Russia This Week: What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?

April 5, 2015
Gennady Zyuganov at the Mercury Club on April 4, 2015

In Russia This Week, you will find links to the stories of Russia Update in the last week and to special features, plus an article following up on the news and trending topics below.

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All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
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About three weeks ago during a period when President Vladimir Putin was missing, we asked if there was a slow-moving coup under way.

There were a lot of strange things going on — the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, for which the Kremlin was held responsible seemed to be a sign of either a split in the government, or itself had caused a rift or imbalance in the coalition of hardliners and less-hardliners in the Kremlin. Putin disappeared from the public eye from March 4 through March 15.

Then Putin re-apppeared in St. Petersburg to meet with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atanbayev, looking somewhat drawn. He had little to say, and did not explain his absence.

Since then, he has kept up his usual busy schedule, going to the Eurasia Economic Union summit with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan in Astana — although Atanbayev did not come and evidently Kyrgyzstan’s membership is still being negotiated. He has had a full schedule of meeting with Kremlin officials and federal ministers as well as the governors of regions.

While he was missing, there was speculation that hardliners might be pushing Putin aside, even in a coup, or would re-arrange the “correlation of forces” to use the term of Soviet doctrine so that more hardline policies would prevail across a number of fronts — or conversely, some of the hardline policies he had presided over, such as the war in Ukraine, would be adjusted or softened.

At that time, it was noted that former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov had spoken out publicly and virtually given an ultimatum, that reforms had to be made and the economic crisis overcome, and that while Crimea could be kept, the Donbass should not be annexed to Russia. Russia had enough problems, and couldn’t pay for it, or isolate itself further from the world.

There was speculation that in the internal Kremlin struggles for power, Putin was relying on Ramzan Kadyrov and would draw in the Interior Ministry chiefs in Moscow, notably his close associate commander-in-chief of the Interior Troops Viktor Zolotov. Zolotov also went missing during this period, with rumors even circulating by Kremlin bots on Twitter that he was dead — although he was to resurface a week after Putin did.

Other speculation included theories that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who also supposedly allied with Putin as distinct from other siloviki or law-enforcers and intelligence directors, was sidelined.

The theory was that Sergei Ivanov and various other siloviki, symbolized most by Igor Sechin, head of Rosnoft, formed a faction or bloc that was countering Putin and raising their own stature if not moving towards an outright “generals’ coup” or palace coup.

So where does all this stand now, three weeks later? We’ll go through the data points from the news stories during this period and first compare them to the predictions or concerns expressed by the two bloggers, Pavlo Praviy and KatrinSha, then add in some other points:

What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup in Russia?

1. Sergei Ivanov seems more visible — and always at Putin’s right hand:


 or left hand:


well, at least nearby:


Photos by Presidential Press Service

As Donald Jensen writes for Institute for Modern Russia, Ivanov is making a comeback. A February decree had already broadened his authority and he was recently named “the most influential lobbyist.”

We could add that he was reported to be nominated to the board of Rostelkom as was confirmed April 3 on the corporate web site. Elections will take place at the Annual General Meeting of Shareholders which will likely be in mid- or late June as it has been in past years. This positions him to have corporate power like other powerful figures in Russia, and in a company controlling much of Russians’ communications and Internet connections.

2. Yevgeny Primakov, a veteran politician, former intelligence chief and former prime minister, said to be head of a government “clan,” whose speech in January was characterized by blogger Pavlo Praviy as an ultimatum to Putin, seemed quiet for awhile after Putin reappeared.

But now he’s spoken out again at the Mercury Club April 3, site of his last important speech.

Translation: Primakov – on the structural mistakes of the Russian economy and Zyuganov – about the resignation of the government.

Russia has good reason to focus on domestic problems:

“We are paying for the shock therapy of the 1990s with sanctions,” Primakov is quoted as saying in a lengthy coverage of the session by Business Gazette.

Primakov said that Russia shouldn’t look for external reasons
for the crisis; it’s Russia’s own structural mistakes he said,
highlighting four related to excessive bureaucracy, overpaid state monopolists, poor infrastructure and over-dependency on hydrocarbons exports and technology and food imports.

Primakov was also cited by Praviy as expressing concern about  anti-semitism, chauvinism and neo-Nazis as big problems in Russia. Since then, a verdict has been reached in the long-delayed case of the Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists – 3 defendants were pronounced guilty and 1 not guilt.

Searches took place of two nationalists associated with the organization of the annual Russian March and one nationalist. Aleksandr Belov (Potkin) arrested last year has been kept in pre-trial detention; recently he claimed that he was imprisoned on false charges of money-laundering when he refused to collaborate with the FSB on running operations against Ukraine, including possibly even an attempt on the life of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky.

And a new Federal Agency for Nationalities was created stressing a Russian civic identity made up of various ethnic groups rather than a pluralism of nationalities, with an FSB agent put in charge named Igor Barinov who grew up in the North Caucasus. He sees his job as preventing pogroms, which should accommodate Primakov’s concerns.

At this Mercury Club meeting, Kremlin advisor Sergei Glazyev, who said he was speaking “in his
personal capacity” said that the “gap between our capabilities and
realty is growing” and said hidden unemployment was at 20%.

And most importantly at this meeting, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov openly called for the resignation of the government — that means Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his subordinates.

Zyuganov blamed the government for a lack of strategic vision and
the flawed model imposed on Russia, the “cadre crisis” and the fact that
banks lost 2 trillion rubles ($35 billion), but only came up with 50 billion for the
rural areas of Russia.

Now we can understand why a group of communists could dare to call for Medvedev’s resignation last week — it is now the acceptable Party line.

Other speakers focused on the banking and economic crisis and the
need to “not support small business as if it were a pensioner but develop it.” But the topic of Ukraine was not mentioned at all.

If the theory was that Primakov’s advice was to keep Crimea and not
annex Donbass — and wind down the war — that hasn’t quite been
happening. Violations of the cease-fire continues as before, with
fighting in areas where Russia is still placing pressure on Ukraine,
notably Shirokine which is en route to Mariupol.

3. Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko has partially discontinued her hunger strike. But there is no movement on her case. Worse, her defense attorney is now being probed himself for signs of “extremism” on Twitter.

4. The terms “Donetsk People’s Republic,” (DNR) “Lugansk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Novorossiya” haven’t disappeared from Russian state television as claimed. The term “Novorossiya” is still used, as can be seen from a talk show on TV1 with Konstantin Dolgov co-chairman of the Popular Front of Novorossiya, although arguably it is used less.

5. There was prediction about the “purging” of the “implacable field commanders” of “Novorossiya” but it didn’t happen. This was a reference to Motorola (Arseny Pavlov) of Spartak Battalion; Givi (Mikhail Tolstykh) of Somali Battalion and Aleksandr Mozgovoy of Prizrak (Ghost) Division.

This hardly seems the case. Motorola is on record today speaking defiantly to the Kyiv Post, bragging that he has executed 15 POWs.

There was an alleged “assassination attempt” of Givi, but he is alive and well.

Most troubling, far from retiring these notorious figures, it seems Moscow is preserving them in the view. On April 4 this weekend, there was a feature on Rossiya 1 on Voyenna Programma (Military Program) with Aleksandr Sladkov, watched by millions, featuring Motorola and Givi and their exploits.  Along the way, Sladkov said that Motorola, a Russian citizen was once contracted to the GRU spetsnaz.

To be sure, this is just the Russian state media talking. As Georgian journalist Jambul Tsulaia explains, a lot of the Motorola story seems concocted. He says Arseny is just a guy who worked in a car wash. Regardless of the details of his biography, he still remains to cause trouble in Donetsk.

As for Mozgovoy. according to the pro-Russian blogger Colonel Cassad, Leonid Takchenko, head of the Prosecutor General’s investigative department reported that “on the foundation of the Prizrak Brigade, the 4th battalion for territorial defense of the LNR” has been formed.”

Prizrak, long resisting incorporation into the “militia” of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Lugansk” finally had to capitulate on April 2.

The LNR has passed a decree whereby all armed formations that do not join the “People’s Militia,” the territorial defense battalions or law-enforcement agencies or which do not voluntarily give up all their arms will be declared unlawful. This may be the basis for the rumor about the DNR/LNR becoming “unlawful bandit formations”; in fact, what has happened is worse, because they’ve simple been continued under a new name in keeping with the language of the Minsk-2 agreement, which said the “People’s Republics” can form “militias.”

Aleksandr Boroday, the impresario of the DNR and for a time its “prime minister” dropped out of sight for awhile but has started appearing again on the talk shows; here he is with ultranationalist Yegor Prosvirin of Sputnik & Pogrom on his left.

But perhaps they’re pulling in their horns a bit.

Translation: it is impossible to create “Novorossiya” now, Boroday believes.

Boroday also explained why Mariupol wasn’t taken.

Translation: Boroday: The militia did not take Mariupol so as not to harm Akhmetov’s business.

The reference is to the belief that the Russian-backed separatists
are paid off, or make deals with Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov,
owner of a number of coal mines and other plants, in order to keep
production and jobs.

In a related development, businessman and Russian Orthodox
philanthropist Konstantin Malofeyev who reportedly bankrolled
“Novorossiya” but had some debts hanging over his head that might have
led to criminal action suddenly after prolonged court battles for years was allowed to settle them at a discount for dimes on the dollar.

6. Bloggers spoke of “real” humanitarian convoys going to the Donbass but it’s still impossible to tell because they are not willing to submit to Ukrainian guards’ inspection.

But the official convoys are far from the only ones going into the Donbass — the Communist Party sent one this week.

Translation: The latest humanitarian convoy from the CPRF has headed to Novorossiya from Moscow suburbs.

7. Praviy wrote of how Defense Minister Shoigu was sent out of town with 40 others — this seemed to “clear the way” for a palace coup. But the coup didn’t happen, at least not overtly, and Shoigu seems to be doing fine. Every other day he sends troops on “combat alert” in various regions and runs to inspect them. Nuclear-capable launchers were even rolled into Kalinigrad and then rolled out again.

When Shoigu sat on the side of the table at the planning meeting for the May 9th Victor Day events — the first day after Putin returned to his regular schedule — this led to an impression he was pushed aside. But that would be normal in keeping with the Kremlin’s organizational chart, which places the premier and vice premiers above the federal ministers. Putin was flanked by hardliner Dmitry Rogozin, vice premier for the military, and Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff.

Putin then met with Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of Staff.


8. The blogger KatrinSha and others were concerned about the disappearance of Viktor Zolotov, deputy interior minister and commander-in-chief of the Internal Troops who has also been in charge of Putin’s personal security. He was rumored to be have died.

Yet he turned up alive and well on March 26, on the eve of Interior Ministry Troops Day.

The web site of the Internal Troops of the Interior Ministry reported that Zolotov spoke at the Interior Troops’ Main Military Clinical Hospital in Balashikha, Moscow Region, still with the same titles.

While there he handed out medals to doctors for their services to the Fatherland — although it was not said where — and visited Lt. Gen. Anatoly Romanov, a hero of the Chechen wars who was permanently disabled in an explosion.

Ramzan Kadyrov also made a point of displaying a picture of himself and
on his Instagram stream on March 27,  Interior Ministry
Troops Day. It’s not clear if Zolotov visited Grozny or if Ramzan just
posted an old picture.


9. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has of course been watched closely to see if he would rise or fall, in keeping with the theory that there might be a coup, or Kadyrov might be “reined in.”

He doesn’t seem to have been.

Every other day, Kadyrov posts a picture of himself with Putin.


And he does not appear to be subdued.

More suspected militants have been killed by troops or have have disappeared in Chechnya.

Kadyrov was visited by Gennady Korienko, director of the Federal Corrections Service (FSIN), who gave him award for his “great contribution in strengthening the criminal justice system.” Kadyrov also gave Kornienko award for “his merits before the Chechen Republic.”

The former FSIN head was arrested on charges of stealing $47.8 million in a caper involving ankle bracelets.

The Chechen parliamentary speaker proved useful during a Kremlin propaganda whirlwind about Latin America as Russia countered the announcement of a Congressional resolution calling to arm Ukraine. The Chechen speaker of parliament threatened to deploy weapons in Mexico and take back territory from southern states.

The investigation into the murder of Boris Nemtsov has come up with a range of theories and changes them back and forth daily but little new has come to light. But the five Chechen suspects remain in custody despite efforts to get them sprung. The lead defendant is Zaur Dadayev, who once served in Kadyrov’s elite Sever Battalion. The perpetrators’ connections are said to reach to two prominent Chechen families associated with other murder charges with senators in the Federation Council — and immunity.  Their relative, who was said to be the contractor of Nemtsov’s murder in a number of press leaks, is still reportedly in protective custody and is being interrogated as a witness.

So far, the mastermind of the murder isn’t named, and the feeling is that if the case stays at the level of these lower-level Chechens, each paid $83,000 to murder Nemtsov, Kadyrov will have got out unscathed. 

For a time, the investigation lurched off to saying that the one witness of the murder besides Anna Duritskaya, Nemtsov’s companion, said the perpetrator didn’t look anything like Dadayev. Although given a different name, he was the same one who was put forth by LifeNews right after the assassination but then disappeared from view for a time.

The makeshift memorial of Nemtsov’s supporters was cleared from the bridge by an organized group of nationalists.

Translation: Here is the VK page of one of the creeps who took part in the defacing of the place where Boris Nemtsov was killed.

Nemtsov’s friends put the memorial back and tried to keep watch on it. They plan a memorial service April 7 on the 40th day after Nemtsov’s death, in the Russian Orthodox tradition. But Moscow authorities do not appear to have given consent for the creation of a permanent marker at the scene.

10. Igor Sechin, Vladimir Yakunin and other oligarchs were granted the right not to reveal their salaries. Those that invested in the Olympics construction got the terms of their loans softened.

11. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov has not spoken about the Nemtsov case since March 7 although it seemed as if he might be taking the lead in the case over the Investigative Committee’s  (IC) Aleksandr Bastrykin. The only news on the case has come from leaks by anonymous FSB and IC agents, mainly to Kommersant and RBC.


Putin spoke at the annual meeting of the FSB in March about the decline in terrorism cases but said extremism cases had “unfortunately” risen to 15%.

That’s odd, because at the annual meeting of the Investigative Committee in February, director Aleksandr Bastrykin said the number of extremism cases was 591, and had risen by 28% compared to 2013. Putin cut it nearly by half.

Bortnikov did not speak at the FSB meeting, or at least, was not shown as speaking by the Russian state media, and a separate picture of him was also not displayed on, although he was shown on the podium.

12. The International Russian Conservative Forum was allowed to convene in St. Petersburg on March 22 with ultra-right Rodina party leader Aleksandr Zhuravlev presiding, and a roster of far-right and neo-Nazi parties of Europe. Yet this meeting was as noteworthy for who didn’t participate as who did — and it did not have any overt Kremlin ties.

– Sergei Glazyev, the hardline Kremlin advisor who spoke at a forum in Simferopol last year advocating that “Novorossiya” join the Eurasian Customs Union was not present — but he was at the Mercury Club discussing the resignation of the current government, as noted above.

– None of the “Novorossiya” celebrities, including Col. Igor Strelkov, Aleksandr Boroday and Denis Pushilin were present, although one fighter, Aleksey Milchankov attended.

– Aleksandr Dugin, the Eurasianist was not there nor was Sergei Kurginyan of Essence of Time — both groups that had supported the Russian-backed separatists.

– Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of Den‘ was not present.

Those who did attend were less visible nationalists or not the leaders of their institutions necessarily:

– Mikhail Remizov of the Institute of National Strategy

– Konstantin Krylov of Nationalism Quests

– Leonid Savin, head of department of international cooperation of the Russian Liberation Movement (NOD), but not Senator Yevgeny Fyodorov

– Fyodor Biryukov, Stalingrad Social and Patriotic Club

– Yegor Kholmogorov, editor-in-chief of Rusky Obozrevatel’

– Alexei Zhivov, coordinator of Fight for Donbass

– Pavel Shipilin, New Russia

– Nikolay Shelyapin and Olga Linitskaya CSCP (Urals);

– Nikolay Trushchalov, Russian Imperial Movement

– Stanislav Byshok, CIS-EMO election-monitoring organization

– Andrei Vassoyevich Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), but apparently not Leonid Reshetnikov, RISI director.

Vassoyevich has also been associated with the Popular Assembly which drew up the Morality Charter for Russia in 2013.

With the possible exception of Vassoyevich of RISI, whose director has access to top Kremlin leaders, and Savin, whose leader is an influential Duma senator, none of these people seem capable of putting on or participating in a coup.

13. Putin presided over the integration treaty ceremony with South Ossetia but Vyacheslav Surkov, who is supposedly in charge of relations with Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, was missing and has still not confirmed as having returned to Moscow from Hong Kong.

14. There were dismissals of some Kremlin department heads responsible for domestic issues, and replacements.

15. A massive leak of Kremlin officials’ emails and text messages is under way by hacker group Shaltai Boltai. But Timur Prokopenko and other officials whose messages have been exposed are already gone from the Kremlin. And the revelations seem more to bother the opposition, who are revealed as indeed the target of contrived plots from the Kremlin, as well as the media, who are exposed as manipulated, rather than anyone in power.

None of the leaks concern higher figures or the prospects of a power grouping staging a coup. Asked by an Ekho Moskvy reporter what the Kremlin’s attitude was to the Anonymous International leaks, presidential administration speaker Dmitry Peskov was moved to speak in a classic Russian double negative, which translates as “We do not have any attitude to any internationals.”

The leaks confirm what is already known about Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front party and their ties to Putin including receipt of loans from Russia.

16. Putin spoke on the platform of the “We’re Together” concert in honor of the anniversary of the forcible annexation of the Crimea, where he appeared together with the three parliamentary faction leaders including Vladimir Zhirinovsky head of the ill-named , but the parliamentary speaker Naryshkin was missing. The National Liberation Movement was allowed to demonstrate at this event just steps from the president, and the bikers’ gang head Aleksandr Zaldostanov was also on the platform. But there were no military figures or Russian Orthodox Church leaders.

17. Putin awarded three battalions for “bravery in combat” –– 11th and 83rd separate assault brigades and the 38th separate communications regiments of the Airborne Troops (VDV), Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied they were for Ukraine although InformNapal and Igor Sutyagin said in fact there was evidence had fought in Ukraine.

18. On April 2, 56 men drowned at sea when the Dal’ny Vostok, a fishing trawler, capsized in the Sea of Okhotsk off the shore of Magadan.  Many of the 63 survivors were in serious condition from hypothermia. The reasons are being investigated but an overload of fish in an 80-ton net and extra workers illegally on board may have been the cause. Rescuers have combed 22,000 square kilometers looking for 13 people missing, although they likely died.

Although they expressed condolences and promised medical care “at a federal level,” neither President Putin or even Prime Minister Medvedev flew to the area, leaving the impression that literally some regions are being left to sink or swim. But they had already fired the corrupt governor of Sakhalin and his associates before the accident, appointed an acting governor, and even sent another official to serve as their eyes and ears.

To be sure, Prime Minister Medvedev fly to another Daln’ny Vostok today, that is, Russia’s Far East to discuss the anti-crisis measures in the regions there. He began his trip in Khabarovsk Territory. From there, he will fly off to Vietnam and Thailand to discuss joint gas projects. If he is about to be dismissed, he doesn’t seem to mind leaving Moscow.

Can we conclude from these various developments that either a coup was averted or is still crawling toward conclusion?

It remains to be seen whether any further action will be taken to remove Medvedev and since either Putin or the hardliners challenging him might be happy to see Medvedev go, it’s not necessarily proof of either side winning if he does go.

The May 9th Victory Day parade may indicate who is ahead, but that’s just optics.

The real issues for showing whether milder or harsher hardliners are prevailing is to see what happens in Ukraine and how domestic protests not just from opposition but plant workers and rural residents will be handled, and whether the “hypertrophied monopolists” of which Primakov spoke continue to get handouts.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick