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Too good to check: Russian oligarchs about to loosen Putin's own windows?

(AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, FILE)

Oh, would that this were true. In this case, as Matt Vespa wrote this morning, “consider the source” might be an understatement. Ukraine’s intel service floated a rumor overnight that the oligarchs may be considering regime change as a way to end the war in Ukraine, salvage what’s left of the Russian military and its deterrence value, and oh by the way get their yachts back.

The key point in this New York Post report is the sourcing, coming from a government with every legit reason possible to wage a propaganda war. On the other hand, isn’t this really the point of the maximum sanctions regime thrown against Russia and the oligarchs in particular?

A group of Russian elites are allegedly conspiring to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin and “restore economic ties” with the West, according to Ukrainian intelligence.

“Poisoning, sudden illness, accident – Russia’s elite is considering removing Putin,” declared a Sunday Facebook post from the Chief Directorate of Intelligence for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

The ministry claimed that a group of “influential people” has been forming in Russia who want to “remove Putin from power as soon as possible and restore economic ties with the West, which were destroyed by the war in Ukraine.”

Normally I’d dismiss this, but one has to wonder just how long the ruling oligarchical class will put up with Vladimir Putin, too. The longer this goes on, the more remote the chances of them getting back their seized assets, including but hardly limited to their yachts. With Putin bombing Ukraine’s cities into rubble in one of his signature terror tactics, the oligarchs may face a situation where any assets that get seized wind up in the hands of Zelensky in a settlement to use for rebuilding after Russian atrocities. That becomes more true if Zelensky actually manages to win this war by destroying Russia’s ground forces rather than coming to a settlement. And the longer this goes on, the better the chances that Zelensky might just inflict such a defeat on Russia.

Besides, what do the oligarchs owe Putin at this point? Putin promised them a walkover in Ukraine. Instead, he’s looking impotent and deranged, not a great combination for longevity among fascist tyrants. Instead of delivering a new Greater Russian Empire, Putin may have just condemned Russians to a decade or more of Soviet-esque poverty. In fact, that might be a bigger problem for oligarchs in a nation known for a popular revolt or two, and one that might force them to act before the people put them up against the wall along with Putin.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the first place, this rumor could very well be the construct of an imaginative functionary in Ukraine’s Chief Directorate of Intelligence. Are we expecting/hoping for such an oligarchical revolt? Sure, but let’s not make Putin’s mistake and inhabit our own fantasies too much. Furthermore, even if some oligarchs are considering the idea, Putin has tremendous personal power and control. If you come after the king, you’d best not miss, after all — and Putin may be difficult to target or even find now. These fat-cat-aratchicks might need an army to pull off such a coup.

Even if that worked, who rises in his place? You can bet your bottom dollar it wouldn’t be Alexei Navalny or any other populist democratizer. The oligarchs will find a Putinesque replacement, or maybe Putin-lite with 30% less war. The New York Post suggests that outcome, too:

The intel alleges that the group has already been eyeing Alexander Bortnikov, the Russian Director of the Federal Security Service and a member of Putin’s inner circle, as a successor to the president.

The Directorate claimed Bortnikov and Putin had a falling out after Putin blamed him for “fatal miscalculations” in the slow-going and costly invasion of Ukraine.

If that’s true, don’t pop the champagne when it happens. Bortnikov is cut from the same cloth as Putin and is Putin’s top hatchet man, or was until the Ukraine debacle, which Bortnikov helped arrange. University of San Francisco intel expert Dr. Filip Kovacevic noted at the beginning of the war that Bortnikov was a major figure in “the liquidation of internal critics” and helped Putin set up the utterly unconvincing border pretexts for the Ukraine invasion:

Given his long Kremlin service, Bortnikov has perhaps become the most loyal and trustworthy of Putin’s aides among the siloviki, or strongmen, atop the power ministries. He has turned the FSB into the “punishing [and deadly] sword” of Putin’s regime, the old Bolshevik phrase for the Cheka. His wrinkled face and the lingering hostility in his eyes are the literal embodiment of Russia under Putin. He will unquestioningly follow Putin’s orders until the end of his days.

Bortnikov’s FSB is both the brain and the heart of the Putin regime, a “state within the state,” according to an in-depth investigation by the Dossier Center, an organization funded by the exiled Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The FSB’s control of Russian political, economic and social life is unrivaled in the nation’s history, even greater than the KGB during its Soviet heyday. There’s no communist ideology or party nomenklatura to limit and restrain its power. And as an organ of the Russian kleptocracy under Vladimir Putin, the FSB has proved adept at intervening in financial matters for the personal enrichment of its top leadership, starting with Bortnikov and his family. He is no doubt one of the richest political figures in Russia. …

Allegedly unpretentious and humble, Bortnikov, according to his hagiographers, distinguished himself from his classmates by his “logical thinking and highly developed intuition.” Evidently, the young Bortnikov matched the profile of the ideal Chekist, as defined by its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky as an individual with “a burning heart, cool head, and clean hands.” Of course, as with many a KGB recruit, Bortinikov’s hands got very dirty over time, but his cool, even icy personality and enthusiasm for secret police work fit the bill for a successful career.

So Bortnikov would only end up being Putin, perhaps without Putin’s imperial ambitions. One can easily see why Bortnikov would appeal to the oligarchs who want to keep their vast fortunes, but his ascent would only provide a couple of saving graces otherwise. One: Bortnikov would be under pressure to denounce the war and get out Ukraine once he got Putin out of the way; in fact, he’d have no choice unless he wanted to fall out of a window next. Two: at 70 he’s slightly older than Putin and can be counted on to have a much shorter tenure at the top. That’s about it for the upside, although one can understand why Ukrainians might think that’s plenty. The rest would be the Russian peoples’ problem, not theirs.

Even for the oligarchs, though, this is likely too risky. Deposing Putin in a coup would mean chaos in Moscow and the rest of the country for a considerable period, and chaos creates incentives and momentum all its own. The people might not sit still for a non-Putin Putin installed by the same exploiters of the masses in the oligarchical class who gave them the original Putin in the first place. Navalny might lead a revolt that would sweep the oligarchs aside and send them scurrying into exile. Handing the government over to the head of the FSB might be the only way to preclude that, but it’s no guarantee — especially with their hands stained with so much blood over the last twenty years in killing off dissidents.

It’s a fun fantasy to think that the oligarchs might pull a Brutus-at-the-Senate moment with Putin, but none of them are Brutus or have his high-minded principles of restoring a republic at stake. And none of them likely have the guts to go up against their Caesar either, especially not after just a few weeks of setbacks. Don’t be surprised if Bortnikov falls out a window soon just to make a point as to why they should continue to fear Putin.

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David Strom 12:30 PM | April 23, 2024
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