Here’s an alarming observation.
According to Nikolay Petrov, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking at the possible failure of his government “within the coming year”.
In a paper with the none-too-subtle title “Putin’s Downfall: The Coming Crisis of the Russian Regime“, Petrov says Putin’s regime “is unsustainable”.
“It has no capacity to reform, and faces growing economic woes, crumbling infrastructure, and warring elites,” Petrov writes.
He points to the notable shift towards military action as the Putin government’s prime means of legitimising its power, something that has only become evident since the Crimea-Ukraine standoff exploded in 2014.
Before that, Petrov says, Putin and his government were looking “fairly stable and could last for several years without profound change”.
With sanctions and energy crises hitting the country’s bottom line and elites, the only ace in Putin’s deck is Russia’s military might, and in the past year, it’s been increasingly flexed, both at home and abroad. Now, the country is actively, almost openly aggressively, bolstering activity in Ukraine, Chechnya, Syria, Kaliningrad, the Scandanavian border, and the Arctic Circle.
Onlookers noted that this week’s Victory Day parade was “one of the most militaristic in years”, even compared to last year’s lavish 70th celebration the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.
Last week, NATO claims its fighter jets were scrambled nine times “to accompany aircraft claimed to be of Russian origin” over Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The planes were flying with their radars switched off or without a declared flight plan.
Putin’s expenditure on modernising Russia’s military, even if it doesn’t come close to the near $400 billion he pledged in December 2014, is still eye-watering, and starting to deliver menacing results. In the space of a little over a year, it’s rolled out new tanks, missiles, electronic warfare systems, submarines, destroyers and fighter planes – even armoured snowmobiles.
Petrov says that shift to overt displays of military might is a shift toward exercising top-down power, as opposed to the bottom-up legitimacy afforded through elections. Russia faces two of those – legislative elections this coming September, and the vote on Putin’s presidency, still some way off but pegged for around March, 2018.
The problem for Putin is Russia doesn’t seem have a long-term vision any more. It’s jumping from solving crisis to solving crisis, and gradually drifting toward military solutions rather than political or strategic solutions. It’s a path Russia has taken a couple of times in history as it battled with modernisation – when Nicholas II started a war with Japan in 1904 and the push into Afghanistan in 1979 – neither of which ended well for Russians.
And the last time a Russian leader attempted widespread political reform, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Putin’s biggest problem right now is the economic crisis. It has hit suddenly, as it has done in Venezuela. The commodities boom of the 2000s is crashing, and fast. Oil prices have been at cyclical lows. Millionaires are fleeing an economy which, due to several years of crippling economic sanctions, has had no room to expand.
And with the money running out, Putin is left with two choices: play nice with the West, which means relax its grip on Crimea and expect economic sanctions to be lifted, or be replaced as president. Neither of which sound like options Putin’s been comfortable to take in the past.
So what does that actually mean for Russia?
Petrov says collapse. Russia, he believes, “is a plane in a tailspin”.
And here’s how it all began.
It’s not particularly complicated
Ukraine has, since the 1970s, been crisscrossed by a growing network of natural gas pipelines which supply Moscow’s most lucrative European markets.
In particular, Gazprom, whose European clients received 42% of their Russian gas imports through Ukraine pipelines.
In the 1990s, Moscow started putting the squeeze on Ukraine, charging Kiev ever-higher gas prices until its debts mounted sufficiently to the point where Moscow thought it could make an offer Kiev couldn’t refuse.
Give us the pipes, and we’ll cancel the debt.
Kiev refused, and Gazprom responded by cutting gas supplies to Kiev during winter. There was a solution – dig alternative lines. But pipelines are expensive to dig.
By that time, Putin had become Russian president. He dismantled the Gazprom board, fired its corrupt chairman and installed current prime minister Dmitri Medvedev as the new chairman. By 2005, the Russian government had seized nearly 40% of Gazprom at a bargain price.
A year later, new legislation gave Gazprom the exclusive right to export natural gas from Russia. And within months, it had turned its gaze on Belarus, north of Ukraine, as a means to bypass Kiev.
Russia announced it would ramp up prices by as much as 400% in Belarus, and again, it came with the ultimatum – give us your pipes, and we’ll cancel the debt.
It settled for a 100% increase to $100 per cubic metre and a 50% ownership of the Belarusian pipeline network. Money started flowing again.
Back in Ukraine, the standoff continued with Gazprom now slugging Ukraine up to three times as much for gas as it did for Belarus and Ukraine’s debts began to soar. In 2009, Putin declared: “The era of cheap energy resources, of cheap gas, is, of course, coming to an end.”
This is how the mess began, Russia’s reliance on energy for cash. And it now appears we might be approaching its end point.
In November 2013, it looked like Ukraine was starting to crumble. President Viktor Yanukovich, offered an opportunity by the EU to integrate with the West, instead agreed to join the Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia customs union. But only after Russia had imposed trade sanctions and threatened other economic consequences if Kiev signed the deal.
A couple of months later, Yanukovich, Putin’s comrade, fled Ukraine after protesters took over security at government buildings in the capital and entered Yanukovich’s multimillion-dollar estate.
Polls were showing more than 50 per cent of the Ukrainian population was more interested in cosying up to the EU than Russia, which was preparing the paperwork for loans to bail out Ukraine’s bad debts.
Putin pounced. In an emergency session, Russian Parliament unanimously approved the use of the country’s military against Ukraine.
The same day, Putin began a public campaign to ensure his people were assured the coming escalation in Ukraine was purely to address “the threat to the lives of Russian citizens”, notably those who lived on the Crimean peninsula, an autonomous parliamentary republic where ethnic Russians made up 60% of the population.
NATO released satellite images of Russia moving 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems, and 140 combat aircraft to the Ukrainian border.
The sanctions came almost immediately. US President Barack Obama issued an executive order which included freezing assets and blocking US businesses from the individuals and entities responsible for “undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine”.
In April 2014, Gazprom again upped the price of gas to Ukraine to nearly $400 per cubic metre.
In May, a Western-leaning government was installed, led by Petro Poroschenko. It showed its hand immediately, launching military strikes against pro-Russian rebels who had seized the airport in Donetsk.
And the world finally turned its full gaze on the conflict in July, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in the rebel stronghold in Donetsk. US intelligence agencies confirmed the aircraft carrying 298 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
The overwhelming evidence pointed to the missile being fired by pro-Russian rebels, but the arguing over who supplied the missiles still rages to this day.
Regardless, it sparked a new round of US and EU sanctions targeting Russia’s energy, arms, and finance sectors – the most extensive since the end of the Cold War.
Asset freezes and visa bans were enacted on 132 individuals and 28 companies in Russia and Ukraine linked to violations of Kiev’s “territorial integrity”.
Preferential economic development loans to Russia by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development were banned, as were loans to five major Russian state-owned banks, including three of its five biggest banks.
And the US prohibited exports to Russia of any civilian items with the potential to be turned in weapons or weapons part, and any energy-related parts.
In particular, there would be no export licenses for “products … destined for deep water oil exploration and production” … or Arctic oil.
Suddenly, the North Pole was on the map. More about that later.
Where has the money gone?
Quite a bit of it overseas. In Spear’s magazine’s latest rankings of countries with the most millionaires, the three biggest losers in the top 100 are Kiev (down 10.2%), St Petersburg (-7.9%) and Moscow (-6.8%). And it’s not just because they’re making less money.
“The biggest changes in this year’s ranking have been caused by political and economic turmoil,” Spear’s says.
“Ukraine and Russia have witnessed contractions as their wealthy residents flock overseas.”
One of the sanction’s early big hits was the collapse of a $US400 million deal involving Kremlin-controlled oil giant Rosneft acquiring Morgan Stanley’s oil business. Rosneft can’t borrow for more than 30 days in either European or US financial markets. At the time, Rosneft had some $US40 billion in debts to start paying back after buying TNK-BP a year earlier.
It’s not the only example, but the best example of how big energy is being strangled. When Russia first entered its current financial crisis in 2014, many analysts predicted that the crisis would follow that witnessed in 2009, when the country’s economy recovered strongly in a V-shaped rebound.
Instead, the recovery hasn’t materialised, and the V is getting painfully drawn out:
A recent note from Morgan Stanley showed signs of a recovery, but said things are going to get worse for Russia’s battered economy before they got better.
Net capital outflow is improving, but still hit nearly $60 billion last year. In 2014, it was $130 billion. Data published by the Central Bank recently showed up to $400 billion net has flooded out of Russia since mid-2010.
And Russia has the reserves to hold out for some time yet. Putin claims it has more than $US300 billion in gold reserves, the trade balance is still positive, and inflation is at 12.7 per cent.
But Putin said it was the sanctions which were “severely harming Russia”. They remain in place until at least the end of June, after the EU extended them, claiming Russia is yet to fully implement the Minsk peace agreement calling for a ceasefire and withdrawal of arms from Ukraine’s eastern region.
There seems to be little chance of sanctions being lifted.
In April, Alexander Hug from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said fighting between Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists in and around Donetsk had actually intensified.
The heavy weapons remain in place. There’s no apparent amnesty deals yet reached for separatists, and prisoner exchange deals have collapsed.
And even if sanctions are lifted, it’s unlikely to fix the problem of the price of oil. When oil producing nations failed to freeze production in April in Qatar, both the ruble and the country’s stock market crashed as a result of a slump in prices.
For several years now, Russia has been looking north to solve energy supply and demand issues which might arise from its troubles in the south.
US foreign policy think tank, the Council of Foreign Relations, notes that the Arctic is of primary strategic significance to the five bordering Arctic Ocean states — the US, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark.
Russia is the only non-NATO member of that group.
It’s estimated that the Arctic holds 22% of the world’s undiscovered petroleum resources.
Russia is already tapping into those resources, and they currently account for 20% of the country’s GDP. 95% of its natural gas reserves are in the Arctic, as are 60% of its oil reserves.
It plans to lobby the UN for an extra 1.2 million square km claim which it says marks the edge of Russia’s continental shelf:
But it’s not counting on it, so here’s the Plan B.
In December, 2014, as Putin was signing off on his $US364 billion military upgrade, Russia was in the midst of constructing 10 Arctic search-and-rescue stations, 16 deepwater ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defence radar stations across its Arctic coast.
Writing in the Moscow Times, NYU professor and global affairs specialist Mark Galeotti noted training for Arctic warfare had begun for one Russian commando detachment. And early last year, the Russian Army’s 200th and 80th brigades, based at Pechenga on the Norwegian border, were converted to specialised “polar” brigades.
At the same time, the Russkaya Mekhanika plant in Rybinsk announced it had won a contract to build 130 armoured snowmobiles, with heated handles and fuel tanks which “self-heal” if shot, capable of hitting a 100km/h top speed. Galeotti says they will “replace the sturdy but dated Vityaz DT-30Ps currently used”.
And: “By 2025, the Arctic waters are to be patrolled by a squadron of next-generation stealthy PAK DA bombers,” Galeotti writes.
There’s a lot at stake. The US has so far discovered 11 oil and gas fields in the Arctic, Canada 6 and Norway 1.
Russia has 43. And the green shaded area below is estimated to contain at least a 50% of “large undiscovered reserves”, according to the CFR:
Then there’s the Northern Sea Route, which has opened for traffic in the past six years due to melting sea ice.
Russia wants the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, to eventually rival the Suez Canal as a passage between Europe and Asia. And it could – the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia takes only 35 days, compared to a 48-day journey between the continents via the Suez Canal.
Even China is interested, signing a free trade agreement with Iceland and sending an icebreaker up for a sniff around.
Russia no doubts hopes to capitalise on global warming by positioning itself to take part in any future trade through the north as the polar icecaps melt. Up to 20,000 ships a year pass through the Suez Canal, netting up to $6 billion annually for the Egyptian government.
A nice little earner. But the push to secure the Arctic’s resources is just one part of that $US364 billion military windfall.
Putin versus the world
Aside from the Northern Command, since December, 2014, we’ve seen from Russia:
- A new doctrine declaring NATO the biggest external threat.
- The development of a monstrous new T-14 Armata super-tank which can resist just about all of NATO’s anti-tank weapons.
- The acquisition of “more than 600 modern aircraft, including fifth-generation fighters, as well as more than 1,000 helicopters and a range of air defence systems”. The Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA is expected to be operational by the end of this year, but Russia has already announced development on a “sixth-generation” Sukhoi is under way.
- Modernising its version of the US B1 bomber, the Tupolev Tu-160M, with updated weapons and avionics systems. It’s capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.
- An upgrade of its intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal with the RS-24 Yars thermonuclear ICBM, capable of reaching the West coast of America.
- Fast-tracked development of “unstoppable” hypersonic missiles by four years for a 2018 roll-out and placement on the refurbished Kirov-class battle cruisers.
- Yes, Kirov-class battle cruisers. The world’s largest and heaviest surface combat ships in the world, developed in the ’70s, are being brought back into service, with advanced weaponry according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
- A rapid expansion of its submarine fleet, which is already engaged in North Atlantic activity at levels “not seen since the Cold War”.
- And an announcement it is “within two years” of rolling out a complete roboticised unit capable of independent military operations.
None of which have caused as much scrambling as the rollout of some extremely high-tech electronic warfare systems in Syria over the past six months: in the air, with the IL-20 surveillance aircraft, and on the ground with the Krasukha-4.
The Krasukha-4, is an advanced electronic warfare system used to jam radar and aircraft. You can see it on the hill at the 6-second mark of this video:
The Krasukha-4 has already acquired almost legendary status, whether real or imagined. It’s powerful enough to disrupt low-Earth orbit satellites, but can also jam airborne early warnings systems and redirect hostile missiles to false targets.
Its ground support is already so well-documented that there are reports US pilots are told to turn back if they come within 20 nautical miles of Russian aircraft in Syria, as they run the risk of collision or being compromised in having their early detection systems jammed by Krasukha-4.
All this while the online war is still raging about the “Khibiny system” on-board Russian Su-24s and whether it did or did not shut down all systems on-board the USS Donald Cook on April 10, 2014, which may or may not have resulted in 27 officers handing in their resignations.
It’s not just the equipment making headlines either. Russia is growing increasingly provocative further away from home.
The most recent example was this hot spot involving, again, two Russian Su-24s and the USS Donald Cook. In April, the warplanes buzzed the Cook with what looked like simulated attack passes:
The jets were operating out of Kaliningrad. Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad Oblast was annexed by the Soviet Union following WWII. Before that, it was known as Königsberg.
It has a population of just under 1 million, and a few odd claims to fame. It churns out a third of all TV sets sold in Russia and holds 90% of the world’s amber deposits. And as Russia’s only Baltic Sea port that remains ice-free during winter, it houses the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet.
Russia has at least 10 short-range Iskander missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, in response, it says, to the development of a US missile defense system in Europe.
It’s clearly a key strategic outpost for Russia as its frosty standoff with NATO escalates which also begs an awkward question for Putin: if Crimea historically belongs to Russia, then surely Kaliningrad belongs to Germany?
But the best testing ground for Russia’s new military by far has been the war on ISIS. In particular, Syria, which has given Putin a huge free kick when it comes to opportunities to press home any advantage and strengthen Russia’s aura.
Russia marched to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s aid under the pretence of fighting ISIS. Yet after several months, it became clear that it almost exclusively targeted forces opposed to Assad which weren’t aligned with ISIS.
An estimated 90% of strikes were aimed anywhere but at ISIS troops and strongholds.
Russia’s only military presence in the Middle East is at its naval base at Tartus and air base at Latakia. Both are in Syria and, according Professor Alan Dupont, writing for the Lowy Institute, both rely on Assad remaining in power if Russia is to maintain that presence.
Prof Dupont also makes the point that Russia’s show of strength – and relentless promotion of its “success” – has done a sterling job of “casting Obama as a weak and indecisive leader”.
Next, Prof Dupont says, don’t be surprised to see Putin offering support to the Haider al-Abadi government in Iraq, where US support is seen as equally “insipid”. Abadi has already accepted an offer from Putin for operational intelligence.
And then there is Turkey.
Slowly but surely, Putin is applying more and more pressure in a feud some might say has been simmering since Russia first captured Crimea off the Ottoman empire in 1783.
It was exacerbated in the First World War when Constantinople sheltered two German warships on the run from the British Navy, which then lead the Ottoman naval squadron into bombing raids in the Russian ports of Novorossiysk, Odessa, and Sevastopol.
In other words, the types of historical grievances which are never forgotten nor forgiven.
As is the shooting down of a Russian jet in November by Turkish F-16s last year. That was sparked, Turkey says, by numerous incursions into Turkish airspace as Russian air forces worked over Syria’s northern border in support of Putin ally al-Assad.
With Syrian support to the south, a warming relationship with Iran to the east and now a military buildup in Armenia to the north, Turkey – a key NATO presence – is being surrounded.
“A similar Russian deployment on the borders of any other NATO member state would produce an outcry of outrage,” Adam Ereli, a former Turkish ambassador to Bahrain, wrote in Forbes magazine recently. “Why are we staying silent in the face of this thinly veiled aggression against Turkey?”
If that’s not a busy enough year or two by warfare standards, modern or otherwise, there’s a potentially 400,000 strong new army to deal with – Putin’s recently announced National Guard.
So what’s Putin scared of?
NATO, for starters, although it’s possible Putin sees the organisation as more of an annoyance than a threat.
A RAND Corp study, as well as testimonies from several prominent US generals, claimed Russian forces could steamroll NATO defences and take over several Baltic capitals in as little as 36 hours.
Russia’s naval upgrades are seen by some as a pointer to aspirations of controlling the Baltic Sea. It’s Air Force updates work to deny the US air superiority, especially in Europe, where it has been pulling out its heavily armoured divisions.
Sitting between Russia and a straight march to the Baltic Sea are NATO nations Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. On either side are Russia’s principle ally Belarus, and Kaliningrad:
The Atlantic Council recently felt the need to release a report which details how NATO could protect the three countries, with recommendations the US maintains its presence in Europe, South Korea provides intelligence, and Sweden and Finland join the organisation.
General Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander just last week gave a good reason why it needs to prevent that happening.
He said an attack would trigger article five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, namely, an act of aggression on one member is an attack on all.
NATO, he believes, needing 28 members to agree on action, would be unable to respond, “the alliance collapses, Putin has destroyed … the organisation perhaps he most fears the most, NATO”.
“America is decoupled from Europe and the world is changed irrevocably.”
NATO responded to the report by asking members states to commit more money toward beefing up defences. Russia responded to that by saying any beefing up would be viewed as provocation, which required a response. No one can deny the Russians play the game better than anyone.
But Putin has enough to worry about in his own backyard.
In June 2015, Putin was the world’s most popular politician. He’s hands-down the most successful politician of the modern era.
The latest opinion polls – admittedly from government-owned agency VTSIOM – show Putin riding high with an 82 per cent approval rating. The figures don’t drop below 75 per cent when it comes to members across all parties claiming they will vote for Putin in 2018.
A lot of that may have to do with Russians remembering the disaster in the ’90s when the country briefly flirted with true democracy. Putin is seen as the tough guy who stopped the rot, cashed in on the commodities boom of the 2000s, established a middle class on solid footing to aspire to, and generally showed there are times when a strong hand in a solitary seat of power is preferable to a litany of freedoms.
Russians often refer to him as “batyushka”, the holy father. They seem largely indifferent to allegations of corruption which have clung to Putin since he took control as acting president on December 31, 1999. On that day, the day Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned, Putin signed his first presidential decree – to protect Yeltsin and his family from corruption charges.
Among his supporters are former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. He’s widely seen as a leader who has improved living standards, and pulled Russia out of a chaotic decline under Yeltsin, and re-established its reputation as a global power.
But the money is running out. Stories of wages and social benefits payments being held back are emerging in some regions, sparking small scale protests.
Russia, according Irina Slav at OilPrice.com, is so desperate it might sell seven state-owned oil assets – and Rosneft is one on the chopping block.
And when money runs out, scrutiny suddenly has a habit of increasing, especially on things like Moscow’s deputy mayor wearing a $1 million watch despite having never worked in business. Things that tend to make the Have Nots wonder “Why not?”
The Russian people have a history of respecting strong leaders, matched only by their tendency to pull them down when their indulgence becomes too obvious.
And it’s times like those when it helps to have a private army watching your back.
Protecting interests at home, or paranoia?
Last week, Putin reshuffled his law enforcement regime.
The Financial Times reported that Putin dismissed eight senior law enforcement officials while promoting 12 others who are viewed as Putin loyalists.
The formation of a National Guard is arguably the strongest sign that Putin is increasingly desperate to secure his power and position. It will report directly to the government.
That means security for Putin and his increasingly large close cohort of loyalists, as he can strengthen his hold over any elites who might be seen as getting out of line.
Putin said its duties would be to handle the fight against terrorism and organised crime, while also taking over the duties of the OMON and SOBR agencies, essentially the Russian version of riot police and SWAT teams.
They have the power to shoot without warning.
Russian expert blogger Mark Galeotti notes several areas of concern with the National Guard development, namely:
- It came out of the blue, “underlining the extent to which policy comes from a small, tight circle around Putin
- There’s no obvious reason for it, “unless you have a serious worry about public unrest”
- They answer only to Putin, and are headed by Putin’s ex-bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, which suggest “this may not only be a force to keep the masses in check, but also the elite”; and
- It upsets the power balance, as “the Federal Security Service (FSB) has a more direct rival in the domestic security stakes”.
As Galeotti asks, what does it say when you need your own personal army?
Most onlookers point to Putin not wanting a repeat of the Maidan riots in Ukraine, which saw pro-Russia Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych toppled.
And the morale-boosting military success in Syria and Crimea may have been something of a double-edged sword for Putin. It’s created a hero out of Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoygu, through which Putin has to work to control the regular army.
Now, he has his own private army. And it can act immediately on Russia’s declaration shortly after annexing Crimea that “incitement of any action undermining Russia’s own territorial integrity” is now a criminal offence.
It’s highly likely we’ll find out more about how readily that will be enforced as Russians edge toward their general election in September, although Putin himself won’t face a presidential election until 2018.
But the words “Praetorian Guard” referring to the Roman imperial bodyguard, and “fall of the Roman Empire” are being used more and more in reporting on Putin’s situation.
Political uncertainty almost always means the players never look far ahead. But if nobody is forming long-term strategies, the collapse of Russia’s political system, Petrov says, is “as inevitable as the collapse of a financial pyramid scheme”.
Putin is Russia, Russia is Putin. He’s hugely popular, but has created a regime where he is the central point of power and surrounded himself with lackeys to sustain it.
That means if Putin crumbles, everything crumbles.
Russia’s archaic party system was created in a time of economic prosperity and lacks flexibility. In times of economic drought, when reform is needed, the system simply won’t sustain any reform which doesn’t lead to widespread reform.
Putin is promising reforms after the September 2016 elections, but the sudden formation of a National Guard doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping Putin really believes he can make good on those promises.
The real problem with short-term thinking, especially when it becomes obvious, is that panic, according to Petrov, sets in to the mindset of Russian officials and barons. The fine art of subtle corruption goes out the window, replaced by outright thievery of assets and unchecked capital spending aimed at bolstering the interests of the powerful elite.
People notice these things.
Elections, legitimate ones, could replace Putin. But there’s no one with the same force of personality to manage the ensuing struggle for power. (Well, maybe one.)
Petrov says it will be “distributed between various companies and regions”.
Holding modern Russia together is expensive. Revenue is an essential part of the Putin machine which pays regional heads enormous dues in return for presidential support at elections. One of the most obvious benefactors is Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic.
From The Economist:
“In the most recent presidential election, Chechnya provided 99.7% of its votes for Mr Putin with a turnout of 99.6%. In return, Mr Kadyrov receives subsidies and freedom to subject his people to his own “informal” taxes and Islamic rules. Moscow pays a dictatorial and corrupt Chechnya a vast due in return for Mr Kadyrov pretending to be part of Russia and pledging loyalty to Mr Putin.”
In August last year, The Economist reported that if Putin goes, Chechnya could be the first of several regions to break away from Russia and form independent states.
The Urals, Tatarsan and Siberia all have nothing to gain from remaining beholden to an ailing Moscow. And the breakup, according to The Economist, means a “nuclear nightmare looms”.
Even in the face of “nuclear nightmare”, the other option is, to put it mildly, undesirable. Fortunately, it’s unlikely, so we’ve included it as a footnote.
What Russia – and the world watching Russia – is left hoping for is a reconciliation with the West in the hope of sanctions being eased is extremely unlikely, because it will hurt Putin’s popularity at home.
No one would bet on a spectacular recovery in oil prices.
So we’re left with two outcomes. Either Putin relinquishes his leadership, or, well, he doesn’t.
One outcome is likely to end badly for Russia. The other would, most likely, end badly for Russia.
No wonder the millionaires are fleeing.
Let’s say Russia manages to neatly untangle itself from Putin without any alarming escalation of conflict.
If a power vacuum forms, who steps into the breach?
Ramzan Kadyrov is a Sunni Muslim and former rebel who fought against the Russians in the First Chechen War and was the driver and bodyguard for his father and Chenya’s separatist mufti, Akhmad Kadyrov.
As prime minister in 2006, Kadyrov implemented elements of Sharia law, forced women to wear headscarves, dismantled federal forces, closed all refugee camps, then began building himself a $US54 million presidential palace.
A year later, Putin wrested power from Chechen president Alu Alkhanov and handed it to Kadyrov, who had just turned 30, the youngest age allowable for the position.
It was a reward for the loyalty Kadyrov’s father had shown Putin in 1999 in helping the new Russian PM bring Chechnya brutally to heel, a victory which in turn ensured Putin would win the Russian presidency a year later.
Kadyrov immediately installed his cousin as prime minister.
Some 80% of Chechnya’s budget is federally subsidised. More than $1 billion annually in public funds is snapped up by the Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation, which reportedly has never published any financial reports. And most of the infrastructure projects are serviced by a building company run by the Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation.
So you can safely assume Ramzan Kadyrov is a very wealthy man, despite declaring an annual income of 4.84 million roubles in 2015 ($100,000).
His extensive collection of Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Porsches and Audis is worth several million dollars. Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank came to his 35th birthday party.
Here’s a not uncommon sight of Kadyrov’s 50-something strong convoy getting right of way:
There’s no doubt Kadyrov has spent billions refurbishing Grozny after the devastation of two wars with Russia. Visiting Western journalists – and international observers – often claim the city is now gleaming and “unrecognisable”.
The problem is, Kadyrov’s opponents and critics have a habit of being killed when they leave the country, and there are allegations of a 300-name “Murder List” linked to Kadyrov. After the assassination of his father in 2004, Kadyrov quite openly pledged revenge:
“And those, who stay behind him, I will be killing them, to the very last of them, until I am myself killed or jailed. I will be killing [them] for as long as I live.”
It was one of Kadyrov’s high-ranking officials, Zaur Dadayev, who confessed (then later retracted) to killing Putin opponent Boris Nemtsov last year.
He’s accused of a litany of human rights abuses, including torture, forced disappearances, war crimes, operating illegal prisons. He once admitted he approved of honour killings, believes women are the property of their husbands, and supports polygamy.
According to a profile last year in The Guardian:
“He is vulgar, venal, vicious, venerated and very rich: somewhere between Uday Hussein and the Notorious B.I.G.”
His Instagram account is full of photos of him cuddling tigers, flashing his gold pistol and wrestling crocodiles. And he’s even released a trailer for an action movie directed by “author of famous Hollywood movies”, starring himself:
Oh, and that one video with the crosshairs overlaid on Russian opposition leader and vocal Putin critic Mikhail Kasyanov:
In 2009, even Australian Greens leader Bob Brown risked Kadyrov’s ire, when Kadyrov’s horse, Mourilyan, came third in the Melbourne Cup. Brown demanded the $420,000 prizemoney be quarantined until the Australian Government was sure it “won’t be used to fund Kadyrov’s dictatorship”.
He is simply, as The Guardian reported, employed by Putin to stop Chechens from killing Russians. But there is now fears Kadyrov is “a guard dog that has slipped his chain”. Liberal politician Ilya Yashin told The Guardian:
“Any attempt to remove him from his job, or to prosecute him, could provoke a new Chechen war. Putin is undoubtedly scared of such a development, which is why he can’t solve the Kadyrov problem.”
Before he was murdered, Nemtsov himself questioned what would happen when Putin decided Kadyrov’s loyalty became too expensive:
“Where will Mr Kadyrov’s 20,000 men go? What will they demand? How will they act? When will they come to Moscow?”
But while giving Kadryov the money and free rein to build his own Islamic state might be becoming too costly for Putin, it may be a case of keeping your enemies closer.
In the days following Nemstov’s murder, Putin disappeared. He popped up six days later, downgraded the murder from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime”, and watched over Kadyrov’s reception of three state awards.
That, according to Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, put a huge strain on Putin’s relationship with the FSB, whose enmity with Kadyrov goes back to shortly after Kadyrov was named Chechnya’s leader.
The local FSB refused to allow a group of Kadyrov’s armed men into their headquarters. Kadyrov responded by having all the building’s entrances and exits welded shut and has clashed with the agency on numerous fronts ever since. And the FSB had a deep reserve of hate for Kadyrov to start with anyway, because dealing with Kadyrov means dealing with factions historically linked to destabilising Russian interests, which simply goes against the grain of what the FSB stands for.
Kadyrov was supposed to step down as president on April 5, but, with Putin’s backing, has stayed on as interim president until the September elections.
The nomination came with a thinly veiled warning though, with Putin making the point:
“There needs to be more attention paid to the federal power structures. You, and future leaders of your republic should of course do everything to ensure that Russian laws are obeyed in all spheres of life.
“I want to emphasise this: in all spheres of life.”
The FSB wants to take Kadyrov down. Kadyrov is widely known to covet a high post in Moscow. And he wants his cousin, Adam Delimkhanov, to replace him in Chechnya.
Putin’s refusal to castigate Kadyrov together with the insertion of a security force – the National Guard – between himself and the FSB could be seen as yet another marker for what onlookers are starting to call “the dawn of late Putinism”.
It could also be seen as Putin paving the road to the Kremlin for the man some onlookers consider Putin’s protege.
At the very least, it would ensure Putin a very comfortable retirement.
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