. Patrushev has proven that he can accomplish any tasks entrusted to him with flying colors while, at the same time, being absolutely loyal to Putin. Even though outwardly Putin will no doubt give both Trump and peace a chance, in the inner corridors of the Kremlin, Lubyanka, and Yasenevo, preparations for a defensive war will continue unabated. Putin will allow no repetition of either 1941 or 1991. And neither will Patrushev.
Originally published by Newsbud on November 21, 2016.Kovacevic on Geopolitics