15 March 2015

Where is Putin?

Prescient  or preposterous? Vladimir Putin’s absence from public life sparked a frenzy last week. Nobody agreed what was going on, but almost all commentators agreed that it was significant....
Edward Lucas
Prescient  or preposterous? Vladimir Putin’s absence from public life sparked a frenzy last week. Nobody agreed what was going on, but almost all commentators agreed that it was significant. As Leonid Bershidsky noted,

No other kind of state would be so opaque, nor its citizens so preoccupied with their ruler.  

Andrei Illarionov, a former advisor to Putin and now a fierce critic of his regime, said he had been toppled in a backstage coup. A well-connected Washington-based economist, Anders Aslund, suggested that a full-scale Kremlin power struggle was under way. On one side are Putin, his close ally Igor Sechin (head of the Rosneft energy company), the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the interior ministry; on the other, the security and criminal-justice agencies.

Others agree with at least the outlines of that: Stanislav Belkovsky, who has long played a role as a conduit for rumours and black PR from various Kremlin factions, said that Putin is stuck between a rock and a hard place. His reputation for stability rests on having “won” in Chechnya, so he cannot afford to cross Kadyrov. But he cannot side against the Siloviki because they would overthrow him. Those tensions are not new: the real question is whether they have increased to the point that Putin’s own position is threatened.

Some foresee bloodshed; critics of the regime have hurried abroad amid talk of a hardliners’ “hit list.” But not only opposition figures may be in danger. One rumour said that Putin’s long-time bodyguard, General Viktor Zolotov, was dead. Aslund tweeted (without a source) that Vladislav Surkov, once the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, had fled to Hong Kong with his family.

But Vladimir Milov, a close friend and ally of the murdered Boris Nemtsov, urged people to calm down. It was not the first time, he noted, that Putin had been in a funk after an upsetting event. Mark Galeotti, a British academic specialising in Russian security and intelligence, said the rhetoric (of “traitors” etc) and troop movements that would accompany a forced leadership change, or the quelling of a rebellion, were notably absent. Nina Ivanovna, a blogger, said that the whole episode might be designed to distract attention from the murder of Nemtsov and the war in Ukraine.

A happier explanation was that the Russian leader was in Switzerland celebrating the birth of a child by his secret lover, the gymnast Alina Kabaeva. Bershidsky said wryly that if this version were true it might make the Russian president more human.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has snarlingly dismissed speculation and scaremongering with a dogged insistence that nothing is amiss: the president was simply working “exhaustively” with documents. The only real clue of a change in political direction came from a bland but sinister announcement on Tass that Putin wanted a new federal agency to deal with nationalities: perhaps to bring the Chechens to heel, or to stir up more trouble with “compatriots” abroad.

Who is right? As so often in Russia you can stitch the few available facts (and what seems to be misinformation) into a sinister pattern. Or discount them as random noise. Only afterwards, if ever, do you find out what really happened.

My hunch is that the shots that killed Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader, last month were indeed the first salvo in an internal power struggle that will bring radical change in Russia’s leadership. But Kremlinology is barely more reliable than astrology. Maybe in a week’s time Putin will again be dominating the television news as usual, with politics continuing on the lines the world counts as “normal”.

For certain, though, Russia’s political life under Putin has been anything but “normal”. It has been secretive, paranoid and deceitful. The hybrid rule of political, bureaucratic, criminal and intelligence-service interests has destroyed the country’s political institutions, undermined the constitution, savaged the economy and enabled the greatest looting spree in history. The regime cowed critics with fear and masked the looting with lies: venomous propaganda against a mythical external enemy (the West) and against a demonised “fifth column” at home.

This system is inherently unstable and brittle. Feuds bubble, requiring constant personal intervention from the man in the centre. If he is distracted, either by mental or physical illness, or by something in his private life, factions polarise and the struggle for power intensifies. That leads to justified worries among outsiders about the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and the prospect of the country’s disintegration.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, said last year: “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” That was meant to highlight public support for the Russian leader. But it could also be read another way: that without Putin at the helm, the Russian ship sinks. The Soviet Union had political institutions of a kind. True, they handled political transitions badly, but there were rules and clues which Putin’s Russia dangerously lacks.

As the former US government official Paul Goble notes, whoever comes after Putin is likely to be worse: more aggression abroad, and more repression at home, will be the easiest way to consolidate power:

many of the “siloviki” believe that Putin has failed to act in ways that would have brought Moscow a victory in Ukraine, and they will push for more aggressive moves in order to prove their point as well as to justify an increased role for themselves in the constellation of a post-Putin regime. And whether they are in the cautious or the aggressive camp, they are not liberals and they are not democrats. They are part and parcel of the authoritarian regime which was never completely dismantled in 1991 and which has been restored with extreme vigor by Putin over the last 15 years.

Whatever lies behind the Russian leader’s disappearance, the danger is that the West will respond in the wrong way: by easing sanctions. If Putin has been extinguishing rebellion or settling feuds, Western policymakers will want to cut him some slack. Stability is better than upheaval. If a new face appears at the top—whether a new president or a new prime minister—the West will hope that he will be a more predictable partner than the elusive and erratic Putin—and offer him an olive branch.

In truth the West has as little idea of Kremlin politics as we have chance of influencing it. Our real priority should be remedying our weaknesses (especially the ones that Russia exploits) and helping our allies and friends by raising the cost to the Kremlin (whoever is in charge there) of aggression abroad.

But we haven’t, and I fear we won’t. Ukrainians are paying the price for our illusions now; but the bill is growing, and it will come to us later.