Russia's Project 2008: Reforming the Military and Preparing a Coup

By Blank, Stephen | World Affairs, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Russia's Project 2008: Reforming the Military and Preparing a Coup


Blank, Stephen, World Affairs


Today least two major crises threaten Russia s internal stability and security. The first threat is the continuation of the Chechen war that, since 2004, has spread into the North Caucasus. The extension of this war places the entire region of the North Caucasus at risk for an unending, long-term terrorist insurgency. This threat can no longer be ignored; indeed, it places the integrity and stability of the Russian Federation at risk. Therefore, the conflict now receives overwhelming governmental, media, and military attention, right up to President Vladimir Putin, who traveled to Dagestan and the Caspian coast in mid-2005. Indeed, close examination of developments in reforming the force structure of Russia's multiple armed forces since 2002-2003--when practical application of such reforms began, along with a change in threat assessment that led to a new emphasis on terrorism and insurgency--indicates Chechnya's impact on those changes in force structure. (1)

The second, perhaps even more portentous threat, is the succession to Putin. The Russian constitution prohibits Putin from succeeding himself after his term ends in 2008. This constitutional obstacle presents Russia's elite with a very difficult problem. The various means by which they hope to overcome this obstacle have been called "Project 2008." Succession, that is, the transfer of power and especially the transfer of power by wholly legitimate democratic means, is a primary weakness of Russia's political system. (2) Every succession since 1991 has been the result of violence or electoral fraud, if not both. (3) The recurrence of these phenomena is one of the most important indicators that Russia's elite refuses to be bound by any system of laws or of legal-political institutions. Consequently, democratic institutions that can ensure the legitimacy of a succession--or even of a government in power--have atrophied, and Russia's political history is characterized by one-man rule and constant struggles among the elite over his support. (4)

Western diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have publicly expressed a preference that Putin observe the terms of the constitution and not succeed himself in 2008. (5) Obviously, if he were to attempt such a coup or stage one similar to the coup that led to his elevation, he would set off a constitutional crisis, and a phony election could trigger both an external and internal campaign to unseat him. Clearly, the prospect of another "color revolution" similar to those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan terrifies the Kremlin's current masters.

They have good reason for fearing such a denouement. Putin's underlings actually celebrate that they have smashed all institutions and bureaucratic "veto groups" as well as any hope of autonomous political action from the Duma. Igor Bunin, director general of the Center for Political Technologies, stated that Putin's reforms have aimed to convert the entire state system into a monocentric administration in which he and his entourage have all the power. In such a system, conflicts within the bureaucracy are supposedly absent because it is vertically integrated. Hence, the government becomes a technical instrument rather than a policy initiator, a position reserved for Putin and his entourage in the presidential chancellery. (6)

Putin, his chancellery, and their media spokesmen evidently believe they have achieved a result that has eluded Russian rulers since Nicholas I, namely officialdom's recurrent dream of a perfectly integrated vertical hierarchy that functions strictly as a machine. Because this machine supposedly incarnated the tsar's position as superseding all factional, partial, and sectoral interests, it was wholly depoliticized. Only the state truly represents the genuine national interest as opposed to partial and sectoral elite interests. Of course, this system left those that ran the machine with all the power. Russian and foreign analysts therefore rightly underscore the persistence of tsarist mores and structures in Russian political life. …

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