Doing the splits

A number of articles have appeared in the Western and Russian press suggesting that splits exist within the current Kremlin leadership, and that there is a tussle for power among various internal factions. On August 25, Pavel Felgenhauer reported that

presidential adviser Gleb Pavlovsky has said in a radio interview that there is a “party of war” inside the Kremlin – a group of high officials that are pressing for a direct attack on Tbilisi to overthrow the Georgian government. Pavlovsky states the alleged “party of war” wants to use the conflict with Georgia to undermine President Dmitry Medvedev’s plans of modernize Russia, that “they say we must go further than Tbilisi,” apparently indicating possible plans of further military action to subdue other pro-Western Russian neighboring nations like Ukraine. Pavlovsky stated that by signing a ceasefire agreement brokered by Sarkozy, Medvedev has defeated the “party of war” (Ekho Moskvy, August 12).

More recently, on September 1, Andrei Piontkovsky wrote in an article published in the Moscow Times that Georgia has “split the Kremlin”:

The Georgia crisis revealed a new strategic force in the Kremlin that opposes both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. We still cannot name its players, but we are aware of its interests and impact on events in the same way that astronomers discern a new but invisible planet by recording its impact on known and visible objects in space.

One after another, loyal Kremlin pundits have appeared on television and radio to denounce “provokers,” whom they dare not name, for “planning the incursion of Russian troops all the way to Tbilisi and the establishment there of a pro-Russian government.”

And on September 3, Yulia Latynina published an article in Yezhednevny zhurnalquoted by Window on Eurasia – focusing on the conflict in Ingushetia and the increasing autonomy of the republic’s President Murad Zyazikov, once more with a reference to a split:

“the destabilization of the Caucasus” since the Georgian events reflects a fundamental divide in the Russian Federation. As a country, “Russia needs peace [there], but the siloviki need stars and power,” something they can only win by stirring up trouble and engaging in more violent acts.

Moreover, she adds, “the contemporary Russian model of power is so constructed that those in power can do anything – from the most familiar things like corruption to the most exotic like loss of control over the territory of a republic.” In this situation, the real criminals are not those who take bribes or assist in murders but those who have made this system possible.

The view that the Kremlin’s political system is traditionally characterized by power struggles and inter-factional competitions of various kinds is nothing new. During the Cold War it was the standard method used by Western Kremlinologists to explain the apparent shifts of emphasis in Soviet foreign policy. While throughout the post-World War II period there undoubtedly were divisions within the ranks of the Politburo, the notion that there were “liberals” vying with “conservatives” in the corridors of Moscow’s power became a generally employed means of misleading western public opinion about Soviet intentions. One of the major examples that comes to mind is the Soviet War Scare of 1983, when belligerent statements of a most extreme kind began to come from the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, who until then had been carefully presented to Western opinion as a “liberal” by comparison with his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev. One aim of this image campaign was to influence and support Western anti-war movements, and to create a general atmosphere of fear and uncertainty throughout Europe which might render Western politicians – especially American ones – more amenable to Soviet foreign policy aims. As Benjamin B. Fischer notes in his CIA monograph A Cold War Conundrum:

US-Soviet relations had come full circle by 1983–from confrontation in the early postwar decades, to detente in the late 1960s and 1970s, and back to confrontation in the early 1980s. Europeans were declaring the outbreak of “Cold War II.” French President Francois Mitterrand compared the situation that year to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1948 face-off over Berlin. On this side of the Atlantic, the doyen of Soviet-watchers, George Kennan, exclaimed that the new superpower imbroglio had the “familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war–that and nothing else.” Such fears were exaggerated. Even at this time of heightened tension, nowhere in the world were the superpowers squared off in a crisis likely to escalate into full-scale nuclear war. But a modern-day Rip van Winkle waking up in 1983 would have noted little if any improvement in the international political climate; he would not have realized that a substantial period of detente had come and gone while he slept. The post-detente “second Cold War” was essentially a war of words–strong and at times inflammatory words. In March 1983, President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the world” and as an “evil empire.” Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov responded by calling the US President insane and a liar.4 Then things got nasty. Following Andropov’s lead–and presumably his orders–the Soviet propaganda machine let loose a barrage of harsh verbal assaults on the United States reminiscent of the early days of the Cold War. Moscow repeatedly accused President Reagan of fanning the flames of war and compared him to Hitler–an image even more menacing than that of Andropov as the evil empire’s Darth Vader. Such hyperbole was more a consequence than a cause of tension, but it masked real fears.

As Fischer shows, the 1983 Soviet war scare was a real one, and the possibility that a nuclear exchange might have taken place between the United States and the USSR was not a fantasy. And in the end, the Kremlin’s careful engineering and manipulation of terms like “hawks” and “doves”, of “liberals” and “hardliners” which were supposed to exist within its power structures, mimicking the “hawk-dove” dynamics of US foreign and defence policy, turned out to be a mask for something much more disturbing – a call to arms which could have involved a military invasion of Western Europe. The painstakingly crafted KAL-007 crisis, involving the shootdown of a South Korean aircraft over Soviet territory,burgeoned into a mighty ratcheting up of military tension combined with ferocious anti-American rhetoric.

Radio Liberty interviews with Soviet citizens traveling abroad suggested that much of the Soviet public was genuinely alarmed. A series of officially sponsored activities at home fed the frenzy. Moscow organized mass “peace” rallies; sponsored “peace” classes in schools and universities; arranged closed briefings on the “war danger” for party activists and military personnel; designated a “civil defense” month; broadcast excerpts from Stalin’s famous 1941 speech to troops parading through Red Square on their way to defend Moscow from the approaching German army; and televised a heavyhanded Defense Ministry film that depicted a warmongering America bent on world domination. The Politburo also considered, but rejected, proposals to shift to a six-day industrial workweek and to create a special “defense fund” to raise money for the military. What were the Soviet leadership’s motives? Some observers who have studied the war scare have written it off as political theater–as an elaborate orchestration to release tensions over KAL 007 at home and promote the ongoing Soviet “peace offensive” abroad.99 But it clearly was more than that. The leadership would not have invoked the memory of World War II–which is emotionally charged and had an almost sacred significance for the Soviet people–solely for propaganda purposes. It would not have fueled popular fears about nuclear extinction just to boost morale and influence public opinion abroad.

Thus,when the chips were finally down, the notions cultivated in the Soviet-encouraged talk about the supposed presence of conflicting liberal and hardline interests within the Kremlin began to fall away. The KAL-007 incident became the signal for a sudden stiffening of resolve, which indicated the true manner in which the Kremlin machinery worked. So today, in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, one can detect the beginnings of a change in Russia’s foreign policy – the advertised presence of “splits” in Russian power is actually a sign that what may be imminent is not a softening or weakening of will on the part of the Kremlin’s leaders, but rather its opposite: and it may point once again to the “war psychosis” that is latent in Russia’s defence psychology and military thinking. The psychosis can be traced all the way back to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and its main consequence: Germany’s (and in both Soviet and current neo-Soviet mythology also West’s, and the United States’) “betrayal” of Russia in 1941.

3 comments

  1. I don’t believe, the methods of Cold war time western Kremlinology could be directly applicable now for understanding today’s Russian oil-fuelled kleptocracy aims. It’s similar but not the same. The Soviet time gerontocracy was under influence of a number of ideological stereotypes. Now we have another situation, but anyway, the Kremlin can’t step back to the situation before the August, 8, so we can’t wait some favourable changes in the Russian politics, but toughening is possible.

  2. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the modern Russian state is the “same” as the Soviet Union. But quite a lot of the methods the Kremlin uses to present its face to the outside world haven’t changed much. The way in which Putin was initially marketed as a “liberal”, or the similar expectations that were raised about Medvedev – these selling techniques are definitely reminiscent of Soviet times and the promotion of figures like Andropov, or even Khrushchev. Also, the 1941 mythology that drove the Soviet military machine hasn’t really gone away, for all the Putin/Medvedev regime’s curryiing of favour with the German political elite, and the attempts to divide and rule in Europe. I think the “oil-fueled” argument, while valid to a certain extent, is a bit over-driven – what the West is really up against now is an old-fashioned attempt to resuscitate military aggression as a basis for foreign policy. On the warped and mistaken pretext that “if the U.S. can do it in Iraq, Russia can do it in Georgia”.

    What’s new is the Kremlin’s characterization of August 8 as “Russia’s 9/11”. That truly preposterous claim does give us in the West something to think about.

  3. It’s true, they operate by some old-years concepts, so there isn’t so more difference between Putin and Brezhnev for example, except that Brezhnev was religious communist, but Putin is simply cynic. From other side it’s not so hard to notice how Putin plays on the contradictions between the Europe and the US, between various European countries, old and new EU members etc., using that not all of them are ready to risk and rigidly demand from Russia to adhere civilised rules.

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