by Gordon M. Hahn
In recent months a series of articles often claiming certain knowledge asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be overthrown in a Kremlin palace coup within days, weeks, or in the otherwise short-term. Now I am the last one to be immune to coup-predicting. In fact in my graduate student years I predicted in fall 1990 that there would soon be a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev led by the CPSU party apparatus and the siloviki and pinpointed figures like Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pugo, — all members of the infamous GKChP — as well as Oleg Shenin, the CPSU CC Secretary for party organization, who was spending an inordinate amount of time on party organization in the KGB, MVD, and military and led the party’s efforts to back the coup.
But unlike such factually-based predictions relying on verifiable facts and statements, the spate of very dubious articles, putting it mildly, have lacked all basis in actual facts and had several curious things in common. First, all of them gave the impression that the writers were privy to inside information. Second, all of them described plots with similar characteristics. Third, all of them were written by writers with long records of producing biased and inaccurate articles on Putin and Russia. Fourth, they all included comparisons or references to Stalin when explaining one or another aspect of Putin and/or today’s Russia. Fifth, all of them were published approximately at the same time as one or more of the others were published. Sixth, and finally, all of them proved dead wrong.
For example, in March 2015 during Putin’s ten-day disappearance from public, former Russian presidential economic advisor and a favorite now of DC think tanks (the Cato Institute and Heartland Institute), Andrei Illarionov, predicted that Russia was days away from a coup that would overthrow Putin and begin a new Great Terror. The article, originally in Russian, was extremely detailed in terms of who would lead the plot and succeed Putin – his long-time associate and Presidential Administration Chief Sergei Ivanov – among other details:
Perhaps future historians will call these events the “conspiracy of generals.” Indeed, on the one hand there is a lieutenant colonel. And on the other there are full-fledged generals: two Colonel Generals and three Generals of the Army.
After almost two weeks of fierce struggle under the carpet the picture of the battlefield, which opened to the public yesterday evening, leaves almost no doubt about the outcome. The party of “blood and loot” (in the terminology of [former Hudson Institute analyst] Andrei Piontkovskii [meaning the Kremlin’s political party ‘United Russia’]) suffered heavy losses and is retreating on all fronts under the onslaught of the party “big blood” [meaning those who would like to carry out another Great Terror or mass repressions].
Missing since February 27th, [First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration and former FSB Director] Sergei Ivanov appeared in the public space, having secured an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church or at least having secured its neutrality. …
Unlike the “appearing” Sergei Ivanov, Putin has “disappeared.” The cancellation of his visit to Kazakhstan and the information about his “illness” actively being thrown into the public information space makes one think about where he is located and in what condition he is physically.
If the proposed analysis is correct, then in the coming days the resignation of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and the appointment in his place of Sergei Ivanov can be expected. The State Duma led by Sergei Naryshkin will ensure the proper vote by its members.
After that, the public is likely to be informed about the fact that a national leader (Putin) is in need of a rest. (Andrei Illarionov, “Zagovor generalov,” 12 March 2015, (http://glavpost.com/post/12mar2015/blogs/19293-andrey-illarionov-zagovor-generalov.html).
Illarionov produced no sources for most of his claims. Therefore, it is not surprising that none of what he claimed over six months ago was imminent “in the coming days” has come to pass. Again, this was likely either delusional wishful thinking on Illarionov’s part in a stratcomm operation to sew discord within the regime. No matter; he will continue to be feted by the DC think tanks.
One month prior to Illarionov’s masterpiece two other articles predicted Putin would begin a Great terror shortly; one by mainstream rusologist and professor Karen Dawisha (Karen Dawisha, “Nemtsov Killing: A Chilling Historical Parallel?,” CNN, 28 February 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/02/28/opinion/dawisha-nemtsov-killing/index.html) and another by the erstwhile Whitmore of RFERL (Brian Whitmore, “Putin’s ‘Hybrid’ Great Terror,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 28 February 2014, www.rferl.org/content/nemtsov-analysis/26874842.html)…….still no Great Terror.
Six months after his March article, in August, Illarionov was at it again on his blog with an article discussing the possibility of regime change as a result of Russia’s economic crisis posted on the website of the state-funded radio station Ekho Moskvy or Echo of Moscow (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/aillar/1618316-echo/). That’s right – a Russian state-funded (though GazProm holding’s GazProm Media) media outlet posted a virulent oppositionist’s article and not for the first time. This occurs multiple times daily on Echo (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/aillar/1618316-echo/).
Writing in early August, Andrei Piontovskii, another favorite of the DC think tank circuit (Hudson Institute), wrote that the Russian elite had already “found a replacement for Putin”, who be removed “in the next few weeks” (Andrei Piontovskii, “V Rossii nashli zamenu Putinu, vsyo reshitsya v blizhayushie nedeli,” Apostrof.com, 13 August 2015, http://apostrophe.com.ua/article/world/ex-ussr/2015-08-13/v-rossii-nashli-zamenu-putinu-vse-reshitsya-v-blijayshie-nedeli/2095). It is now late September, and there has not been a single sign of instability in the interim. Similar to Illarionov’s article in March, Russia’s ruling elite had decided to remove power, according to Piontovskii, because “Kremlin plans” A and B in Ukraine had fallen through. Putin had failed to implement both a supposed Plan A (which actually never existed) which aimed at the “annexation of 12 provinces (in Ukraine) up to the border of Transdniestr (Moldova’s breakaway republic bordering Ukraine)” and Plan B under which Russia would annex or ensure continued instability in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (Lugansk). Plan B also never existed, except perhaps as a necessity in the event Ukrainian war crimes under its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against the Donbass continued. Like other anti-Putin plot oracles, Piontovkskii saw Sergei Ivanov as the plot leader and Putin’s successor.
In August, another favorite of the US think tank circuit, Paul Gregory (a stalwart at the Hoover Institution, about which I will be writing in my forthcoming book on the massive intellectual corruption in American rusology), claimed “Kremlinologists sense a putsch is in the air” (Paul Gregory, “Is A Slow Putsch Against Putin Under Way?,” Forbes, 20 August 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2015/08/20/is-a-slow-putsch-against-putin-under-way/). The absence of any data standing behind this assertion was tipped off in the title’s claim that Kremlinogists ‘sense’ a coup ‘is in the air.’ But this is to be expected from someone who deliberately falsifies data. In March 2014 he claimed that the fact that a Russian presidential envoy, former Russian ambassador to the US Vladimir Lukin, telephoned the head of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), retired Russian intel operative Igor Girkin (Strelkov) as evidence of deep ties between Putin and Girkin and that Putin had sent Girkin to the Donbass to lead the DNR’s resistance to Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist’ operation. Never mind that the phone call was announced by the Russians themselves in the person of Lukin and that it was part of making security arrangements for Lukin’s official mission to, and arrival in Donetsk and for his negotiations with Girkin on the release of several OSCE monitors captured by the rebels and released as a result of Lukin’s talks and Putin’s intervention.
In this most recent piece the writer’s distortions are no less robust. Gregory writes about “tea leaves say.” The tea leaves say that “that the Kremlin elite, dubbed by some as Politburo 2.0, is currently deciding whether Putin should go.” What follows is a very one-sided slant on Putin’s policy failures which should be giving the ‘Politburo 2.0’ great pause about Putin’s continuation in power. Oddly, Gregory contradicts himself a few sentences down the line when he notes that only the bureaucracy is a winner as a result of Putin’s policies which are said to be failing the people.
Near the end of the piece Gregory gets to the ‘tea leaves’ supposedly demonstrating that the beginning of the “eventual end” of Putin’s regime, which would come in the form of “an assault on Putin’s closest associates, appears underway.” Of course, everything ends eventually, and none of Gregory’s ‘tea leaves’ indicate any elite disenchantment with Putin. The first is opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi’s expose` of a yacht belonging to Dmitrii Peskov, Putin’s presidential spokesman. As an opposition leader, Navalnyi is by definition not part of the Putin’s inner circle or ‘Politburo 2.0.’ The few media organs cited by Gregory that covered Navalnyi’s publication are not newcomers to covering elite privilege and other of the regime’s many shortcomings. Indeed, their coverage of Navalnyi’s oppositional activity is nothing new for Russian media in general. It is just that writers like Gregory are so unfamiliar with the Russian media – thinking that in ‘fascist’ ‘Putin’s Russia’ all media are subject to broad censorship – that when his research assistants bring him Russian news reports unfavorable to Putin or members of his inner circle, he is sure he has stumbled on the beginnings of a coup plot and not the considerable number of media outlets allowed to operate independently.
The second tea leaf portending Putin’s demise is the recent resignation of Putin insider Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russia’s railroad monopoly and his appointment as a senator for Kaliningrad province. The most Gregory can muster about this event is that “something” very serious occurred, “(a)ccording to a source for Forbes Russia.” Careful to avoid mentioning that one step Putin has taken to at least limit corruption and force officials to steal more modestly – ‘po chinu’ (according to rank) – by making them disclose their assets and sources of their wealth, Gregory notes “Russian press reports emphasize that Yakunin has refused to disclose the sources of his income because such matters are not discussed in polite company. Anti-corruption blogger Navalniy has filled in the blanks with a 14 page inventory of Yakunin’s properties, including his castle.” Could it be that Yakunin was demoted because he flouted Putin’s law and simultaneously got caught in possession of inordinate holdings? And what does Putin’s ability to fire a high-powered official say about Putin’s allegedly impending demise? Does it demonstrate weakness, as Gregory seems to be saying, or strength? Moreover, Yakunin’s firing does not reflect the kind of regime split that will be crucial in any demise of Putin and/or his regime. Regime splits involve insider officials abandoning the regime, not the leader of the regime firing them.
Third is a “hit job” against longtime Putin friend and oligarch Gennadii Timchenko “by the semiofficial newspaper Vedemosti” (sic – Vedomosti is the correct spelling).” Again, Gregory has his media organs all mixed up. There is nothing ‘semiofficial’ about the newspaper Vedomosti. In fact, it is foreign, largely Anglo-American project founded jointly by the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and the Dutch media company Sanoma Independent Media. Neither the WSJ nor FT can be considered anything but antagonistic – vehemently and somewhat less so, respectively – to Putin. Russian opposition figure Gary Kasparov sits on WSJ’s editorial board. Thus, in Gregory’s ill-informed account, an anti-Putin, foreign-owned newspaper founded by anti-Putin, foreign-owned newspapers, is a semi-official Kremlin outlet “in the mainstream Russian press”: “The oil trading colossus Gunvor, half owned by Timchenko before the sanctions were imposed, plays a recurring role in the narrative. Notably, Putin’s clandestine ownership of Gunvor is purported to be the main source of his billions of dollars of wealth. Open discussions of Timchenko and Gunvor have previously been out of bounds in the mainstream Russian press.” Given the tendency of Gregory and his like to characterize the state of media freedom in Russia as non-existent, one would expect that he would check to see if the universe had indeed been turned inside out and any Russian media, no less a ‘semi-official’ Russian media outlet was criticizing a close Putin associate like Timchenko. But why check, if the facts might get in the way of the argument.
The fourth and final ‘tea leaf’ again is another hit piece on a Putin associate, Putin’s former personal body guard and head of internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Victor Zolotov. This one is published by yet another allegedly semi-official Russian publication; this time the website Kompromat.ru, with supposedly “strong ties to the security services.” In fact, there is no evidence that Kompromat.ru has any connection to the security services. It is in fact a mysterious, albeit, compilation of compromising materials published in the Russian media and elsewhere regarding corruption and the like among those in and around the Russian (and other) post-Soviet power elite. It also includes a discussion forum that allows visitors to post articles and comments. Kompromat.ru includes hundreds of publications of compromising materials on all of Putin’s associates and on one Vladimir Putin himself. On the page biographical page for Putin we read about numerous corruption schemes allegedly involving Putin and his close associates going as far back as the 1990s when Putin was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. (www.compromat.ru/page_10373.htm).
On the basis of his non-evidence and misunderstanding about Russian politics and media, the author concludes: “At a minimum, some kind of power struggle is going on that seems to have Putin as its target. The pattern of attack is classic: bring down the big guy’s supporters first.”
Gregory then deploys (who else?) the abovementoned Piontovskii to argue against the view that after Putin’s imminent demise little or nothing will change anyway: “Russian commentator Andrei Piontovsky begs to differ. He makes the claim that members of the Russian elite have been sending signals to the West that ‘everything will be resolved in the coming weeks.’”
Days later another member of this circle of rusologists, former RFERL commentator Paul Goble, brought up the possibility of the removal of Putin by way of palace coup, claiming “Russia still is talking about the possibility of coups.” As I have shown almost all the talk of a coup was coming from Western or Western-based Russian commentators. Although Goble addressed the issue in a more general way and refrained from claims of an imminent plot, he performed the key stratcomm function of keeping the ball of ‘coup plots’ rolling (Paul Goble, “24 Years on Russia Has Not Moved Beyond Putsch as Chief Means of Leadership Change,” Window on Eurasia, 24 August 2015, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/24-years-on-russia-has-not-moved-beyond.html).
In August – a month ever since 1991 when Russians expect momentous events – that changed. Both Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/pressa_echo/1605192-echo/?utm_source=infox.sg) and opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov (www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/putin-must-change-direction-or-face-a-coup/512204.html) raised the issue of a possible coup in different ways but not in short-term perspective.
Now it is true that Putin’s soft, albeit, authoritarian regime is vulnerable to a regime transformation at least in the long-term. But this will require a major regime split, regardless of whether we are talking about a transitional or revolutionary mode of regime transformation – a subject I have discussed in two of my books and in several scholarly and analytical articles. But the process of the development of a regime split usually takes a few years after economic or other difficulties, and there are no signs of such a split beginning at present. Indeed a recent Levada Center opinion survey found that some slight disenchantment – not anger – has only just begun to set in among the public. It found that 12 percent of respondents believe Putin’s strong point is improved living standards, but six years earlier, in 2009, that figure was 22 percent. A similar pattern is evident in opinion about Putin’s progress in fighting corruption. Only 14 percent see his efforts as successful, while 29 percent do not see them that way.
Moreover, the regime split, whether it ends up producing a revolutionary or transitional regime change (or no regime change at all) is a process very different one from the coup scenarios discussed in the pieces detailed above, which have a very different purpose from scholarly or analytical analysis.
So what stands behind these rather poor and seemingly manufactured articles developed from whole clothe but backed by major think tanks and media in the West. Clearly an intense hatred of Putin and sometimes of Russia itself is often at work. I have demonstrated the deliberate distortion and/or deep ignorance of the facts about Russian politics present in their writings.
However, it cannot be excluded that strategic communication operations originating in Western intelligence circles are also at play in many cases. For example, one purpose may be to paint Putin and Russia in the most terrible light for consumption by Western publics. This is most obvious. Another might be to sew suspicions between factions within the Kremlin itself. For example, many of these articles were translated into Russian or originally written in Russian and translated into English or originally intended for both languages. Thus, Gregory’s article was translated into Russian on numerous sites, most notably Inosmi.ru (http://inosmi.ru/world/20150823/229806099.html). Ultimately, it is hard to believe that ‘fellows’ feted at major American think tanks — as all of the above authors are or have been — can be so ignorant of the such basic facts such as whether or not Vedomosti is a semi-official publication or not. If they are not, then they are distorting the facts. If they are, do they do so because they are driven by animosity towards Putin and/or Russia or believe the higher goal of removing Putin from power exceeds that of accurate analysis and the truth? But inaccurate analysis yields bad policy, and that does not serve the nation. If it is stratcomm, then perhaps the poisoning of the discourse and policymaking environment is considered the price to pay for victory over Putin.
Regardless, of the causes and intentions, the factual results for our national discourse are troubling. It needs to be remembered that these ‘analysts’ affect the opinion of the general public, other opinion makers, business leaders, and policymakers. As the referencing by the authors of some of the others reviewed above makes clear, these networks of articles create an echo chamber in which the same message is delivered; a message resting on a non-existent or distorted ‘data’ base. Things have devolved so far that articles no longer are based on facts and close, rigorous interpretation. This analytical approach is replaced by reference to other articles with no basing in actual fact or logical, verifiable analysis. The echo chamber echoes itself in exponentially expanding degrees of separation from reality. This explains much of what is going wrong in Washington in general and with the United States’ Russia policy in particular.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.