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Post How Putin Came to Power...and How He Stays in Power
Created by John Eipper on 01/27/21 2:09 PM

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How Putin Came to Power...and How He Stays in Power (Boris Volodarsky, Austria, 01/27/21 2:09 pm)

Our esteemed editor asked whether Aleksei Navalny has any chance of replacing Putin. At the same time, I read Eugenio Battaglia's op-ed on the situation in Russia (January 26th), followed by a brief comment from Helen Pitlick. 

To start with, I believe Navalny has no chance of becoming the president of Russia and there is hardly anyone here or there who might seriously consider him as a candidate. Navalny's strength is in something else, but let us remember Boris Yeltsin and his reign first, as Eugenio suggests. 

In 1991 Yeltsin, an old Soviet communist believer and a party functionary, suddenly found himself in the role of a democrat and capitalist. Added to his drinking habits, it was too much even for such a strong personality to be able to govern Russia, a huge and diverse country. When Yeltsin became president, more or less seizing power by force, he was immediately surrounded by five categories of people. 

At the very beginning and for a very short time the most prominent among them was Russian intelligentsia, who wanted pro-Western democratic changes and freedoms as they imagined people in the West had always been enjoying. They had no idea about life outside the Soviet Union and no clue about how the rest of the world functioned, but were convinced they could find the right way. They quickly formed the first Russian democratic parliament (Duma) and failed. 

The second category were various types of Russian criminals (thieves, assassins, blackmailers, fraudsters, and so on) who immediately realised that--as during the NEP in the 1920s--their time had come. They quickly placed the whole country under their control because they had enough power and knew how to exercise it when not restricted by the party, police or the KGB. For a certain time, they have also controlled the local police and sometimes even the KGB and prosecutors. 

The next category were young Russian entrepreneurs, both well-educated like Boris Berezovsky and poorly educated like Roman Abramovich, who started creating wild-West types of business, sometimes getting very rich because they were able to take over the most profitable industries and businesses, like oil, gas and foreign trade in goods that had always been missing or was in a great deficit in the country. Some of them also founded the first Russian stock exchanges. (For Helen: only a handful of them would later become what is known as "oligarchs" in Russia.) Many were shot during the so-called "wild '90s". 

Still another category were foreign companies, big and small, who quickly realised they can get their share of the potentially huge Russian market. Bill Browder and Mitt Romney, then the CEO of Bain & Co, were among them but there were of course hundreds of others (see Appendix I in my latest book Assassins, USA, March 2020). 

Finally, there were KGB officers of both chief directorates (First--overseas intelligence and Second--internal security) who had traveled the world, knew what the large amounts of hard currency and Western education were worth, and realised they could still have privileged life under any regime. Their only restriction was the Communist party and specifically its Central Committee. So, as soon as they got rid of the party, they transferred the party's gold to Swiss banks, deposited another billion dollars in the USA, and took important positions in the leading Russian (and foreign) businesses and banks. 

Putin, back in the USSR after a low-level assignment in the East German provinces and now working for the St Petersburg major Anatoly Sobchak, found himself exactly between the former Communist party apparatchiks, young Russian businessmen, local criminals and an old-school professor of law of the University of Leningrad. Victor Zolotov was his personal guard on behalf of the KGB, Roman Tsepov was his liaison to the local mafia, and Boris Berezovsly was somebody who could say a word for him in Moscow, even in the sacred Presidential Administration. In the critical years 1996-7, the Administration was headed by Anatoly Chubais. Berezovsky was also one of the members of Yeltsin's very close circle of individuals known as the "Family." 

Putin was saved from criminal prosecution for his Leningrad/St Petersburg affairs by begging Chubais to take him to Moscow. With the help of Chubais and Berezovsky he gradually became an important functionary of the Presidential Administration, then director of the FSB (former internal security branch of the KGB), then Secretary of the Security Council, then Prime Minister, and then Berezovsky and Valentin Yumashev (both of whom I knew personally) decided Putin could make a convenient president. 

What happened after Yeltsin appointed him a successor they could not expect. Almost immediately the "Family" was dissolved, a small group of the old oligarchs subordinated (and the one who refused to obey orders, Khodorkovsky, incarcerated), while Berezovsky had to hurriedly leave the country. He was later quietly murdered shortly after the sensational poisoning of his faithful servant, Sasha Litvinenko. New Russian oligarchs--a tight group--are all Putin's close associates from Leningrad. Like two of Putin's mistresses, thanks to Navalny known to the public, they are billionaires who own most of the country's resources. They also own a great number of Western businesses everywhere in the world. The son of one of them, Alexander Lebedev, who had operated undercover for the KGB in London in 1988-92, is now the British lord Baron Evgeny Lebedev. And Putin's personal wealth is estimated at about 70 billion dollars, which I believe may well be true. 

The personal possessions of the Putin's oligarchs, Duma members and many high-ranking bureaucrats (plus police, FSB/SVR, investigation committee and prosecutors) are valued at hundreds and thousands of times more than they can earn in their lifetime. What is the role of Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation FBK? To show and prove that all those people are corrupt and that they acquired their wealth by dishonest means and/or by applying corruption schemes in the public procurement system. Or, for example, when four-fifths of the Russian oil exports are first sold at a low price to a company, registered in the offshore zone, that belongs to Putin's friend Gennady Timchenko, and then resold to consumers at a much higher price, that makes Mr Tischenko very, very rich but for whatever reasons the FBK thinks it is not fair. Or take Yuri Kovalchuk, who, until Putin became president, worked as deputy director of the Leningrad institute specialising in physics and technology. Now Kovalchuk owns National Media Group and in 2019 acquired the rights to Ted Turner's Russian assets including "the Russian version of CNN, Cartoon Network and Boomerang," in addition to Bank Rossiya (17th in Russia) and a partnership with Netflix to launch a Russian-language streaming service. 

Today, the Russian economy is in a very poor state, the Russian army is a disaster and cannot even distantly be compared to the NATO, and many areas of the country do not have electricity and never heard about the Internet. Many only have outdoor toilets. 

Vladimir Putin and his wealth are very well guarded. There is a very secret and highly professional Presidential Security Service (SBP) until recently headed by the same Zolotov, now General of the Army. There is also the FSO--Federal Protection Service and the Rosgvardiya, Putin's private army about 300,000 strong, headed by Zolotov and made up of the leading special forces units of the country. And, of course, there are the SVR--Russian foreign intelligence headed by Sergey Naryshkin, former head of the residential Administration and Chairman of the State Duma, as well as the FSB, the security service headed by Alexander Bortnikov, former chief of the FSB in Leningrad where Putin had served. 

Now, Navalny tells us, there is Putin's Palace on the sea worth over one billion dollars which stands on a territory equal to 39 Monte Carlos. 

I want to ask Eugenio, should the Russians kiss the hand of Putin for having restored the dignity and economy?

JE comments:  Boris, this is nothing less than a compendium of Russian political history since 1991.  I am fascinated, and only thirst for more.  For now, please give us a deeper appraisal of Russia's military effectiveness.  Is it really that deplorable?  And I'd like to know more about the Rosgvardiya.  If Putin has a 300,000-strong elite force at his disposal, is there any remote chance the opposition can prevail?  Might we make a comparison here with the SS--meaning, an army loyal not to the state, but to the leader?

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  • Should Russians Be Grateful to Putin? (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 01/29/21 4:07 AM)
    Boris Volodarsky, in his excellent and very informative post of 27 January, wrote: "I want to ask Eugenio, should the Russians kiss the hand of Putin for having restored [Russia's] dignity and economy?"

    I've come up with a quick and regrettably very superficial review of the history of Russia and of its great and charming people.

    1) The last Tsars were not the best of rulers. The proof of this was the Revolution.

    2) Lenin's Bolsheviks were certainly not nice fellows.  Surprisingly, Americans do not remember the Western troops who uselessly fought against them. In the summer of 1918, 9000 GIs occupied Arkhangelsk, while the cruiser Brooklyn took over Vladivostok, but they withdrew with the other Allies in 1922.  The Italians had participated from August 1918 but withdrew in August 1919 after having recovered the ethnic Italian prisoners in Russia, who had been conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army.

    3) Stalin's dictatorship killed many millions of people.  For instance, the Ukrainians never forgot the almost 10 million who died during the Holodomor, which explains Stepan Bandera and his followers.

    The President of the US called Stalin "Good Uncle Joe," as did many of his fellow Americans.  Roosevelt was either a shrewd strategist in praising Stalin to keep him in the fight against the Axis without reaching the separate peace hoped for by Mussolini and Japan, or his attitude towards Stalin was a symptom of his illness.

    4) The Cold War was again a not good show for the Soviet leadership.  In spite of great achievements, the final Soviet leader was just a useless personality who ended up making TV commercials for Pizza Hut.

    5) Yeltsin, "added to his drinking habits" (BV) was a complete failure with the complete ruin of his country.  Maybe for this reason alone, he was popular in the US Empire.

    6) Finally came Putin.  Nobody is perfect, and few rulers can follow the example of Mussolini (a variant of Godwin's Law for this Bastian Contrario), who never took money from the state but supported himself by the earnings from his writings. Another good example of this is José Mujica, the former president of Uruguay.

    Anyway, speaking about military power, Russia spends less than one-tenth of what the Empire spends on its military. Even so, Russia's military strength apparently worries the General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, who even required Italian troops to be placed on the Russian border in Latvia.  This is ridiculous!

    The first ethnic cleansing in Latvia was carried out by Stalin, with 400,000 ethnic Russians kicked out.  Some 504,000 ethnic Russians remain, a little bit more than 25% of the total population.  They are also rather discriminated against at present.

    With Putin, the level of life in Russia is, in spite of the pandemic, significantly better than before.  Therefore, yes in my personal opinion, the Russian people should be grateful to Putin, while hoping of course that the situation keeps improving and the self-defeating sanctions will soon be dropped. Let me say that for one Putin I would trade hundreds of Italian politicians.

    Some postscripts:

    A) In Italy, consultations are going on to form a new government.  No solution has been reached yet, but from Italian politicians--lay, democratic and antifascist, formed by the resistance--you cannot expect too much.

    B) Following the appeal of our esteemed moderator, after the donation to WAIS I also made a donation to Wikipedia, even if, for me, it is too politically correct.

    C) Concerning Italian cuisine, we have also a dish that a politically correct American may not wish to talk about, "Pasta alla Puttanesca":  spaghetti, capers, anchovies in salt and olive oil, dry red pepper, salt, olive oil, tomatoes, parsley, and garlic. It is believed that the dish was invented in a brothel. The story goes that to say goodbye to a very beloved team of ladies, the most loyal customers organized a farewell dinner and each one of them brought some ingredients, so the ladies combined everything and cooked it. A more graceful story says that "pasta alla Puttanesca" was invented when a group of friends went to a restaurant on the Island of Ischia.  They arrived unexpectedly and the cook prepared the pasta with everything that was available in the pantry. It is said to contain 471 calories for a normal serving, but follow my advice: do not worry about calories when having a good meal!

    By the way, the brothels were closed in Italy on 20 September 1958. Theoretically this was a good move but the results were very bad. Discreet, lawful, and medically supervised brothels ended and troublesome, unlawful, and unsanitary brothels opened everywhere.

    JE comments: Eugenio, we Michiganders haven't forgotten the disastrous Allied expedition in the Russian north.  The "Polar Bear Regiment" (339th Infantry) was made up largely of Detroiters.  They sent them with the justification (unfounded) that we suffer the cold better than most mortals.  There's a monument to the Polar Bears in White Chapel cemetery in Troy, one town north of WAIS HQ, Royal Oak.

    Back to Putin.  The fish rots from its head, and a kleptomaniac leader sets a dreadful example for an entire nation.  Many will respond that all leaders steal, but one thing is a campaign flight on the national tab, another is a county-sized Black Sea villa like this $1 billion version attributed to Vladimir Vladimirovich:

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    • Russia's Military Prowess is Vastly Overrated (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 02/02/21 3:25 AM)
      A kind of a Ukrainian equivalent of the late Larry King is a man named Dmitry Gordon. His long interviews are very impressive and entertaining and he manages to get interesting people from all over the world, but primarily the Russians and Ukrainians, to meet him and answer his questions. One of the recent guests was Captain Gary (Yuri) Tabach.

      One can see that Tabach is a professional military man and as such his opinion is worth taking into account. During a two plus hours interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9lnSp93GMo ) last September, among other things the Ukrainian journalist and the US captain discussed the state of the Russian military. "The strength of the Russian army is nothing but a fiction," Mr. Tabach said. "Look, there has never been an exercise of the Russian military in which a soldier would not have died, where journalists or observers were not shot at, something did not explode, or a ship did not sink. I was present at many Russian exercises and can say they are never properly coordinated, the command is unprofessional... and if you take their only aircraft carrier (Admiral) Kuznetsov (completed in 1991), it is nothing else but an old wreck (an 'old trough' in Russian)."

      Especially for this WAIS post, I have checked several reliable reviews of the Russian military. It is true that in the Global Firepower Nations index 2021 Russia is ranking second, only after the United States (https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=russia#:~:text=For%202021%2C%20Russia%20is%20ranked,generate%20a%20'PwrIndx'%20score .).

      However, it is lacking in some areas of modern military technology, including drone capability, electronic components, and radar and satellite reconnaissance, Russian journalist and military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Deutsche Welle, "That's what the Russian military is talking about: yes, we have weapons, including long-range weapons, but our reconnaissance capabilities are weaker than our attack capabilities," Felgenhauer said. "So we have-long range, sometimes precision-guided weapons, but we don't always know where the target is." And, another Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts added, the United States have an overwhelming advantage over Russia in conventional forces.

      Russian Armed Forces' successes and advances notwithstanding, another military analyst Dmitry Trenin says, Russia's defence industry exhibits a number of serious problems. Russia's financial resources are limited. The 10-year rearmament program was capped at 19 trillion roubles, the equivalent of about $700 billion when it was launched, and only less than half that amount by the time of its completion, due to the rouble's devaluation.

      Even this level of funding is being revised downward. In the last two years, Russia's procurement budget has been only $20 billion. What Russia has been able to do with such a budget may be impressive, but it is also limited. On top of that, there is a generally poor business model, with a fair amount of mismanagement, corruption and outright theft. The workforce is aging, and in a number of areas the Soviet-era technological prowess has been lost, perhaps irretrievably. Some key and highly publicized programs have stalled.

      Answering the question about the Kremlin's priorities for 2021, Mr Trenin commented: "Looking ahead, further development of Russia's defense industry will continue to be a priority for the Kremlin. Confrontation with the United States, which now also includes a military standoff in Europe's east, overseas operations and military contingencies along Russia's far-flung borders in Eurasia, will stimulate new weapons development and deployment."

      As for John E's question about Rosgvardiya, this Wikipedia article provides the general overview:


      JE comments:  I'll do an armchair (actually, sofa) analysis of Russia's military.  Historically they have been unbeatable on their own immense territory, but inept at "projecting" force elsewhere.  One exception would be 1944-'45, as the Red Army steamrolled to Berlin.  Still, Russia at $65 billion in military spending does far better than one-eleventh as well as the US with its $732 billion.  The US is legendary for doing more with far more.

      Sunday, January 31st, saw another round of protests throughout Russia on the Navalny jailing.  The police response was brutal.  Boris, any new insights?  Predictions?

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      • Navalny Sentenced (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 02/03/21 4:23 AM)
        Alexei Navalny was on trial yesterday (February 2nd).

        The state prosecutor demanded 2.5 years in a prison colony and the court retired, probably to hear the final call from the Presidential Administration regarding their decision.

        About the events in Moscow and St Petersburg on 31 January, everybody can make his and her (and whatever the neutral gender is) own judgement:


        Predictions? I guess they will lock him up.

        JE comments: And indeed they have. Boris Volodarsky sent this post yesterday afternoon, and his prediction was right on the money:  2 years and 8 months.  The question now:  will the mass unrest continue, or will the Russian people soon forget about Navalny?  A high-profile political prisoner is a huge liability, both at home and abroad.  What inspired Putin to create his own Nelson Mandela?  Fear?  Stupidity?  Ruthless calculation?


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        • Protests in Russia, Protests in Washington... (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 02/04/21 3:44 AM)
          I was shocked to see the YouTube video presented by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty attached to Boris Volodarsky's post of 3 February. What police brutality!  Such acts could not happen in the civilized and democratic West such as the US...or maybe it would be worse?

          Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a US government-funded organization supervised by the US Agency for Global Media, broadcasting in 27 languages. Radio Free Europe was founded in 1949 for anti-communist propaganda.

          As I have written before, I was a great fan of Radio Free Europe, always listening to it while at sea.  I cannot forget how during the heroic Hungarian fight against the Soviet Forces in the fall of 1956 the transmissions were continuously inciting the poor Hungarians to keep on fighting, as the free countries would never leave them to their fate...

          The Soviets were on the air with Radio Moscow World Service (starting in 1925), broadcasting in 70 languages at its top, also featuring excellent classical music.  After 1993 it became the Voice of Russia, while presently China Radio International works in 46 languages.

          As so well said by Boris and by our esteemed moderator, the arrest of Navalny, officially for embezzlement, has led to a lot of protests.  Now Bastian Contrario asks:

          Suppose that the countries outside the Empire asked for the immediate freeing of the people that protested in and outside the Capitol in Washington, and if their diplomats showed their support during the trials, what would American opinion be?

          Italian television is full of condemnations of the huge deployment of policemen to face the pro-Navalny protesters, but few have considered the 25,000 police and National Guards prepared for war on every corner of Washington in order to face possible pro-Trump protesters.  Oh, well, there are more than 28,500 US troops in South Korea to face the evil from the North.

          JE comments:  O Bastian!  I first read your hypothetical last night, and have been thinking about it ever since.  My knee-jerk reply would be that the Russian protests are against a corrupt authoritarian, while their Washington counterparts were for one.  Yet there are other ways to interpret the events.  Laws were broken in both countries, even though I take it for granted that Putin's laws against the protests aren't fair or "democratic."

          Please correct me if I oversimplify.

          On another topic, does anyone in WAISworld listen to China Radio International?   If so, please tell us more.

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        • Russia Today: A Photo (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 02/04/21 4:14 AM)

          No comment needed.

          JE comments:   WAIS thanks the AP's Dmitri Lovetsky for the photo, and Boris Volodarsky for sending it.  Boris appended no comment, but I'm sure this image will inspire other WAISers to do so.

          The protesters all appear to be in the under-30 demographic.  A pandemic-era curiosity:  they are unmasked except for one guy in the background.  I do see "lowered" masks on a couple of others.  Did the riot police/stormtroopers strip them of their Covid protection--as well as of their anonymity?


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