To understand how unstable the Kremlin and Russia are and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin could face a challenge to his hold on power, we must return to the difficult study of Kremlinology. As in the Soviet period, the Kremlin's instability and challenges are not public or overt. Piecing together events, rumors and media stories, however, can give indications about significant changes on the horizon.
Stratfor is beginning to see these pieces fall into place. This is not to say that the Russian government is on the verge of collapse, or that Putin will soon fall from his position as president. However, it does indicate that a dangerous struggle is underway that could bring about a significant change in the country's power structure.
Of all the battles currently going on inside the Kremlin, one has risen high enough to cause noticeable instability. Stratfor has meticulously gathered a timeline of events, rumors, lies, meetings and other clues pertaining to the actors and institutions involved in this struggle. Because Kremlinology is not a perfect science, many items do not fit into the narrative and many items critical to the narrative are not known. Some items may just be coincidence, while others could be fabrications or disinformation.
Individually, none of these men can challenge Putin, but when united, they could act with impunity. Putin knows this. On occasion he has allowed the FSB to push ahead with its agenda, while at other times he has balanced the interests of the FSB group with those of other clans. Putin has also ensured that many non-FSB clans and individuals such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov remain extremely loyal to him. The FSB clan has long been at odds with Kadyrov and Surkov, and though Putin initially acted as an impartial arbitrator in the clashes between them, he now may be forced to choose a side.
Like most of Russia's current troubles, the most recent dispute likely began with the crisis in Ukraine. Many of the indicators of a serious power struggle within the Kremlin have emerged over the past 17 months, since the Ukraine conflict began. Together, they create a relatively clear narrative — by Kremlinology standards — of a potentially significant change in Russia's power structure ahead.
During the Ukraine protests that led to the fall of President Viktor Yanukovich's pro-Russia government and its replacement with a pro-West government, hints of a heavy FSB presence emerged. Ukrainian activists claimed that the FSB aided the Ukrainian government's Berkut security forces, which were cracking down on the opposition. Furthermore, when the Western-friendly government came to power, it accused the FSB of ordering Yanukovich to crack down on the Maidan protesters. Overall, people ultimately regarded the FSB as having miscalculated and failed in Kiev.
In the months following the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian government's accusations of FSB meddling lessened, while its accusations against Russia's Main Intelligence Administration (GRU) became more numerous. This shift was important because Ukraine had long been considered the FSB's territory for intelligence. Media agencies independent of the FSB began to pick up on the GRU's gains in Ukraine, reporting that Putin was bolstering the GRU and containing the FSB. Indeed, Putin had awarded Surkov, a rumored GRU member, the Kremlin portfolio overseeing the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine by the start of May 2014.
The same month, the FSB clan initiated a power grab at home by taking the Main Directorate of Economic Security and Anti-Corruption, a key part of the Interior Ministry. The FSB has long sought to influence the Interior Ministry because it does not have a military or police force of its own, and the Interior Ministry commands more than 200,000 troops and police.
In June 2014, Kadyrov announced that he would set up his own intelligence and policing forces in Chechnya, similar to the FSB and Interior Ministry forces. Kadyrov hired a former FSB major, Daniil Martynov, to help design the forces — a move Martynov's former cohorts say the FSB did not sanction. Kadyrov had sidelined the FSB in Chechnya for nearly a decade, and with his own Chechen version of the FSB (in addition to approximately 40,000 Chechen soldiers he already commands), Kadyrov would become far more powerful in both Chechnya and Russia proper.
The jockeying for power between the FSB and Russia's other influential players is just one signal among many that the competition within the Kremlin is becoming more volatile.