ON AND ON. Apart from the fact that I was about as wrong as wrong can be in my election bet, I am not happy with Putin’s decision to return. I believe that leaders have a “best before date” – eventually they run out of their possibilities. The wise leader quits at the top of his game after having trained up his successors. But, having said that, who has ever done it other than Sulla or Washington? Not Thatcher, Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle etc etc. Putin, possibly the best leader that Russia has had in its thousand-year history, has, I believe, succumbed to the delusion that he is indispensible. Will he prove to be, as he evidently believes, the Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew of Russia? Or merely the Turkmenbashi or Lukashenka of Russia? No one would say that he is stagnant now, but what about after six or twelve years more?

Although Medvedev said that this was always the agreement, it is possible that the ever-cautious Putin has come back because he fears the future and believes Russia will be better off with The Boss openly at the top of the power structure. Perhaps there is unrest in The Team that only Putin can settle (Kudrin’s departure suggests this could be the case). Perhaps he believes the apparent decline in support for United Russia can only be reversed by him (while he has often complained about the lack of initiative and creativity in United Russia, he has also said many times that it is a necessary instrument). Or does he foresee coming international troubles that will require his steady hand? (The next US President is likely to be a Republican with a reflexive antipathy to Russia. The EU – a vital trade and investment source – is melting down. The future of Belarus and Ukraine is iffy. China is rising. NATO is again re-drawing the map. The “Arab world” is in flux.) We still don’t know the details.

Many Russians don’t care about what people elsewhere think about them, but it does matter and it will affect them. The anti-Russia lobby, encouraged by the return of the “steely-eyed ex-KGB officer” (another six years of that as if Putin had never done anything else!!!) with whom they are strangely obsessed, will get a new impetus. (Here’s the first and it’s all there: pipelines, Politkovskaya, Stalinist, weakening Ukraine and even (!) the Third Rome). The lobby will agitate for protection for countries “threatened” by him. Will we see another push to expand NATO? Missiles in Poland? More support for Saakashvili the putative Nobel Peace Prize winner? More attempts to fiddle with the political balance in Ukraine and other neighbours? A constant drum-roll of bad and selective press reports that will scare off investment? This will affect the environment in which Russians have to live.

We have to ask whether Medvedev ever really was President. Or was he, as many said all along, just a placeholder, only there because of Putin’s unwillingness to violate the letter of the Constitution? If the system that Putin and his team created after the ruin of the Yeltsin years can only work with him in charge, then it doesn’t work.

I do not expect The Plan to change although its flavour will. Putin is less friendly to the West (and why wouldn’t he be? – endless NATO expansion, NATO throwing its weight around, still nothing on WTO or Jackson-Vanik, bogus “coloured revolutions”). And every case of prickly behaviour or scepticism about Western motives will be spun by the anti-Russia lobby as another threat.

There can be no serious doubt that the most impeccably fair and open election would return him with a huge majority – most Russians will be delighted at the return of such a proven and trusted leader. And, in his wake, United Russia (although with a lot of new faces) will sweep the Duma elections which have now been turned into a referendum on him. So the political system will be stable. But stability can become stagnation quite easily.

But I would have been more confident in the future of Russia had Medvedev run and Putin stepped back – perhaps as leader of United Russia – to keep an eye on things. It is necessary, for the long term, that Russia not be the personalist system that it has been for so long.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


POLICE REFORM. The Interior Minister says police who may be exposed to temptations of bribery will have to take regular lie-detector tests. He is pretty pleased with the results of the “combing” process. I think, to put it mildly, he’s over-optimistic. The Investigative Committee says that police officers have been charged with 70 crimes in the last 10 days. And that’s the ones they’ve been charged with. Obviously the teeth on the comb were set too far apart.

POLITKOVSKAYA. Perhaps a break-through: a former policeman, Dmitriy Pavlyuchenkov, was arrested and charged with organising her murder. The theory is that he was a contractor and the investigators say they know who ordered her death. The prosecution theory has always been that the man who ordered it is no longer in Russia. Pavlyuchenkov’s name came up early in the case but he seems to have been able to avoid charges and apparently functioned as a sort of secret witness for the prosecution. From the beginning I have believed that she stumbled – perhaps unknowingly – across some piece of information a Chechen “biznesman” didn’t want known. Nothing to do with Putin or the government.

BLAME RUSSIA! As we all know Russia gets a lot of bad press: accusations are swiftly made and it’s only later that we learn the truth. Polish prosecutors have charged two officers with negligence over preparing the flight that crashed killing President Kaczynski. As the Russian report said: poor training. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office says there is no evidence that Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin and cited a lack of cooperation from him. When will we find that the Litvinenko case was bogus too?

LIBERALS. I thought that Right Cause (Правое дело) might prove to be a viable liberal contender; but it has just committed suicide. Russian liberals simply will not compromise.

MATVIYENKO. Moved a step closer to becoming Chair of the Federation Council when she was elected to a seat in the St Petersburg legislature and resigned as Governor (mayor).

ALCOHOL. Some bright news on Russia’s age-old curse. A government medical official says alcohol consumption in cities (but not in the countryside) is down to 15 litres per capita from 18 the year before.

SPACE. With the demise of the US Space Shuttle, the ISS now depends on what had been reliable Russian resupply missions up to now; but the latest freighter crashed. RosKosmos has responded by postponing the next supply mission while it makes test launches. There is a private contract but that will be some time coming.

KHODORKOVSKIY. The Supreme Court has ruled that Khodorkovskiy and Lebedev were illegally held in pre-trial detention for three months during their second trial. It earlier made a similar ruling on another chunk of time. Now what? At a minimum they should have the time served there to count against the latest sentence.

MARRIAGE. The Exxon-RosNeft deal is potentially very big. But these deals often go sour (vide BP) so we will see if this one does better.

GAS WARS. Ukraine is trying to get a lower price: the head of Naftohaz thinks US$230 tcm would be “fair”. Why is that “fair”? it is 57% of the current price for Germany; the contract Ukraine is trying to get out of calls for a discounted price of 88%. Ukraine is not now and never has paid the “full price” for Russian gas. It also says it will greatly reduce purchases. But how? Shale gas won’t arrive that soon. Meanwhile the Nord Stream gas pipeline has begun operating and is expected to be carrying gas directly to Germany next month; this will weaken Kiev’s negotiating position as a carrier (and help prevent it from siphoning westbound gas as it did before). The IMF has told Kiev (in what would be called the use of “the gas weapon” if Moscow were saying it) that it must put up the price of gas for domestic consumption if it wants the next tranche (but PM Azarov says Ukraine doesn’t need it). Hard to see a happy ending: why should Russia discount its price even more in return for nothing but an ephemeral gratitude? And how can Ukraine afford to pay and how can it reduce its consumption without a good deal of pain and political cost?

BELARUS. The decline continues. And then what happens?

IRAN. The Russian sale of S-300 SAMs to Iran which has been announced, warned against and deplored, but never actually happened, has now led Teheran to sue. Medvedev banned the sale a year ago.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see