He’s back – but the power struggle around Vladimir Putin continues behind the scenes

Putin’s pals are pushing his buttons. EPA/Maxim Shipenkov

The apparent disappearance of Russian president Vladimir Putin between March 5 and 16 provoked a festival of Kremlinological speculation on a scale not seen since the temporary ousting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the abortive coup of 1991.

Underlying the speculation have been rumours of a power struggle between the security services (primarily the FSB) and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Neither are allies Putin can afford to do without, but little love appears to be lost between them. And although Putin is an FSB officer by background – and the security services have become powerful under his rule – as president he also may seek allies to balance the power of his service colleagues.

Russia has never been a simple nation state. Below the ruler there has rarely been a tightly integrated government. Indeed, successive Russian rulers carefully avoided this. Instead there are quasi-autonomous power blocs, sometimes known as “clans”. These compete for resources and favour but it is in the ruler’s interest to make sure no one bloc becomes too powerful.

The rules are not that different to those in Western political systems, except for the fact that the blocs are administrative rather than party-political or ideological. A closer analogy would be with the office politics of a large corporation.

In his first term, Putin’s regime succeeded through the ability to bridge competing institutions and ideologies. It involved a paradoxical alliance of economic liberals, statist St Petersburg lawyers and current and past members of the security services.

As the regime’s competitors – notably the business oligarchs – were overcome, security services such as the FSB increasingly filled the power vacuum. Soon the security services – or siloviki, as they are collectively known – became so powerful that the president struggled to maintain a balance of interests at the centre of power. The problem was not just between the siloviki and others but between the different siloviki factions themselves.

In 2007, for example, the head of the president’s own security service, Victor Zolotov, was deployed to defend one of the smaller security services against marginalisation by the powerful FSB. The FSB won the battle but soon after, Zolotov was appointed by the president to head the internal troops of the Ministry of the Interior. Since that ministry and the FSB are traditionally seen as rivals, the decision was interpreted as a move to redress the balance of power.

However, with the slowing down of the Russian economy in the late 2000s, the last significant bastion of liberalism in the Putin coalition – the state-owned Gazprom group which had previously provided such a strong power base for Putin’s once-closest ally Medvedev – began to to lose ground to the siloviki, so that the original coalition of forces became less balanced.

By this time, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman president of Chechnya, was emerging as a key Putin ally. Having fought for independence in the first Chechen war of 1994-6, Kadyrov and his militia supported the Russian government in the second Chechen war that began in 1999. It was through the transfer of power to Kadyrov that the war in Chechnya was brought to an end.

Putin and Kadyrov pictured in 2004. EPA

Under Putin’s presidency, regional leaders have kept a lower profile than they used to but Kadyrov has been the exception to this rule. Kadyrov’s power is based on the consensus that, without him, Chechnya and indeed much of the North Caucasus would be lost. His presence is seen as preventing the region from being plunged into instability and extremism.

After Nemtsov

The assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February, appeared to bring matters to a head. After the FSB investigators arrested the suspects – apparently loyal members of the Chechen interior ministry forces – a series of newspaper reports, leaks and blog comments created the impression that there was now a power struggle between the FSB and Kadyrov and even that Kadyrov and the FSB were now “at war”.

Combined with the president’s unexplained absence, these signs of a high-level power struggle in the wake of the boldest political assassination for decades, against a backcloth of economic pressures and international tension, created a febrile atmosphere.

Hard evidence of a rift between the FSB and Kadyrov is not easy to come by, however. At a meeting in Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus on March 11, Nikolai Patrushev, former FSB leader and chair of Russia’s Security Council, even praised Karydrov’s contribution to security in the region. The meeting did not give the appearance of two sides in a bitter dispute.

Meanwhile there may be signs of a new pragmatism within the Russian security elite. In a speech on January 15, former prime minister Evgeny Primakov (long regarded as associated with the FSB) called for more power to be handed to Russia’s regions and businesses and for co-operation with the West, especially on terrorism.

As if in response, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, visited Washington the following month and spoke about the need for renewed co-operation with the US on terrorism.

In contrast, Putin’s return coincided with a dramatic order, via defence minister Sergei Shoigu to mobilise and test the battle-readiness of the entire Northern Fleet in response to new threats identified by Shoigu (presumably recent NATO deployments).

Putin and Shoigu visit Crimea in 2014. EPA

One possible reading of what has occurred is that a rift has grown between Putin and the FSB over what the next steps in the growing confrontation with the West should be.

Some signs suggest that the FSB is potentially looking to re-establish co-operation and reduce international tension. At the same time there were signs that FSB or its allies may have been putting pressure on Putin’s key ally Kadyrov.

Putin would be concerned that if Kadyrov falls, the Caucasus would be lost. In a bid to avoid being dictated to by the FSB, the president may have enlisted the support of the now-powerful Ministry of Defence.

However, just as the FSB may have an interest in returning to stability, the military may have an interest in escalating tension with the West rather than defusing it, at least in the short term. Thus the chess game of power relations within the Russian government has become enmeshed with Russia’s confrontation with the West, with unpredictable results.

All that said though, Putin’s visible discomfort during his public appearance on March 16 could suggest a far simpler interpretation of what has happened. It may be that Putin is indeed seriously ill and that this has been known to his immediate circle for some time.

If this is the case, the Nemtsov shooting and the subsequent in-fighting and rumours of a coup may not have been about Putin but the post-Putin world. This could be the start of a succession crisis and a power struggle. The FSB may have been trying to sideline Kadyrov as potential successor. Who their candidate would be and whether they will support or compete with Shoigu as a potential successor it is too early to say.