Russia Update: Is There a Slow-Motion Coup Under Way?

March 14, 2015
Yevgeny Primakov speaking at the Mercury Club on January 13, 2015.| Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

The Kremlin has published a new picture of President Vladimir Putin reportedly meeting with the head of the Supreme Court today, but as throughout the week, there was no confirmation that the picture hadn’t been taken in the past.


Special features:

Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: ‘It is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russia’
Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto “Track II” Talks – and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.

See also our Russia This Week stories:

All The Strange Things Happening in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
Ultranationalists Angry over ‘Capitulation’ of Minsk Agreement,
‘Anti-Maidan’ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers

The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

Ekho Moskvy Editor Urges Calm, Says News on Putin to Come in 48 Hours

A brief tweet yesterday evening March 14 by Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy has been widely re-tweeted because many found it reassuring:

Translation: Regarding VVP [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin] – that’s it, calm down. Wait 48 hours.

This immediately got picked up by a German blogger and others and amplified:

At times like this Twitter is revealed as a massive game of “gossip,” as it is called in the United States or “Chinese whispers” in other countries and in Russia “broken telephone.”

How would Venediktov know anything about Putin’s status? When he gave an interview last week, he said he didn’t know where the president was.

He does have one obvious contact close to the Kremlin, the former general manager of Ekho Moskvy, Yekaterina Pavlova, the wife of Aleksey Pavlov, deputy
head of the President’s Department of Press Service and Information in the Kremlin. Pavlov is one of the deputies of Dmitry Peskov, the presidential administration spokesman. Pavlova and her husband might not know, however, as this office is given communications by others to distribute and may not themselves have any direct contact with the president, especially now that he has been missing or in hiding for 8 days.

No doubt Venediktov has other sources, but nothing short of Putin himself appearing in public will be definitive, and even then, it will take some time to see if he has been under the strain of a power struggle and what the “correlation of forces” are now.

Venediktov had another re-tweet that was less reassuring that people who got the “48 hours” tweet didn’t see unless they studied his whole timeline. But there, too, he sought to deflect panic.

Translation: “@bamr69 Moscow? Moscow!!! “for the Crimean parade on the 18th.

There are a certain number of armored vehicles that can be seen around the Kremlin ordinarily. In recent days, there has been a large amount of activity on Red Square, with numerous trucks and construction materials. Some theorized that these vehicles could be for a celebration of the forcible annexation of the Crimea to be held on March 18. There will be a concert and speeches and Putin is expected to appear there, although no formal announcement to this effect was made.

But independent video reporter Sasha Sotnik reported on his Facebook page that the photographs of the tanks were fake.

I urge you not to distribute fake photos of Red Square “surrounded” by military armor. Just take note that  Spasskaya Tower is not draped in this photo as it is today. If armored vehicles had entered Moscow, there’d be lots of fresh photos from Muscovites themselves. Well, and I would definitely hear the noise from Leninsky Avenue. I know perfectly well what kind of noise carries from the movement of a tank column. And then, if there was something serious like a military encirclement of the Kremlin, I would definitely go out to the scene of the events and take videos.

I’m sitting home and drinking coffee. I don’t hear any gunfire, and not even helicopters today. Quiet…and the hysterics are out of place.

Here are Moscow’s online cameras. See.

The web cams don’t include Red Square but some nearby streets.

– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Ukrainian Site Marks Time Since Putin Has Been Missing

A Ukrainian web site has started keeping track of how long Vladimir Putin has been out of the public view — 8 days and counting.

“Putler” is what some Ukrainian activists have taken to calling Putin, which is a mash-up of “Putin” and “Hitler.”

The site is looping a performance of the ballet Swan Lake because that’s the show that Soviet television would run whenever something bad was happening, and the state TV producers didn’t have instructions yet about what to say or broadcast.

As Maria Goltsmann explains, it was played during Leonid Brezhnev’s funeral and also during the August 1991 coup.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Ukrainian, Russia Bloggers Discuss Possible Scenarios for a Takeover by Figures More Hard-Line Than Putin

President Vladimir Putin has still not been seen, and still has no more reports on his meetings, except for some scheduled next
week, when he is supposed to make a trip to St. Petersburg on March 16
and then attend the treaty-signing ceremony with South Ossetia on March 18, cancelled
last week.

There’s been so many developments in the last week that it’s hard
to keep track, so we made a long but by no means complete list, with
links to many of our stories in the last two weeks (Russia This Week: All The Strange Things Happening in Moscow). These events start with the murder of
opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27 and continue to the arrests of 6 Chechen suspects, one
of whom was blown up by a grenade; then involve the shifting theories for their
motives and connections; and clashes said to be taking place between the
Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the
Chechen Republic

The Russian-language Internet is wild with rumors and conspiracy
theories and Kremlin bots injecting disinformation into social media.
That’s because Russia is a closed society with very much suppressed mass
media and a dictator who does not or cannot disclose his whereabouts.

One Russia analyst sums up what he thinks a variety of stories in the last few weeks amount to – a slow-motion coup in which some security officials in the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Federal Protective Service (FSO) with Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, former KGB, team up against Putin, whose allies are Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and the Interior Ministry or police, which also commands thousands of internal troops.

Two blog posts, one from Ukrainian LiveJournal blogger Pavlo Praviy on and one from from the LiveJournal blogger v_n_zb known as KatrinSha on Twitter provide some insights.

UPDATE: The original version of this post attributed the post on Primakov to v_n_zb because she published it in full with a link to the original at the bottom — a common practice on LiveJournal. In fact, it was was authored by Ukrainian writer Pavlo Praviy.

These bloggers are saying what others including independent newspapers and analysts are saying, but putting it together more coherently than most.

Some of Praviy’s insights match those of Andrei Illarionov, former advisor to Putin now at the Cato Institute, who says “the generals are taking over.”

Praviy’s post concerns Yevgeny Primakov, one of the veteran political “clan” leaders of Moscow, who as a former foreign minister, intelligence chief and prime minister has a lot of influence. (See Lithuanian expert Marius Laurinavičius’s piece Primakov Clan’s Trap for the West or a Little about Putin’s Peace Roadmap).

Primakov, who was born in Kiev advocates keeping the Crimea but not annexing the Donbass, so he is something of a “moderate” compared to others although non-Russians disagree with his plan for “centralization” which contains within it Russian homogenization, and Westerners would find his diatribes against “neo-liberalism” quite Soviet.

The second post by KatrinSha concerns Lt. Gen. Viktor Zolotov who has served for 13 years as the chief of the
Presidential Security Service and as deputy director of the Federal
Protective Service which guards the Kremlin grounds — and which also
holds the “nuclear suitcase.” Zolotov is also commander-in-chief of the
Interior Ministry’s internal troops since 2014 and holds the title of
first deputy interior minister. He has been supposedly groomed by Putin
to take over the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The Interpreter has a summary translation of Pavel Praviy’s blog.

What is happening now is a “quiet political coup,” something like the resignation of Boris Yeltsin. Putin is tired, needs a rest, and has moved to his palace in Gelendzhik.

In his speech at the prestigious Mercury Club, where he serves as president, on January 13, 2015 Primakov basically “tore Putin’s policy to bits.”

– He said Donbass should remain in Ukraine
– He opposed Russia’s self-isolation
– He advocated a move away from Russia’s role as “the world’s gas station” and diversification of the economy
– He acknowledged anti-semitism, chauvinism and neo-Nazis as big problems in Russia

While Medvedov once called Putin “a nationalist in the best sense of the word,” Primakov said a difference should be made between nationalism and patriotism:

“Nationalism is NOT limited to protection of cultural and historical features of a given nation and the need to defend its interests. That would be acceptable if the essence of nationalism DID NOT consist in opposing other nations on which the nationalists usually look from on high.”

Primakov’s starkest comment in this speech was:

“There are no grounds to believe the readiness of the executive government to propose a justified plan based on concretely specified actions to turn the country toward diversification of its economy and its growth on this basis.”

The Mercury Club speech then was an “ultimatum” to Putin, which Putin clearly ignored, and now he has to “pay” for this. The Mercury Club brings together Moscow’s political and economic elite; it was emblematic that Putin’s new hire as deputy of the Central Bank wanted to get a selfie with Primakov during the reception after this speech, and posted it on Twitter.

Two months have passed since the speech or 60 days. What has happened during this time? We could mention the Minsk-2 agreement and the ceasefire of February 12. KatrinSha focuses on events of the last week that she believes will tell us who is really in charge in Russia:

1. Ukrainian doctors were allowed to see Nadiya (Nadezhda) Savchenko – although we note they were first delayed all day yesterday and only saw her this morning.

2. The term “Novorossiya” and “DNR and LNR” disappeared from state television channels and the terms “Lugansk and Donetsk Regions” replace them.

3. The “purging” of the “implacable” field commanders among the Russian-backed separatists has begun — we could note there was an assassination attempt on Mozgovoy and Motorola (Pavlov) is also believed to be targeted.

3. Separatist units have begun to be called “bandit formations” in Russian media

4. Two additional humanitarian convoys have been sent immediately to the Donbass. “This time the quotation marks can be removed from the word humanitarian,” says Praviy.

5. Writes Praviy:

“Here is another interesting ‘coincidence’ precisely when Putin disappeared from the radar (March 10), someone sent Defense Minister Shoigu and still-acting Interior Minister Kolokolstev with a large delegation of leaders of the power ministries (a whole 40 people) to remove them from the body of their patron.”

We could also add that the Russian stock market went up and the ruble strengthened against the dollar when Putin went missing, which is counter-intuitive if he means “stability.” There’s also the creation of a special group “for the development of Kaliningrad Region” with top figures like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the dropping of the charges of “treason” against Svetlana Davydova, mother of 7, who informed the Ukrainian Embassy of troops movements.

Says Praviy:

 “So it’s quite possible we are seeing the last days of the setting of the political star of V.V. Putin. Behind-the-scenes players may leave him in his seat, placing around him ‘their’ people (in that case, Medvedev’s government will be dismissed and Putin’s heads of  intelligence services will be fired) and he can be sent into honorable retirement to babysit the newly-born Kabayeva child. This may be helped along (as an extreme variant) with death ‘from a cold.'”

These developments listed are not going to be without reversals and exceptions — we note the first one cited by Praviy actually took a day of warring by Savchenko’s lawyers to achieve, after the Ukrainian doctors arrived in Moscow.

“Novorossiya” was not used so much in official news shows as in talk shows and “Lugansk and Donetsk Regions” might appear as the Ukrainian leadership defines the “certain districts” in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions where there will be “self-government.”

It’s also possible that some things we see as the product of “liberals” (like allowing doctors in to see Savchenko or the end of the use of the term “Novorossiya”) could equally be the product of hardliners who simply believe in pragmatism or even decency.  That is, the new people in charge could quite easily be capable of dropping absurd charges against a mother of 7 or letting doctors see a sick prisoner, but still invade Mariupol; or they might not invade Mariupol but still get Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy shut down.

Praviy believes “common sense will prevail” to end the war in Ukraine. The problem is that it is not ending, but very much under way and there are signs of escalation today with reports of troops moving toward the border and reinforcing it.

KatrinSha’s post concerns the persistent rumors of the death of Viktor Zolotov, who is essentially Putin’s chief body guard.

KatrinSha writes (translation by The Interpreter):

I don’t love rumors. But when they simultaneously come from different sources, then rumors can be considered information. Maybe they aren’t verified, but they have a right to existence.

Information has appeared that Gen. Zolotov has had an untimely death (some claim he was murdered).

If the murder is confirmed, that means that Ivanov and Col. have crushed Putin after all.

Now it is not so important whether Putin lives or not – the real power has passed into the hands of an increasingly hard and brutal group. And Kadyrov’s unsure behavior last night confirms that his protection in Moscow is now gone. For Ukraine it will be a big fortune if the Center wants at first to settle things with Chechnya, and then later with Ukraine. If it is the opposite, then offensives (direct aggression) could be expected in the very near future.

One other thing. I don’t believe the rumors going around Moscow that ‘the coup has been committed by Shoigu’ who now leads the government. That’s absolute nonsense. Of course as he advanced along the career ladder he constantly staged small ‘coups’ but hardly anyone will want to lead the country alone now. And their comrades-at-arms will not let them. But to commit/head a coup…His head would have already been long brought to Putin on a platter. Only ‘the collective.’ And no other way.

The reference to Kadyrov’s “uncertain behavior” comes from a report yesterday March 13 from the Kavkaz Center web site, associated with the Caucasus Emirate terrorist organization, which said Kadyrov was unable to reach Putin and was told he was sick. Kadyrov’s chief of staff was also told to leave town with illness and had been instrumental in getting information leading to the arrest of Zaur Dadayev, the chief suspect in the murder of Boris Nemtsov, out of his sister.

KatrinSha concludes most likely Putin will remain “the normal head of state (if he is alive)” but the generals will run things.

It’s important to remember that Putin has worked hard at replacing a lot of leadership in the “power ministries” (intelligence, security, law-enforcement, prosecutor, investigative) with former KGB or people loyal to him. But that doesn’t mean that all former KGB figures or current FSB directors are therefore aligned with him, as a former KGB officer — as Primakov’s “ultimatum” indicates.

KatrinSha mentions Ivanov, as Andrei Illarionov does, as a key figure in a group of possible coup-plotters or power-seekers more hardline than Putin.

Ivanov previously served in the Soviet KGB and under Putin in the FSB, was deputy prime minister under Medvedev and is now Putin’s chief of staff.

 — Catherine A. Fitzpatrick