Pity the Putin Lieutenants? Or, Did Putin Graduate from the Saddam School of Management? | Charles Duelfer

Pity the Putin Lieutenants? Or, Did Putin Graduate from the Saddam School of Management?

Being close to Putin has its rewards for sure.  But, like other autocrats (my closest experience was dissecting Saddam’s coterie), there are also some severe risks with proximity to the Boss and his decisions.

If Putin finds his Ukraine venture a success, then the lieutenants will continue to do well in the Putin ecosystem (setting aside the effects of any sanctions by the West).  However, if the Ukraine strategy does not go well, blame will be apportioned appropriately (but downward from Putin).  The top advisors must be pretty nervous.  The most visible example is foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin.  (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-60485967

During the hour and a half long televised Security Council meeting Monday 21 February 2022, Naryshkin was visibly shaking and clearly lost his command of the script.  Putin appeared to play with him like a cat with a captured mouse.  Of course, Naryshkin’s turn at the podium was at 1 hour and 18 minutes of the hour and a half meeting that had multiple participants, including Putin looking at their watches. Putin may have been bored and just twisting him for amusement.  Nevertheless, Naryshkin looked painfully nervous.  As though he had just dropped a document for a foreign service and was worried that Putin’s counter-intelligence chief (Bortnikov) may have had him under surveillance. 

Saddam had equivalent meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council  (we acquired the recordings).  Saddam would sit at one end of a long table surrounded by a dozen or so bobble heads.  It was exactly the same.  More than one of Saddam’s said later that they were very nervous in Saddam’s presence because they sensed that he could somehow deduce what they were thinking.  A sudden fall from grace, sometimes lethal, could ensue.  There may be a little of Saddam in all of us, but Putin seems to have matching DNA.

Speaking of falling of from grace, there are a surprising number of Russian deaths from balcony falls.  A Russian diplomat fell out of an embassy window onto the sidewalk in Berlin in October 2021.  The embassy did not permit an autopsy and declared it a tragic accident.

Russian investigative journalist Maxim Borokin fell from a 50th floor balcony in Yekaterinburg in 2018

Back in the UK, Scott Young, a “fixer” for Russian oligarchs fell out with the government and subsequently fell out of a window in London (ruled a suicide by Scotland Yard).[1]

Of course there are many other sorts of unnatural Russian deaths or near deaths.  Recall polonium poisoning (Litvinenko, 2006, London), nerve agent (Skripal, 2018, Salisbury UK survived), poisoning again, (Bulgarian Emilian Gebrev 2015, survived), nerve agent (Alexei Navalny, Tomsk Russia 2020), gunshots (Khangoshvili, Berlin, 2019),  and the list goes on.

Oh and the US is not a sanctuary.  There is the weird case of Mikhail Lesin, reportedly top media confidante of Putin.   Again, Buzzfeed crisply described the absurd official finding.[2]  Lesin checked into the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Washington in November 5, 2015. Then Lesin supposedly got very drunk and repeatedly fell down causing his own death accidentally by blunt force trauma. A cynic might think some part of USG missed something.

Putin has stated on multiple public occasions that traitors would be punished. The definition of traitor may not be precise.  Traitor to country, traitor to Putin, or framed as a traitor.  There’s room for interpretation and worry. 

So, if I were one of Putin’s guys, I’d be really nervous about the Ukraine campaign.  Like Saddam, Putin is vulnerable not only to his own foibles, but those around him.  In postwar debriefings of Saddam acknowledged that his lieutenants often did not tell him bad news or give candid advice.  Of course, he only acknowledged this after he was in jail and his regime gone.  Things did not end well for most of his aides either.  A few got out early and generally fared better.  But most waited too long and missed the opportunity to escape. 

Putin’s Russia is certainly not Saddam’s Iraq, but there are similarities in the dilemmas faced by the inner circle.  Watching the Putin Security Council meeting and comparing it with Saddam’s equivalent, you can almost match the characters and their roles, e.g. Tariq Aziz for Sergey Lavrov; Tahir Jalil Haboosh for Sergey Naryshkin; Ali Hassan al Majid (“Chemical Ali”) for Sergey Shoigu. 

Putin cannot run the government by himself and his key aides can be a weakness no matter how talented they may be. 

Bear in mind that the US and others may sanction them financially, but Putin can and does sanction Russians permanently.   I would not be surprised to see one or two trying to do the moonwalk out of there.

[1] See Buzzfeed reporting on over a dozen Russian assassinations in the UK. (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/heidiblake/from-russia-with-blood-14-suspected-hits-on-british-soil)

[2] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jasonleopold/putins-media-czar-was-murdered-just-before-meeting-feds

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