What Is Putin's Plan?

By Andrew C. Kuchins
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Friday, September 28, 2007; 12:00 AM

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised everybody when he named the relatively unknown Victor Zubkov as his new prime minister. For months, many observers anticipated the naming of a new prime minister with great expectation, as conventional wisdom has held that this person will become the next Russian President. Nobody expected Zubkov. Once again, the unpredictable Mr. Putin zigged while Kremlin watchers zagged.

I had the privilege to be close to the action in Moscow two weeks ago while with the Valdai Discussion Group, an annual gathering of mostly Western journalists and scholars who are granted extraordinary access to meet with key members of Russia's political elite, including Putin. The forum is sponsored by the Russian News Agency, RIA Novosti and serves as part of the Kremlin's public relations efforts.

Upon arriving in Moscow I was struck by the many new billboards around town covered with the phrase "Putin's Plan, Victory of Russia." What is the plan? What is the victory? And over whom?

The stakes riding on this question have never been higher for Russia and the rest of the world. Russia not only has the largest stockpile of nuclear materials in the world and a UN Security Council veto; it also possesses new currencies of power including the most hydrocarbons and the third largest stash of foreign currency reserves.

One of our group's first scheduled meetings was with first deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov. A long-time Putin friend from their early KGB days in the 1970s, Ivanov appeared to have the inside track to succeed Putin. But a stunning thing happened. Minutes before our meeting with Mr. Ivanov, the unknown Zubkov was named as next prime minister. We were about to meet with the man who had apparently just been passed over.

But if Mr. Ivanov was at all disappointed by the news, it did not show as he gave an A-plus political performance for more than two hours. When asked about Mr. Putin's plans, Mr. Ivanov admonished us to "squeeze him hard."

Two days later, we were reminded that Mr. Putin is not an easy man to squeeze, so it is hard to say what we learned in talking with him. He did make clear that he will remain involved in Russian politics for the foreseeable future. After all, Mr. Putin and his team have made a fine start to restoring Russia as a world power, but they do not think eight years at the helm is long enough to implement a truly strategic plan -- they would need twenty to thirty years for that.

This is where the Kremlin-created ruling party, United Russia, comes in. One of United Russia's leading parliamentarians, Oleg Morozov, informed us that he expected that Mr. Putin would come to the next party congress in early October to make an important address. Today, Mr. Putin has as much political authority in Russia as any leader since Stalin. With his sky-high popularity, he will bless United Russia as his party, helping to ensure that it receives at least 50 percent of the vote in December. When he leaves office, if Putin does indeed step down -- a big if -- I would not be surprised to see him assume a party leadership role, a step that would make it an institution of real power and initiative. United Russia would be his vehicle to maintain political influence. One of Putin's top aides, Vladislav Surkov, has said the task for United Russia is not just winning the next elections, but presiding as the party of power for the next several decades, as was the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan or the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico.

So where does the surprising appointment of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister fit into Mr. Putin's plan? Mr. Putin assured us that Mr. Zubkov is an entirely trustworthy and highly capable bureaucrat who, by virtue of his responsibilities in monitoring "financial intelligence" in Russia, has all the information that exists on who owns what and how and where they spend their money. This is obviously highly valued information. Today's Kremlin directly and indirectly controls money flows of upwards of half a trillion dollars a year. Mr. Zubkov will ensure that nobody takes advantage of the political transition period to meddle with either those funds or the succession plans.

Ultimately, whether Mr. Zubkov, Mr. Ivanov, or somebody else is successor is less important than Mr. Putin's "plan" and the party's role in implementing it. It was clear from our visit that the details of the plan will be revealed only when Mr. Putin deems it necessary. Mr. Putin did tell us that Russia needs a "strong president." Mr. Ivanov could play that role, but I do not think Mr. Zubkov could. Of course, the man Putin would be most sure of fulfilling that role is himself.

The word among Moscow insiders today is that the Kremlin is looking very closely at the experience of four-time U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who led the United States through the Great Depression and WWII. Putin may have convinced himself that he is the only one who could "save" the Russian nation, and the job is unfinished, as it was in 1940 when FDR decided to run for a third term. The problem with the FDR analogy is twofold. First, Russia is neither in the midst of a world war nor an economic depression; there is no need for a "savior" now. And second, unlike the United States in the 1930s, Russia has not established a tradition of transfer of executive power through free and fair elections. Building that tradition by stepping down matters a great deal for Russia's political evolution. In doing so, Vladimir Putin has a chance to make the most important contribution to his political legacy by walking away.

Andrew C. Kuchins is senior associate and director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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