Panic In The Kremlin – OpEd


By Brian Whitmore

(RFE/RL) — You know things are getting really bad when Sergei Lavrov blows his cool.

The Russian foreign minister is usually smooth as silk in public, shamelessly and effortlessly twisting, spinning, distorting, and lying on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

But this week, Lavrov was caught on camera — and on mic — sputtering a string of expletives during a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

It’s unclear what sparked Lavrov’s odd outburst — and it doesn’t really matter. The fact that it happened is a sign of the times.

The past couple weeks have witnessed a series of incidents that suggest that all is not well in the Kremlin elite.

Russian customs and health officials have staged quasi-ritualistic burnings of European cheese and other foodstuffs, as well as of Dutch flowers.

Its parliamentary speaker, Sergei Naryshkin, has penned an article in the official government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta accusing the United States of “zombifying” its European allies and plotting a major provocation against Moscow.

Naryshkin has also called for an international tribunal on the United States’ use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

And Russia has submitted a formal claim to the North Pole at the United Nations.

Did I miss anything? Perhaps. The weird and wacky has been so fast and furious lately that it would be easy to do so.

“There is panic at the top of the Kremlin,” political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky wrote in a recent article in Apostrof. “This is evident in Naryshkin’s article, in the burning of foodstuffs at the border, and in Lavrov’s behavior at the press conference with Saudi officials.”

In recent years, it’s been fashionable and tempting to view Vladimir Putin as the man with a plan, the master of the universe, the spinner of vast conspiracies.

While that may have once been the case, an increasing number of Kremlin watchers are coming to the conclusion that the wheels are coming off the Putin machine.

Moscow-based commentator Igor Yakovenko wrote recently that the system is “running amok.”

And in an op-ed in The New York Times, political analyst Ivan Krastev noted, citing former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky, that Putin has been increasingly disengaged from day-to-day decision making. Krastev added that the policymaking process resembles “the music of a jazz group; its continuing improvisation is an attempt to survive the latest crisis.”

At the heart of the crisis gripping the elite is a paradox: They can’t live with Putin. And they can’t live without him.

Increasing numbers of Russia’s ruling class — or at least its smarter members — understand that the Putin system has reached the end of its usefulness. It’s hit the point of diminishing returns.

Putin has boxed himself into a corner in Ukraine. He has run the economy into the ground. And he has isolated Russia from the world. And there don’t appear to be any more rabbits he can pull out of his hat.

If the status quo continues, Piontkovsky wrote, the elite “understands perfectly well that this will lead to their loss of billions of dollars” and could eventually cause “the fall of the regime.”

And this appears to be paralyzing Putin himself.

The Kremlin leader has been behaving oddly for awhile. Recall his strange — and still unexplained — disappearance from public view back in March following the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; and his peculiar gestures and facial expressions during a press conference in Minsk last summer.

A withdrawn Putin is a big problem because the system has no direction — and tends to go haywire — without his hand guiding it.

“Putin has successfully made any political alternative unthinkable, and his entire country is now trapped by his success,” Krastev wrote.

“In other words, Mr. Putin’s enormous popular support is a weakness, not a strength — and Russia’s leaders know it.”

Which, he added, leads to a sense of eschatology among his inner circle as they worry how they will live with Putin — and if they can live without him.

“The Kremlin is populated not by mere survivors of the post-Soviet transition but by survivalists, people who think in terms of worst-case scenarios, who believe that the next disaster is just around the corner, who thrive on crises, who are addicted to extraordinary situations and no-rules politics,” Krastev wrote.

“That complex and unpredictable context, rather than the vagaries of Mr. Putin’s mind alone, is the key to understanding contemporary Russian politics.”

And this all makes the coming months a dangerous period indeed.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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