Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public since March 5, and the world is waiting to see if the 62-year-old casually returns or if his absence signals something far more serious.
Russia has been rife with rumours, including that he is dead or on paternity leave, while the government’s slick propaganda machine has slipped up by airing old photos — as well as news from the future.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin prepares to celebrate on the anniversary of annexing Crimea from Ukraine, and independent Moscow outlet TV Rain says Putin is recovering from the flu.
So perhaps this is just Putin being Putin, keeping the world off balance, or he came down with something and decided to wait it out in the background.
“Putin is nothing if not capricious. He enjoys keeping people waiting … and guessing, it’s part of a display of the trappings of power,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, noted to Business Insider on Friday.
However, there’s a big issue with the idea that Putin’s disappearance is well-calculated: The Kremlin has been stumbling.
“I think it’s unlikely this was any kind of ploy; apart from the unconfirmed reports that it was because of the birth of a new kid, frankly this left the Kremlin looking clumsy and actually attracted attention to Russia, its plans and intentions,” Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor specializing in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies, told Business Insider by email.
“Yes, The Kremlin is by no means a stranger to maskirovka, strategic deception, but I see no reason to think this was anything of the sort.”
Galeotti notes that “the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health … then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired.”
Putin has not been out of the Kremlin spotlight for more than a day since the early 2000s, when he dropped off the grid after a national tragedy (the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000) and in 2002 when terrorists took over a Moscow theatre and more than 100 civilians died.
So his lengthy absence is unprecedented in that it has no obvious cause. Putin is, however, dealing with serious matters.
On February 27, gunman murdered prominent Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin‚ and Bremmer said that it is “extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job.” He added that dealing with the situation “is surely [Putin’s] top priority.”
On March 12, Reuters reported that Nemtsov has “exposed rarely seen tensions between different camps inside President Vladimir Putin’s system of rule.”
“Some of Nemtsov’s associates say his shooting is being used by one faction to send Putin a message that they are unhappy and need to be reckoned with,” Reuters reported.
There are signs of turmoil in Putin’s inner circle as well.
Two people in Putin’s circle of advisers confirmed to Bloomberg that the Russian president is “becoming more critical” of longtime confidant and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin after the 52-year-old made a series of moves that irked Putin.
And a biographer of Putin told Business Insider that factions within the Kremlin power structure have become visible, there likely to be some power change-ups, and that “fights over the number two position” — aka the position held by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — have “exploded!”
Given all of Putin’s successful ploys on the world stage over the last couple of years, the first anniversary of Crimea on Monday would be a fitting time for Putin to pop back up as if nothing happened.
But since the Russian president gains little by staying out of the spotlight for so long during tumultuous times, and his disappearance has left the Kremlin looking clumsy, there’s clearly more happening behind Putin’s vanishing act than the common cold — even if not by Putin’s choice.
“I’m not convinced that a man who is so aware of the importance of his person and his presence would want to sustain such a long absence when rumours are rampant,” Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst with the Foreign Policy Initiative, told Business Insider in an email. “It exposes the inherent fragility of his system, but then again, Russians are used to such systems.”
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