RUSSIAN FEDERATION SITREP 19 MARCH 2020 (by Patrick Armstrong)

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(NOTE: Away in Feb, felled by severe cold this moth. Not.not CV)

PUTIN 4EVER. (Russian Constitution text.) In January Putin suggested some amendments to the Constitution to be discussed and put to national vote in a referendum. Which is, I suppose, close enough to the amending procedure set out in Chapter 9. A commission was quickly set up and amendment suggestions came in. The final ones reflected the rather traditionalist flavour of Russia – marriage is between a man and a woman, a reference to God, indissolubility of Russian territory and some social guarantees. (Wikipedia list.)

Two proposals reflect what Russia has learned in the three decades since the first version. Russian legislation will now take primacy over international law and office holders cannot have dual citizenship or foreign residency permits. This is understandable: the original text had been written at a time when Russians were much more hopeful about the outside world than they are now: grim experience has taught them that "international institutions" are another stick to beat them with. (And, given the chaos and destruction that the self-proclaimed "Rules-Based International Order" has produced, even laudable.)

Among the changes suggested by Putin and approved was the removal from Article 81.3 of "for more than two terms running"; in short two terms only for a president. So what we were looking at was a slightly less president-dominated system with a two-term president, the end of naïve expectations about the "Rules-Based International Order" and some declarations to make conservatives happy.

(I do not now remember why the term limit was in the Constitution – my vague memory is that Western advisors insisted on it so as to reduce dictatorship possibilities. There were, I remember, much fear of the Communists coming back in those days. But, a term limit is not normal world practice and most countries don't worry about it – MacKenzie King was PM of Canada for more than 21 years.)

So far so good and all reasonable enough and sensible.

Enter Valentina Tereshkova. Since we're changing the Constitution, said she, then we should start the presidential term counting clock all over again. In other words, when Putin finishes this term in 2024, he can run twice more. Did she think this up on her own or was she put up to it? No one seems to know. Putin addressed the Duma, said it was OK with him if the Constitutional Court approved. Which it did. At this point it is reasonable to observe that it is hardly "constitutional" if you rule that any president can restart the clock by making a few twiddles to the Constitution, is it?

The full package has not yet been approved by a referendum on 22 April but all indications are that it will be: a recent poll showed that a solid majority was quite happy to have Putin stay in office. Meretriciously the voters will be asked to approve the whole package or nothing.

So, what to say about all this? There are, as usual, several theories. First are those who have said from the beginning that Putin would contrive a way to stay on forever. Well, there isn't much of a retort to them except to to wonder why he didn't just amend Article 81.3, is there? Another theory holds that Putin feels he has to stay on because only he can manage things in the dangerous times of the decline of the Imperium Americanum. In his speech to the Duma he referred to Roosevelt's breaking the two-term custom, adding: "When a country is going through such upheavals and such difficulties (in our case we have not yet overcome all the problems since the USSR, this is also clear), stability may be more important and must be given priority." Well, that decline is undeniably dangerous and there will be many crisis points; but it will take several dangerous decades and Putin certainly won't be here when the power earthquake is finally over. And there's always some crisis, somewhere. Another idea is that what he has really done is leave the possibility of running again thereby avoiding a lame duck period before he does go in 2024. Maybe: Putin is coy in this interview.

But, altogether, the manoeuvre leaves a bad taste in the mouth: manipulative, shabby, slipshod, legal only in the most pedantic sense, arbitrary, second-rate and poorly thought out. Very disappointing to someone who thought Putin did not want to be the Turkmenbashi of Russia.

If the system that he and his team spent 20 years building doesn't work without him, then it doesn't work.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Canada Russia Observer


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17 Responses to RUSSIAN FEDERATION SITREP 19 MARCH 2020 (by Patrick Armstrong)

  1. Patrick, thanks for the detailed explanation of this move. I share your disappointment, but I’m not at all surprised. The earlier constitutional changes left an opening for Putin to continue ruling Russia. This change just makes that opening into a four lane highway. To be fair, I think the majority of politicians vying to lead their countries think they are their countries’ best hope. Putin is no different.
    When the USSR first collapsed, the void was immediately filled by many Academy of Science technicians. That didn’t last long. They were quickly shunted aside by former CPSU members, a decidedly younger and more pragmatic bunch than the CPSU old guard, but with the same background. I knew some of the academics that were shunted aside. That’s why I see only minor differences between the Russia of the Bolsheviki (as my great grandmother called all Russians) and today’s Russia of the Russkii.
    Hope you recover from your cold. SWMBO and I had colds for several weeks now and are fearful of being hauled off to an isolation ward if we cough in public.

  2. Barbara Ann says:

    Good to see you back Patrick.
    “ holders cannot have dual citizenship or foreign residency permits.” No constitution is complete without similar safeguards IMO. Compare and contrast with Iraq, where a dual US citizen, formerly of Bremmer’s CPA no less, has just been appointed PM-designate. Perhaps one day Iraq too will get to exert sovereignty over its own constitution.
    Do you have any thoughts on the OPEC+ bust up? Have Putin & MBS cooked this up together to challenge the petrodollar or just poach market share? Thanks.

  3. Voatboy says:

    >, legal only in the most pedantic sense,
    I am not a lawyer, but all modern laws seem corrupt to me. All modern laws seem to uphold the letter of the law and subvert the spirit of the law. All modem laws seem to be legal only in a pedantic sense. Let us pray that my perception is wrong about this, or at least let us hope that most people don’t share my perception, because a nation state that is widely perceived to be without meaningful law lacks legitimacy, and thus is unstable.

  4. OIL price.
    My first thoughts are 1) yes Putin & Co have decided that it’s time to strike at the US 2) lower energy prices will help China a) recover from Covid b) take a big step forward. If so, the next punch may come from Beijing.
    What’s going on with MbS? Haven’t a clue but I doubt he’ll be smiling as the price war drags on.
    Are we going through a Really Big Change Point? My thoughts when Covid appeared (and I’m collecting data) is that 2020 will be the year the West lost its mojo. No longer the Leader, the Most Competent, the Saviour.
    For example this (all based on the prime directive that we’re best Hasn’t worn well has it?
    So maybe Putin is staying on because he’s fired a barrage and wants to be around to mastermind the next stages.

  5. J says:

    Hope you’re feeling better. Colds anytime are a bummer.
    Putin did an Ippon seoi nage on MBS in the oil war.

  6. JerseyJeffersonian says:

    I think that this oil thing is, indeed, aimed at the fracking “industry”. Yes, it is impressive that it is done at all, but it is not now, nor will it ever be likely to be profitable. The yield so rapidly declines, that the capital investment required is not going to be recouped in the vast majority of instances. Thus far, the only thing that has kept it even marginally viable has been the oil price being high enough, coupled with the willingness of investors to set large sums of money on fire. Unless the whole thing were to be nationalized, and accepting plunging into a black hole of misallocated resources by the Fed (nothing new there, so never say never…), that sector is toast.
    But I suspect that Putin has had enough of the Saudis, and the jihadi-supporting Gulfies, setting the Middle East ablaze with the sponsorship of this stuff made possible by the price of oil. This is a matter of national security for Russia, which has had to fight down Wahabbist types in their country, as well as in their near abroad. By slashing the oil price, they undermine that high price and the ability to both support the Wahabbists, and to content their growing and mostly unproductive home populations. I am quite sure that the Russians are also mindful of the threats made against them by the Gulfies around the time of the Sochi Olympics, and it is payback time now. They have helped fight the Islamists to a standstill, and now they are letting the Saudis & ilk reflect on the errors of their ways.
    But the Russians are not just settling into a comfortably numb leaning on the Chinese. As recently clearly seen, China has some feet of clay, and all the big talk about the Belt & Road is scarcely a dome deal. Andrei Martyanov just put up a post about how the Russians are working on developing an access through Azerbaijan & Iran to the Indian Ocean, and thence to India, as well as many other points. It is The Grand Game Redux. And why not, because they are thereby not putting all of their eggs in the Chinese basket.
    And pace McCain, being a gas station with nukes (but way, way more than that…) confers some real advantages. It comes down to EROEI, energy returned on energy invested, and not being limited to “tight oil” as a nationally, territorially controlled resource gives them a leg over. I think of money, in the context of a modern, technological society as nothing more than a proxy for access to energy, and currently it seems as if the Russians have it all over the US & Europe.
    Big doings, and having such an experienced hand on the tiller, with the broad vision that Putin and his team exhibits is a material advantage. Why toss it away when your nation’s sovereignty may depend on access to this asset?

  7. Peter AU1 says:

    I very much doubt Putin will run for president again. His one request for change to the constitution was that “in a row” clause be removed. He has laid the foundations and more. There will be others who can continue the job.
    When the government changed, some of the old guard government moved I think to the security council. Medvedev at least went to the security council. Putin spoke about it in the Tass interviews. If I recall correctly some new planning bodies were set up.
    I suspect this is where Putin is planning to head at the end of his current term.

  8. Fred says:

    “Russian legislation will now take primacy over international law and office holders cannot have dual citizenship or foreign residency permits”
    A couple of ideas we need to return too ourselves.
    “If so, the next punch may come from Beijing.”
    Yep, economic warfare from the East. We need to treat it as such.

  9. Christian J Chuba says:

    “If the system that he and his team spent 20 years building doesn’t work without him then it doesn’t work.”

    Agreed. In the Oliver Stone interview, derided by his lessers in our MSM, asked a series of questions revealing Putin to be one of those micro-managers who can’t delegate. Ironic that Yeltsin, who crushed Russia, managed to find an obscure St. Petersburg politician to succeed him to bring Russia back from ruin.
    Any thoughts on how Russia was able to contain Coronavirus so well? I’m certain do more commerce w/China but Russia still has significant contact.

  10. As to Russia and Covid-19. As you may recall Moscow shut its borders pretty quickly — long before the West did. I hear from contacts that if you arrive at Sheremetyevo, your temperature is taken immediately and other checks are made by people in hazmat suits. Again, anecdotal evidence says this isn’t happening in the West. Moscow is building a big hospital (quickly although not as quickly as Beijing did.) Other factors I would suggest is that Russians by and large trust their govt and Moscow has serious civil defence preparations.
    This piece makes interesting reading today.

  11. Of course there may be a simpler answer: looking across the pond, Putin sees an election between Biden (b Nov 1942) and Trump (b June 1946) and realises that he (b Oct 1952) is just at the start of his career.

  12. Paul Anderson says:

    I have to largely agree with your coda. Chretien, King … while I agree that there need be nothing sacrosanct about term limits, time waits for no man. I lean towards the lame duck thesis, because I suspect the man has to be tired and really would like to take a step back.
    For instance, although the RF seems to be handling this as well as or better than the Western countries (low bar, I know), I have so far seen no evidence that V.V. Putin sees the COVID response as a strategically vital threat / opportunity. If Russia is able to emerge relatively quickly and whole, to join with China and East Asia among those that have demonstrated the efficacy of their cultural / civilizational models, this might prove decisive indeed, and might even succeed in prising Europe from the grip of the U.S. and the comprador Atlanticists.
    With the medical diplomacy to Italy, France, Cuba, Venezuela … China I think may already be acting on this. I’ve been surprised not to see more evidence of Russia / China solidarity and joint actions (pace the joint denunciation of Iran sanctions). But, then again, maybe the oil-price war is a coordinated element of this.
    Though the decline of the Imperium will, as you say, not be the work of a day, this particular moment is as dangerous and turbulent as anything we’ve seen since the Cuban missile crisis. The slope of decline might be quite a bit steeper than any cautious thinker might have imagined just three months ago. Maybe he just can’t commit to stepping back now. It does seem sloppy though. Be well, in whatever part of the Dominion that you happen to inhabit.

  13. Joe Kowalski says:

    I would suggest that a much more important reason for the new presidential amendment in Russia is the likely, imminent collapse of the United States economy. You need to read and study Rotislav Ischenko’s 2015 post which is as follows;
    In this post, Ischenko sees that some time in 2016 the U.S. will only get an “hard landing. He ends this post with:
    “The point of no return will pass once and for all sometime in 2016, and America’s elite will no longer be able to choose between the provisions of compromise and collapse. The only thing that they will then be able to do is to slam the door loudly, trying to drag the rest of the world after them into the abyss.”
    Knowledgeable analysts are writing that this collapse, because of the Coronavirus being a catalyst, will take place in 2020.
    If the U.S. can stay in its current stagnation mode for the mid-term, IMO Russia would not have made plans to change the constitution in the way you reported. It’s governance is in great shape, and I am confident that the new prime minister can continue Putin’s work. If the U,.S. economy collapses, we have a different scenario. Putin is needed to manage the U.S. slamming the door when its economy drops into the abyss.

  14. There’s a lot of ruin in a nation and the USA still has a lot left that isn’t ruined.
    But Covid is certainly going to kick it a step down (and the West too) and China will be kicked a step up; so it’s a major tremor in the geopolitical tectonic plate movement.
    So I’m sure that that’s in there somewhere in the Putin Team’s calculation. I do notice that when he talks about the oil price “war” he says “we have a solid safety margin for several years” which suggests a timeline of <5years.
    The problem is that we/I are just speculating: nobody expected this. But we ARE dealing with a team that has shown it can think long term so it is certainly possible that they foresee (accurately IMO) that oil price+covid will be a bad combination for NATOland and the pilot wants to remain at the helm.

  15. Hardbop34 says:

    I’m a fellow canuckian who lives in NW BC. We’re in the way of some of those pipelines Alberta wants to build to get tar sands oil to tidewater. Few up here want the pipelines. So I’ve been watching the oil scene. I think Putin may have opened the taps to pay the USA back for all the interference with Nordstream. I suspect Putin thinks the US can’t fight back hard because the early loser in the 3 way shootout will be US Shale. The Shale operators have never made the money they said would so they kept borrowing. There’s several suggesting that Shale Operators owe so much that it’s actually a bank problem. I check the Oilprce website every couple days. Last week they had an article suggesting 50% of the shale crowd will go down; nobody left but the majors, Cdn frackers are going under too. Trump is talking about bailing out the oil patch, along with Boeing ad infinitum. Was that part of Putin’s plan?

  16. Russia and COVID. As Agent Kay said :”Sometimes even the NYT gets it right”

  17. olivegreen says:

    The interesting thing is that Putin has demonstrated that he hates his important plans to be known widely in advance. And we could have gone for close to four years not knowing what Putin may do. But instead the constitutional reform was thrown out there much earlier than a decision would have had to be made. There is a theory that it was a stress-test for the elites, to gauge their reaction to the “Putin as a lame duck” situation with ample time to draw conclusions and undertake corrective action. And many in fact didn’t pass and will be taken care of one way or another. Now that stage of the test is over and everyone is once again back to having no clue what Putin will do, just as he likes it.

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