I stayed up late last night (OK, admittedly I couldn’t sleep) writing about the Curious Case of the Missing Vladimir Putin, and lo and behold the guy goes and ruins the whole thing by keeping his public meeting with Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambaev today in St. Petersburg. While a Russian president meeting with a Kyrgyz president shouldn’t normally be big news, this time it kind of was, because as it so happens, until today nobody had actually seen Vladimir Putin in public for over 10 days. That would be odd, to put in mildly, for any world leader, but particularly for one running a country like Russia, where political authority is so vested in the person of Putin himself. It’s a little surprising that no posters started popping up around Moscow:
But, hey, I feel like running this piece anyway, with a few changes, so here you go.
Putin’s supposed disappearance was an emerging story all last week, but I’ll be honest that until it hit the 10 day mark I really thought it was all a bunch of fuss over nothing. It seems pretty clear, though, that something was going on last week, otherwise Putin could have easily made a public appearance to stop all the murmuring and gossiping. And holy crap was there murmuring and gossiping: Putin was ill, he was incapacitated by a stroke, he ran off to spend some quality time with his mistress (who may have given birth to their child), he was in a bunker trying to win some internal power struggle, he lost an internal power struggle and was sidelined, or he died.
The likeliest explanation is that Putin has been ill, but the Kremlin didn’t help to quash the crazier rumors by insisting that he was in “perfect health,” as though admitting that a 62 year old man came down with the flu would be tantamount to capitulating to the US or something. Also not helping was the Kremlin’s attempt to show that he’d been visibly at work by releasing still photographs and video from meetings he took before he disappeared and trying to pass them off as having been taken since his disappearance. I guess old habits die hard, but obviously lying about this kind of stuff never helped the Russian government to calm gossip around any of Boris Yeltsin’s frequent disappearances, and it didn’t always work out too well for the Soviets either.
Still the tantalizing possibility of something more serious, a serious health issue or even a coup, got (wishfully, in most cases) a lot of play. Yesterday, former Israeli ambassador to Russia, Zvi Magen, claimed that “there are many signs of a coup” in Moscow, perpetrated either by the army, or Putin’s wealthy oligarch backers, or both in collaboration. It’s certainly true that some of Russia’s heretofore Putin-friendly oligarchs could have reasons to be growing fed up with his Ukraine adventure. Western sanctions are limiting their ability to travel and do business in the West, and sanctions, coupled with the collapse in oil prices, are crippling Russia’s economy at the moment. The military might also start getting fed up with being asked to fight and die in Ukraine largely to boost Putin’s poll numbers, although that seems less likely (the idea that top military brass could be bought off by the oligarchs to support a coup seems somewhat more likely). Still, this was all total speculation lacking any hard evidence to back it up, and seems at this point to have been wrong.
Putin’s disappearance from public view also conspicuously came just after the February 27 assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov only a short distance away from the Kremlin. Immediate speculation obviously focused on whether Putin had ordered a hit on Nemtsov, either directly or in a “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” kind of way, but that raises the question of why Putin would take even the slight risk of ordering a hit on a guy like Boris Nemtsov, who at one time was one of Yeltsin’s closest advisers and a potential political rival to Putin, but who had fallen into such obscurity that he couldn’t even get himself elected mayor of Sochi in 2009. It’s possible that Nemtsov was working on some kind of bombshell report on the Ukraine operation, but given that Putin’s approval rating is north of 80% largely due to the Ukraine operation, it’s unclear how much damage Nemtsov could have done. Still, Occam’s Razor puts the responsibility for Nemtsov’s death in Putin’s lap.
The Kremlin immediately suggested that Nemtsov was murdered by his pals in the opposition as an act of provokatsiya, which means “provocation” in the dictionary but “false flag operation” in Kremlin-speak. This theory would have it that Nemtsov’s allies (or maybe the Americans and the Ukrainians, don’t you know!) had him murdered (within sight of the Kremlin, no less!) to embarrass Putin. When that, ah, theory, let’s say, didn’t take off right away, the Kremlin took the safe route and went out and picked up a few Chechen Muslims instead, because Islamophobia plays just as well in Russia as it does here. It was really the Chechens who murdered Nemtsov, supposedly, in order to avenge some nasty things Nemtsov may have said about Islam at some point. How killing the Russian equivalent of Mike Gravel was supposed to accomplish anything for Islam escapes me, and it apparently escapes a lot of folks in Russia too, because the story seems to be unraveling despite the (allegedly forced) confessions offered by at least a couple of the suspects. Given that at least one of the Chechens is a pal of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is himself pretty good pals with Putin, it’s possible that these guys really did kill Nemtsov, but over his insults to Putin, not Islam.
The one thing that last week’s “Where’s Vlad?” adventure highlighted is the fact that the Kremlin really has no succession plan in place for the time when Vlad finally does head off to the big bear wrestling match in the sky. Obviously if that were to occur as the result of a coup, the succession would play out against that backdrop, but if he just kicks the bucket naturally, who’s going to take over? The apparent, and legally designated, heir would be Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who actually got to pretend like he was president from 2008-2012 when Putin was term-limited and shuffled over to run the country from the PM post for a while. He would become interim president in advance of a special election within three months. But it’s not at all clear that Medvedev is actually up to the task of running the country in his own right, absent Putin or his approval. Putin’s backers will obviously want to put their own man in office, whether that’s Medvedev or somebody else, but who a “somebody else” might be is equally unclear, as are the chances that the oligarchs will all be able to agree on one guy. This is particularly true as the Ukraine hostilities seem to have opened up a bit of a dispute in the Putin camp between the hawks and the folks who see all this fighting as detrimental to the bottom line (who are being called “liberals” for some reason). If Putin were to suffer from some kind of long-term illness, or as he approaches old age, it’s possible that everybody could gently transition to an agreed-upon successor, but if he ever actually does suddenly become incapacitated, things in Moscow could get really messy.