Nikita S. Khrushchev in East Berlin, 1963 (Photo: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0628-0015-035)
In the swirl of rumors reflecting the limited and only suggestive information anyone has about what is going on in the Kremlin right now, some of the most interesting analyses not surprisingly have been those which have drawn parallels with earlier leadership crises in Russia.
Whether those analogies are correct or not only time will tell. But they are intriguing for at least two reasons. On the one hand, they underscore the historically saturated nature of Russian political discussions in which every current event is seen through the lens of a past one, with people lining up often because of what happened long ago.
And on the other, such arguments by analogies point to certain continuing features of political life in Russia regardless of whether that country was called the Russian Empire, the USSR, or the Russian Federation or whether its leaders identified themselves as tsarist, communist, or post-communist.
One of the most interesting of the analogies now on offer is provided by Maksim Kalashnikov who suggests that Putin and his country now find themselves in a position like that of Khrushchev and the USSR after Moscow’s defeat in the Cuban Missile Crisis but before the Soviet leader was ousted in October 1964.
In a commentary today, Kalashnikov argues that “the absence of Putin in public in reality ever more suggests a quiet ‘covert coup d’etat,” one much like the one that overthrew Nikita Khrushchev 51 years ago, a move initiated by conservatives and the force structures appalled by the actions of the leader and convinced that Moscow must change course.
According to Kalashnikov, many of these conservative and force structure figures near the Kremlin are furious about Vladimir Putin’s adventurous but at the same time inconsistent policies in Ukraine, policies that have brought down on Russia’s head serious sanctions but that have not brought the victories Putin promised and they expected.
The murder of Boris Nemtsov and Putin’s support for Ramzan Kadyrov at a time when the security services were pursuing the “Chechen trace” was in many ways the last straw for Putin’s former supporters and current opponents, Kalashnikov says, adding that they clearly have had enough of his willful, but unpredictable and half-hearted approach to many things.
Those close to the Russian throne today know that Putin “in contrast to the picture drawn by propaganda is very indecisive.” At key moments, be they the Kursk disaster in 2000 or the demonstrations in 2012, he has fallen into a funk and not taken the kind of tough and decisive actions many around him expected and wanted.
Such people, Kalashnikov says, view Putin’s actions in Ukraine as equally half-hearted, with big threats but from their perspective small actions that have not led to the victories they thought were to be theirs. Some of them want to cut their losses by pulling back, others want to double their bets and launch a broader offensive, but both have problems with Putin.
In such a situation, “the most impossible thing becomes possible,” and consequently an October 1964-type ouster of Putin is possible. Khrushchev had to go after his miscalculation and humiliation in the Cuban missile crisis; Putin in this view must go “after the failure in the Donbas and the beginning of a new cold war.”
“But what will his successors do?” That is the question, Kalashnikov says. “Will they run to capitulate before the West? Or will they carry out the war [in Ukraine] to a victorious conclusion? … Will they begin to change the social-economic course in the Russian Federation in a significant way given that ‘Putinomics’ has led it into a disaster?”
Given what he knows about the upper reaches of the Russian force structures,” Kalashnikov says, he does not see grounds for “any optimism. They are completely the product of the dissolution of ‘the elite,’ completely dependent on the raw materials model, and [are in almost all cases] ‘effective managers,’” just like Putin.
And those reasons, together with the fact that these elites too are fundamentally divided will prevent a post-Putin Moscow from taking a consistent policy at least in the near term, just as it did after October 1964 when the two wings of the government, one under Leonid Brezhnev and the other under Andrey Kosygin, did the same.