“Fight Against Stupidity And Bureaucracy”
It seems that after a mysterious disappearance from public view for the past eleven days or so, Vladimir Putin has re-emerged.
Over the past week and more there was a frenzy of speculation as to why he was nowhere to be seen and what had happened to him. His absence was significant, that much was agreed, but nobody knew why he had disappeared.
One of Putin’s former advisors, Andrei Illarionov, who has become one of his strongest critics of late, was quick off the mark to say Putin had been toppled in a backstage coup.
Many, well-connected in Russian matters, speculated that there was a full-scale Kremlin power struggle under way.
Other rumors quickly followed.
General Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s long-time bodyguard, was said to be dead. This was confirmed and denied and confirmed and denied, etc.,
Another of Putin’s top allies, Vladislav Surkov, was speculated to have fled to Hong Kong with his family.
The questions from the media and on the internet were also many and varied.
Had there been some kind of retaliation for the recent murder of opposition leader and former first deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov?
Would there be more bloodshed?
Was a coup under way in Russia?
Was Putin finished?
Was he perhaps unwell, which I suppose could be taken as a sign of weakness and spur on those who wished to topple him?
Was he in Switzerland celebrating the birth of a child by his secret lover, the gymnast Alina Kabaeva?
Would he re-appear soon, shirtless, macho and galloping on a horse to show everyone he is still a force to be reckoned with?
Or was the whole thing just a distraction from the murder of Nemtsov and the war in Ukraine?
The Kremlin, on the other hand, wasn’t asking any questions. It dismissed all such rumors and insisted that nothing was wrong with either Putin or his regime, apart from maybe a dose of the flu.
There is no doubt that, for all his political savvy, Putin has managed to get himself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He made his reputation by winning the war in Chechnya, and he cannot afford to cross the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. At the same time he cannot side against the politicians from the security or military services, often the officers of the former KGB, GRU, FSB, and all that, who came into power with him.
As usual, of course, most commentators missed the main question, which was apart from all the usual faffing around, ‘how should we react if such a thing were really to happen’?
Here in the West we, (including those in the intelligence community who are supposed to know about these things and brief world leaders like President Obama), don’t have much of a clue about Kremlin politics. You can be almost certain therefore that, if anything were ever to really happen to Putin, the danger is that the West would respond in entirely the wrong way.
A new Russian leader would be greeted by America and its allies as a more predictable and easier to deal with partner than Putin. But that is forgetting one crucial element. All Russian leaders are tough. Not just Putin. And the person who had the steel to oust someone of Putin’s caliber would have to himself be a very hard man and a shrewd operator.
More significantly, he would have to quickly stamp his authority and hold on power in Russia. The quickest and easiest way of doing that would be with more repression of opposition factions in Russia itself and with more flexing of Russia’s considerable muscles abroad, particularly in the Crimea and the Ukraine.
That would be a real puzzler for Obama, were it to happen during his last few months in office. And a defining moment for his successor.
Sometimes the devil you know is easier to deal with than one you don’t.