RUSSIA: by John MillerNews Weekly
What Russia's presidential election portends
, December 10, 2011
As the international media become ever more preoccupied with the forthcoming US presidential election, it is vital that we pay no less attention to Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 4, 2012.
Not for a moment have I ever doubted that the leading contender and probable winner will be Vladimir Putin, Russian President for two consecutive terms following the rule of Boris Yeltsin; and President Putin’s Prime Minister will be his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, President for the past four years.
This will represent a consolidation of the politics and policies of the Putinist ruling class. Both have had the support of the major Russian political party, United Russia. As some cynical observers might say, it has been all according to plan.
At this stage, the only declared challenger is the perennial communist candidate, 67-year-old Gennadiy Zyuganov, who has no realistic hope of taking the election to a second round of voting, especially as Putin remains very popular among the Russian people and is viewed as a strong leader in a way that Russians appreciate.
Many Russians, especially outside the major cities, still retain nostalgic memories for the stability and certainty of communism; but, realistically, most Russians today have a longer life span, enjoy freedom of travel and religion and, like many citizens in the West, are perplexed by economic cycles and vagaries of life.
Over the past few years, there has been intermittent academic speculation about the prospects for a new Cold War. Some of Putin’s more intemperate utterances about the West have done little to kill off this speculation.
However, a new Cold War is something of a non-issue, in the sense that Russia is no longer a superpower and has as many reasons to adopt a more reasonable tone in its dealings with the West, and the US in particular, than to throw its weight around in international affairs.
For example, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is as real for Russia as for the West, irrespective of whether this is recognised in the Kremlin. In the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, Russians are no less infidels than are the Americans. Moreover, the Russians are closer to the Middle East and the Afghan-Pakistan region. Furthermore, al Qaeda and linked organisations have strong support in many of the former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Tatarstan, Turkmenstan, Uzbekistan and, closer to home, in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, North Ossetia, Abkhazia and Dagestan, home to the disparate arms of the Caucasus Emirate, now a proscribed terrorist organisation.
I have little information on the much-touted intelligence cooperation between the Russian FSB, the American FBI and other Western anti-terrorist groupings. I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis of any information exchange, probably out of curiosity.
Russia and the West have so many pressing issue they face in common, especially the threat from global terrorism, that the Russians would be well advised to cut back on the high levels of espionage operations which they are still directing against the West.
Russia is notoriously difficult for the West to work with, even 21 years after the collapse of communism. Developments in foreign affairs, especially in relation to Libya, Syria and Iran, have show that there is no desire in Moscow to follow the Western lead, and Russia still gains from selling weapons systems to countries hostile to the West.
The Texas-based think tank, Strategic Forecasting, Inc., which prides itself on providing timely intelligence, recently claimed that Russia was rebuilding an empire while it could. (See Lauren Goodrich’s article in Stratfor magazine, October 31, 2011).
In light of this warning, it would do well to be sceptical about the likelihood of the US “becoming friends” with Russia any time soon.
Indeed, we should heed the testimony of the late Colonel Sergei Tretyakov, a former KGB/SVR intelligence officer who defected to the US in 2000, and whose remarkable story is recounted in Pete Earley’s book, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War (2008). Tretyakov bluntly and convincingly warned that Russia would never be America’s friend.
While Lauren Goodrich’s Stratfor analysis makes some valid points about Russia’s nostalgia for its lost empire, it is perhaps better to regard current Russian actions as consolidation of economic power and strategic alliances that could give it more international clout.
Countering Stratfor’s view was a recent trenchant editorial in the Russian business daily, Vedomosti [The Record], entitled “The Kremlin’s imaginary world” (reproduced in the Moscow Times, November 22, 2011). In plain language that no Russian would have dared to use during the time of communism, the Vedomosti editorial ridiculed Moscow’s imperial delusions.
It said: “In the Kremlin’s imaginary, utopian world, Russia is the core of a powerful regional alliance stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. That union is a force with which the whole world must reckon, especially because the Russian military will be armed with cutting-edge technology and weapons and will overwhelm the entire world.”
While I regard the Russian election as being won four months out, there have been some indications of domestic discontent with Putin, but it could scarcely be described as organised or particularly substantial. A few accounts from BBC reporters in Moscow and St Petersburg reflect the stirrings perhaps of a desire for more change rather than a reversion to the past.
What troubles me most is the fairly generalised groupthink in Western academic circles, which routinely seems to preclude any in-depth analysis of Russian intentions and long-range goals. Probably nothing is more discouraging to foreign affairs realists than the number of articles written by those who still persist in seeing Russia through rose-tinted spectacles.
Other commentators of a more conspiratorial disposition dismiss the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and claim that the dissolution of the USSR was little more than a very clever Russian tactic to outflank the US.
In light of this latter view, it is rather ironical — tragic, even — that Mr Gorbachev has tried to set up in Russia a European-style social democratic party, but has been quietly discouraged by powers from behind the scenes.
Western diplomacy also appears to succumb to more wishful thinking than sober appreciation of the moves among the Russian ruling classes. Important developments are routinely overlooked. Added to that, the quality and depth of Western commentary on the forthcoming Russian election reflect a degree of academic inertia.
The US conservative publication National Review recently produced an article entitled, “Whither Russia?” (November 21, 2011). It consisted of a two-part discussion which purported to assess the personalities of Putin and Medvedev as well as the future prospects for Russia’s shaky democracy.
The Kremlin’s third man? Vladislav Surkov.
The arguments have very little to commend the publication, but, in discussing the change of leadership from Putin to Medvedev and back to Putin, mention was made of a significant background figure working for the Putin campaign — a person jocularly described as a Karl Rove-like figure.
This mysterious person has been described elsewhere as “the grey Cardinal of the Kremlin”. He is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov, and has been described by the all-knowing New York Times as the third-ranked power figure in the Kremlin after Putin and Medvedev.
It has been speculated that he has political plans of his own, described by some as reformist.
Among the few things we know about Surkov is that he is a somewhat retiring 47-year-old, who formerly worked as “an agent for a crack intelligence special operations unit in the Red Army’s intelligence corps” (World Politics Review, August 9, 2007).
In the language of intelligence services, this translates into the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, or GRU, the foreign military intelligence directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (formerly the Soviet High Command).
The GRU’s existence was practically unknown in Russia until the time of Mr Gorbachev’s perestroika.
During my service in Western intelligence, I observed some Soviet GRU officers in action. Their level of professionalism was generally exceptional and there were far fewer defectors from the GRU’s ranks than from the better-known KGB’s, or from other branches of the Soviet government.
Having a former GRU officer close to the locus of power in Russia is something new and interesting.
The GRU has survived every major upheaval in Russia since the early years of Bolshevik rule and still prospers today.
John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.
Kevin Daniel Leahy, “Vladislav Surkov: Putin aide could be Russian kingmaker”, World Politics Review, August 9, 2007.
Pete Earley, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War (New York: G.P. Putnam’s / Penguin Group, 2008).
Lauren Goodrich, “Russia: rebuilding an empire while it can”, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc., Austin, Texas), October 31, 2011.
Ellen Barry, “Operating in the shadows of power in Russia”, New York Times, November 4, 2011.
John Dunlop and Daniel Foster, “Whither Russia?”, National Review (New York), November 21, 2011.
“The Kremlin’s imaginary world”, editorial in Vedomosti [The Record] (Moscow), reproduced in Moscow Times, November 22, 2011.