20 years under Putin: a timeline

On August 8, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was traveling to South Ossetia, a documentary was posted on the Internet charging him, the former Commander-in-Chief and President of the Russian Federation, with criminal neglect regarding South Ossetia on the eve of Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. The influential military commanders interviewed in the film claimed that Medvedev’s delay in launching a military attack on Georgia significantly increased the war’s casualties. Who are these filmmakers, and why did they produce this film? Tatyana Stanovaya provides us with some possible answers found in the Russian media.



The Russian top brass interviewed in the 47-minute documentary A Day Lost include former General Chief of Staff Yury Baluyevsky and Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, currently serving as Commander of Russia’s Airborne Force. The officers claim that four years ago, in August 2008, “Russian troops were too late intervening after Georgia attacked South Ossetia.” They also claimed that “massive Ossetian casualties could have been avoided if Medvedev had launched the offensive a day earlier.” The generals believe that Russian peacekeepers and civilians in Tskhinvali paid for the then Commander-in-Chief’s lack of resolve with their lives. At the same time, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is presented as the savior, and the only leader capable of assuming responsibility in a challenging situation and making the right decisions. Both versions of the documentary, the full and the abbreviated, seven minute version (the latter titled Medvedev’s Cowardice Kills 1,000 People) are posted on YouTube.

The film’s message is simple: first, Medvedev is a leader incapable of taking responsibility and guilty of at least several hundred casualties; second, there is no alternative to Putin as the national leader, then or now, and possibly for many years to come.

Who funded A Day Lost? Who produced the film? The online resource Lenizdat.Ru claims the film was posted by a certain Aslan Gudiev, who registered his YouTube account on the day the film was posted. His profile shows only his age, 31, and his country of residence, Russia. Efforts to uncover more about Gudiev have been unsuccessful. The film’s credited producer is Alfa. But there is no such studio in Russia.

Referring to a source close to the presidential administration, the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine reported that the documentary was filmed by Channel Five, and that administration officials were likely in the know. Speculation abounds in the media and among political analysts that the administration official in charge of federal TV channels is Alexey Gromov. Channel Five belongs to the National Media Group, indirectly co-owned (via his co-ownership of Bank Rossiya and SoGaz) by Yury Kovalchuk, Vladimir Putin’s longtime friend and dacha neighbor in the Ozero cooperative. But Channel Five’s spokesperson, Natalia Andreyeva, told Forbes she has “no information regarding Channel Five's involvement in the making of the film,” and that the first time she watched it was on YouTube. The Channel Five news editorial team also denied involvement in the film.


Former General Chief of Staff Yury Baluyevsky


In other words, the media were unable to establish the filmmakers’ identities. Instead, speculation emerged regarding the instigators of this anti-Medvedev propaganda. Business-oriented Vedomosti hypothesized that “the appearance of this film may be connected to the struggle between two former would-be Putin successors, Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.” An anonymous Kremlin-based source told the paper that “the establishment is on the verge of fracturing and is pressuring Putin to answer the key question: what will happen in 2018? The lack of an answer creates political and economic destabilization.”

Some political analysts have voiced different viewpoints. For example, that the Medvedev cabinet’s privatization plans created unease in Putin’s inner circle, thus prompting the film’s appearance. Hence, on August 13, Kommersant-Vlast opined that, “interestingly enough, the attack against the Prime Minister coincided with some key cabinet actions, including decisions about the privatization of state-owned companies, private capital access to sea shelf exploration, and state-owned monopoly tariffs. In these debates, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Vice Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich are opposed to many influential establishment groups.”

Whatever the case, the Russian media have reached a consensus that the film’s political objective is to cast a shadow upon Medvedev. Assessments of the film’s political consequences vary. A number of political analysts believe the documentary is an attempt to pressure Medvedev to resign. One of the Center for Political Technologies' analysts writes: “[Dmitry] Medvedev appears to be the immediate target of this attack. The aim is to at least weaken and discredit him, and ideally to pressure him to resign. The President’s and Prime minister’s “castling” this year, which made Medvedev second-in-command, allowed him to openly aspire to a return to the presidency. And Medvedev did precisely that in his recent Times of London interview. Even significantly weakened, Medvedev’s retention of his second-in-command status makes it much more difficult for any other insider to assume the hypothetical successor role. This is precisely why competitors seek to discredit Medvedev, to take away one of his few high profile successes. The war in Georgia gave Medvedev’s presidential term an historic significance. The film has dealt a devastating blow to Medvedev’s precious public image. Some analysts have commented that the regime has so regressed that it is reasonable to ask whether Medvedev’s presidency and its attendant achievements actually took place.

And yet in his interview to the pro-Kremlin Izvestiya, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s Press Secretary, denied the existence of a Putin-Medvedev split. “The President, at the time chairman of the cabinet, has publicly given his perspective on that day’s events. He received information from journalists in the conflict zone. He also mentioned his phone conversations with Moscow,” said Peskov. “Yet Putin has repeatedly emphasized, then as now, that the exceptionally fraught and complicated decision to deploy military forces was made solely by the Commander-in-Chief, head of state Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev.” By confirming that the decision to deploy troops took three days and that he called Medvedev several times, Putin all but confirmed the film’s assertions. Meanwhile, Medvedev continued to claim that he was not consulted regarding South Ossetia on August 7 or 8, 2008. Interestingly, Putin’s comment contradicting the Prime Minister’s statement has been posted on the Presidential website’s home page for over a week. Thus, the head of state underscores his relevance and integrity. It should also be noted that a RIA-Novosti journalist interviewed Putin twice about the new film. Given the tight control of the President’s media communications, it is difficult to believe that this reporter’s ability to ask Putin two questions was mere luck.

At the very least, then, Putin wanted to speak out about the film. It also cannot be ruled out that the President knew about or was involved with its production, nor that this is more than an assault on Medvedev’s image. Several days after the film appeared, Vassily Zhurko, Duma deputy for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party faction, asked Russia’s Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and the Federal Security Service to investigate Russian officials’ activities during the 2008 Georgian-Ossetian conflict; he believes their response to events was belated. As Maksim Glikin wrote in his Vedomosti column, it is common knowledge that Zhurko, a Duma veteran, would not dare initiate such an inquiry without the approval of Duma Deputy Speaker Zhirinovsky, whose party is merely a ruling party proxy.

Of course at this stage, Medvedev has nothing to fear. But the Kremlin’s actions might be a warning for the future. It is unlikely that some Medvedev statements, such as his Times interview ruminations about his possible reelection as head of state, pleased the Kremlin’s denizens. As Vladimir Putin’s former economic adviser Andrey Illarionov blogged, “perhaps the main purpose of A Day Lost and Putin’s recent comments was to expose Medvedev, who seems to have seriously announced his 2018 presidential aspirations. It also intended to showcase 'a true leader’s heroism.'” Yet Illarionov believes that by trying to single out Putin’s role as someone who “anticipated everything, formulated the plans, and then called Medvedev from Beijing,” the generals interviewed in the film, presumed producer Channel Five, and even Putin himself may have made Russia’s President vulnerable to charges by a future international tribunal that he masterminded the Russian-Georgian war.


Dmitry Medvedev visiting South Ossetia in August 2012


The tabloids may also have taken Peskov’s statement about “tandem” unity with a grain of salt. Thus, MK (formerly Moskovsky Komsomolets) wrote in the article ‘There Is a War In The Tandem’ that “the mutual alienation and acute tensions between the ruling duo is no longer kept under the rug. If in the course of a conversation with someone close to V.V.P. or to D.A.M. they mention ‘the adversary,’ don’t think for a minute that they are talking about someone like [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili. ‘The adversary’ in this case is either the Prime Minister or the President of the Russian Federation.”

A week after the film appeared and after the debate over the identity and objective of those who publicly humiliated Medvedev had died down, the media posed a question about the events of August 7-8, 2008: did Medvedev actually procrastinate? Did Putin’s famous ‘kick in the butt’ that forced the Commander-in-Chief to launch the military operation actually take place? A number of official statements directly contradict the notion that Georgia’s military operation took Russia by surprise.

Putin has admitted that the Russian military had planned for the Georgia scenario as early as 2006. Lieutenant General Anatoly Khrulyov, former commander of Russia’s 58th Army, also provided a rather detailed chronology of the August 2008 events in his April 2012 interview with military journalist Vladislav Shurygin. According to the general, on August 5 Colonel General Sergey Makarov, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, authorized Khrulyov’s decision to reinforce Russia’s military presence in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone “in the event of an armed threat.”

On August 7, the District Commander arrived at army headquarters in Vladikavkaz with a group of staff officers. Upon receiving, at midnight, Commander of Joint Peacekeeping Forces Major General Marat Kulakhmetov’s information about the start of hostilities, the army staff acted without delay and without waiting for orders from their superiors. By 10:30 a.m. on August 8th, Russian troops’ forward progress was already so great that the District Commander dispatched Khrulyov to South Ossetia, telling him “no one but you will be able to sort things out there, and the situation is already under control here.”

Thus, whether Medvedev was or was not around, whether he made the decision about launching the military operation on his own or after Putin’s “kick in the butt,” all becomes irrelevant. The military was long ready for war and acted according to plan. The only question that remains is why Putin needed to hurt his Prime Minister, and whether the blow dealt to the second-in-command will prove more devastating to Putin’s regime than all the protest rallies put together.