Something may be afoot in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, know for his frequent and carefully calibrated media appearances, has not been definitively spotted in public since his March 5 meeting with the Italian prime minister.
This absence, the longest in years, comes amid rumours that the political elite within Moscow is fracturing after the assassination of prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov within site of the Kremlin’s walls.
Suspicions have been running high since Putin canceled a trip to Astana, Kazakhstan that was scheduled for this week, Reuters reports. A Kazakh source told Reuters that Putin had canceled the trip after becoming ill.
Any claims of illness were quickly denied by Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who told Reuters that Putin “has meetings all the time. He has meetings today, tomorrow. I don’t know which ones we will make public.”
But no images of Putin since the March 5 meeting with the Italian prime minister have been published. And images of Putin attending an International Woman’s Day event on March 8 were later proved to have been taken on March 5.
This atypically long disappearance could indicate that something is going down within the walls of the Kremlin. But what?
Putin’s absence might have no larger significance, and rumours of his illness or even death could be overblown. But the speculation surrounding his health shows just how fragile Putin’s system really is — as well as its dependency on a single individual.
Even an absence of a few days raises some startling possibilities as to what could really be going on in Moscow.
“While the talk is pretty speculative and quite wild now, it is clearly irking the Russians,” Mark Galeotti, an NYU professor specializing in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies, told Business Insider by email. “If Putin doesn’t show in the next day or so or if all we get are some press stills, then that will suggest something serious is up — and the succession struggle begins.”
Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and a senior associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, echoed Galeotti’s view.
“I have no idea whether Putin is dead, but there is clearly something going on that the Kremlin is working hard to hide,” Nichols told BI.
This absence has prompted all sorts of rumours and speculation across the Russian blogosphere. “Putin has died” is now trending across the Russian internet, but there is no credible information citing what, if anything, may be afflicting him.
This kind of speculation may be natural, given the secretive and autocratic nature of Putin’s leadership. “These are the kinds of things that happen when a governing system is so dependent on the image of and physical person of one man,” Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst with the Foreign Policy Initiative, told BI. “This is certainly not the first time that similar rumours have happened. They happened under Yeltsin as well (although he really was in very poor health).”
If Putin actually is incapacitated, the Kremlin may try to keep that information tightly under wraps until all factions within the government have agreed to a successor.
Constitutionally, “Medvedev would take over as Acting President for 90 days,” Nichols said. “It’s how Putin himself became president in 1999.”
“But no, there is no way the Kremlin would announce [Putin’s death] until all the deals have been cut,” Nichols added.
Putin’s absence might end up having nothing to do with his health. There’s a possibility that Nemtsov’s killing, which may have been ordered by someone within the Kremlin, has exposed fissures inside the Russian elite that Putin is currently struggling to control. The media absence may be cover for a power play that further enhances Putin’s control — or he may be working to quash some kind of now-unseen palace unrest.
“And he’s also dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job. Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”
A power struggle may be unfolding behind closed doors in Moscow right now. But in the opaque, one-man state Putin has built, the public may never find out what’s causing the Russian president’s uncharacteristic absence from the public eye.
Tom Nichols’ comments reflect his views only and do not represent the US Government.
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