Under the Sword of Damocles
Nobody knows exactly what Putin is doing in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, protected by a six-meter-high wall and a ring of heavily-armed security men. All we know that he cancelled his official visit to the Crimea.
It seems quite strange for a man of driving ambition and thirst for honour. Nevertheless, Putin remains in the residence. He probably has learned the lessons from history and does not want to repeat the mistake of the Soviet leaders who made their trips to Crimea, only to be thrown off the throne.
An Invisible Coup d'Etat
The first was Nikita Khrushchev, the peasant who emerged from the coal mines of Ukraine to become master of the USSR during part of the Cold War. In October 1964, while resting in the Crimea, Khrushchev was stripped of all his offices and the unlimited tyrannical power he had wielded was taken over by the Politburo colleagues he himself had trained to succeed him.
Forty-eight hours later, the bare announcement lapped out over the wires of TASS, the Soviet press agency: “The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. granted the request of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev on his relief from the duties of Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. in view of his advanced age and deterioration of health.”
The statement did not contain a single word of thanks or praise for the ousted leader. Moscow’s streets were quiet. There were no signs of movement by either the army or police. This case can be described as a silent, invisible, bloodless coup d’état. The next one was much more impressive.
More Terrible than Death
The future seemed clear enough for Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who served as General Secretary of the Communist Party, and as the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In 1986, he initiated a radical period of reform, including Perestroika, (literally “restructuring” in Russian) and Glasnost, or “openness,” which gave the Soviet people relative freedom of speech.
The event that changed everything was the proposed signing of a new union treaty scheduled for August 20, 1991, which would have softened the iron nature of the U.S.S.R. by transferring many powers to the constituent republics of the union. With Gorbachev on vacation in Crimea the conservative politicians and military establishment formed a State Emergency Committee.
On August 19, troops loyal to the plotters occupied most of Moscow but met resistance at the seat of the Russian parliament. Boris Yeltsin, then oppositional leader, quickly climbed atop an armored vehicle and emerged as the hero of the resistance to the “Gang of Eight.” In a day or two, the coup had fizzled, and Gorbachev was released from house arrest. Four months later, Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia agreed to formally disband the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev was left a president without a state.
He lost power, authority, and thousands of privileges. For Vladimir Putin, such disgrace is far more terrible than death itself. It is unlikely that the grateful Crimeans will be able to see the Russian President with their own eyes in the near future.
Walking on Thin Ice
After outmaneuvering the U.S. and Europe in Syria, Iran, and now Ukraine, Putin is riding on a wave, enjoying support from the nation, but that may not last long. The continuing invasion of Ukraine has perplexed the sober-minded members of Russia’s elite, many of whom view it as reckless. They finally understood that Putin has put nationalistic and imperialistic goals above economic interests -- and they’re getting nervous. Russia’s elite is not ready to sacrifice its luxury London apartments or holidays in Cote d’Azur for the sake of a Great State.
That was normal in the Soviet Union, but as we all know “the times, they are a-changin.’”
Of course, Vladimir Putin and a great many more of his retinue were once communists. But at present they are inveterate capitalists. You’ll never find them humming The Internationale or studying 55 volumes of Lenin’s Complete Collected Works. Yet almost every one of them well-versed in tricky business and shady financial schemes.
Russia’s oligarchs make their money in their native land, while they prefer to bank it and spend it in the West. That is why Putin’s moves scare them. Thanks to Western sanctions, they now have a high financial motive to remove Putin from power.
From now on, he cannot trust his closest associates. And it makes him even more lonely at the political top.
Meanwhile, the United States and European Union threaten Russia with more sanctions for its actions in Ukraine. Putin’s inner circle becomes narrower with every new day. The loop is slowly tightened.