Where is President Putin? Will he show up on Monday the 16th to meet Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev in Saint Petersburg, or will that meeting be canceled too?
Quite a bit of speculation abounds as to the whereabouts of Russia President Vladimir Putin. The serious questions began to be posed after President Putin suddenly canceled a trip to Astana, Kazakhstan where he was scheduled to meet on 13 March with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The tripartite meeting was to discuss trade and economic relations, including the likely topics of the Ukraine situation and global economic trends. According to President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, the meeting has been postponed for several days.
The last time President Putin was seen in public was on March 5th, in a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. A video showing President Putin greeting women on 8 March for International Women’s Day, a holiday celebrated more significantly in former Soviet lands than in the West was allegedly filmed earlier on March 5th, according to the same Russian press article. The Russian press secretary said President Putin has been having meetings and a decision just hasn’t been made to publicize them. He also responded to a query regarding whether Putin was dead with, “Sorry, but he’s still alive.”
The health-related rumored reasons run the gamut from a botched botox operation to cancer to the flu. Another rumor wonders whether President Putin may have secretly escaped Moscow with oft-rumored mistress former gymnast Alina Kabaeva to Switzerland for her to have a baby in a top notch medical clinic. A further report alleges the birth of a baby girl occurred a couple weeks ago and President Putin was not present.
The Washington Post’s Julia Ioffe reasons Putin’s absence causes concern because his image and power are predicated on his manliness, so there’s not likely to be any admission of illness. She also points out press secretary Peskov denied the Switzerland baby birth rumor. The article goes on to mention some of the more well-known instances of Russian leaders “disappearing” for a strange amount of time and when not so stable events were occurring.
Is the social media hype with #whereisPutin and #ПутинУмер overblown and overboard? Perhaps. However, as Ioffe notes, the absence of the top official in Russia has historically been a just cause for speculation. What’s interesting is a public appearance by President Putin would be an extremely simple fix, but the Kremlin has not chosen to dissolve the furor in this manner. On Sunday the 15th, press secretary Peskov said the subject about President Putin’s whereabouts and health is closed.
An important consideration in whether this “disappearance” should generate concern is whether or not it was planned. Having a pre-recorded International Women’s Day item would seem to indicate prior planning for an absence from public view. Therefore the first few days of the absence should not generate undue concern. Postponing the tripartite meeting in Kazakhstan might indicate the planned absence required an unplanned extension, but not necessarily. President Putin has a strong enough personal relationship with both presidents, Nazarbayev and Lukashenko, he could have arranged or excused his absence in any way desired. Both Nazarbayev and Lukashenko have led their respective countries authoritatively for over 20 years and neither would question any artifice President Putin required to retain power or preserve his image. Most importantly, President Putin could likely manage both relationships and the cancelation with phone calls of less than five minutes duration each. So the postponement of the Astana trip does not necessarily mean an unplanned extension, just a desire to hide the expected absence and keep the reason secret.
Is there a good reason President Putin might take a planned absence, but want it to be a secret? Yes, if the optics of the event would seem inappropriate. The explanation might be as simple as the poor optics of going on a vacation after personally promising to oversee the investigation into the 27 February assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Putin has been more careful about his public appearances since taking criticism over his absence when the submarine Kursk sank in 2000 or the Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis in 2002. However, this must also be combined with the well-known manly-man image of vitality and strength President Putin frequently displays with his media presence. When it comes right down to it, President Putin would not hesitate to just do what he wants. For example, if his mistress really did give birth to a baby girl a couple weeks ago, and President Putin just didn’t want to hear about it from the press, he could just avoid the media spotlight and carry on normally.
Could he then instrumentally use such a situation? Of course. It could be a loyalty test for the senior leaders. In the wake of Nemtsov’s murder near the Kremlin, the political environment in Russia is likely a bit tense. Predictably, President Putin initially topped the list of suspects behind the Nemtsov murder, but if he was not behind it, then a certain amount of suspicious caution on Putin’s part – both in public appearances and in trying to figure out who would take such action without his approval – is completely justified and reasonable. President Putin’s manly-man image likely would not willingly admit to avoiding public view for security reasons. This scenario would involve an initial period of demonstrating no security concerns by continuing business as usual, but initiating a planned absence after one week would then seem reasonable. The absence would necessarily have to be secret or the week-long demonstration of a lack of concern about security would have been wasted. If Putin did not order the hit, then he understandably would be very interested to identify who would order it and why.
A loyalty test for senior officials is a win-win proposition. He is more secure from assassination and he can focus on ensuring his closest advisors are still loyal. Already, rumors of a coup by regime insiders, including close Putin ally FSB (successor to the KGB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, are circulating. If Putin’s absence from public view tempts some officials to seize media attention to offer comment, then such activity might be useful information for a leader of Putin’s pedigree. Even conducting a sensing of his key advisors as they “check in” through their privileged access, or express thoughts about the media furor about his absence, can help President Putin judge the loyalty of the siloviki – those who hold official power and disproportionate influence in Russia.
Another interesting rumor is Putin’s absence presaging a possible significant change in government key leaders, like Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. In my view, I doubt President Putin would need to take so much time off to consider the political ramifications of such a change. Monitoring and making the regime personnel changes has been a constant consideration and would more likely be planned over a period of months, rather than in an extended period of seclusion.
If Russia were contemplating possible military conflict in Ukraine or the Baltic states, it would make sense for such a sensitive discussion to involve an extended session of wargaming at the highest level. While military planning would have been ongoing for many months and the President received numerous briefings, it would not be a ridiculous idea for the President to take some quality time to contemplate all the diplomatic, domestic, and military implications of a potential military crisis with NATO and the United States. It would not be prudent for a head of state to sandwich the planning for a possible nuclear war inside the normal daily routine. President Putin has personally participated in strategic level exercises, especially those involving potential nuclear scenarios with the U.S. and NATO. The Western press has provided extensive speculation about Russian military moves.
It would not surprise me for President Putin to reappear and make a strong statement or even ultimatum about Ukraine and/or the Baltic states after this absence for strategic contemplation about the way ahead. Is it coincidence, after widespread speculation focuses attention on Moscow and President Putin, a documentary film about Crimea is released with choice sound bites from President Putin about the crisis? Short Russian press articles containing Putin announcements about Ukraine accuse the Americans of puppet mastering the Ukraine events and assess Yanukovich’s refusal to use force as having serious consequences. The announcements are from Putin’s commentary in a documentary film that aired about Crimea rejoining the Motherland. Putin’s recent absence would lend substantial weight to an ultimatum because it would appear the Russians have meticulously planned a showdown and are ready to follow through with any threats. It would be a bold move. If the period of absence really was spent in intensive preparation for brinksmanship, the Russians would possibly be steps ahead of NATO, which could be a decisive advantage.
A less likely, less bellicose, but still important possibility could be President Putin is reviewing preparations for the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians remember World War 2. This is not a meaningless commemoration and significant government activities and events are planned. The Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, indicated veterans may receive substantial one-time payments. The last great 70th anniversary was of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union did not last to celebrate a 75th, this subtly connotes a greater meaning to a major 70th anniversary event. Then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a notable speech about Soviet history and the state of the Revolution to address a country shaken by his perestroika and glasnost policies. This speech also signified developments in reducing the possibility of nuclear war and an end to Khrushchev’s threat to obliterate capitalism. The 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe on 9 May will be an important moment for President Putin to issue a similar anniversary speech. In the atmosphere of tensions between the U.S., Europe and Russia over Ukraine, the upcoming prospect of celebrating the Allied victory in World War 2, may give a venue for a strong Russian statement about the state of relations between the former Allies. President Putin may be working through the wording of a speech to re-ignite the Cold War or prevent it.
President Putin showed up to the D-Day event in Normandy, France in June 2014 despite Western opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s support for the commemoration of this important historical event was an effective signal to give Western leaders hope in being able to resolve Ukraine’s crisis and moderate a possible escalation in the crisis. Will Western leaders fail to attend the anniversary events in Russia for political optics? Such failure could have serious consequences. If we are not already in a new Cold War, the appearance of the wrong U.S. leaders in early May in Russia could signal the start of a new Cold War.
It is altogether possible President Putin will show up at any moment and refuse to explain his absence. He may wipe his own nose and admit recovering from a flu or taking a rest. I think it more likely he will reappear with some powerful statements about strength and security and the future of Russia. The next strategic key date in Russian relations with the West is 9 May. Putin’s recent absence will either boost the power of his statements upon return or be quickly forgotten. But the real question may quickly become about who is absent from Moscow on 9 May.
Are American leaders thinking about this? “I have enough trouble keeping track of the whereabouts of one world leader,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters. “I would refer you to the Russians for questions on theirs. I’m sure they’ll be very responsive.” While Mr. Schultz certainly has no responsibility for keeping track of Putin, there are others who do and who should be thinking carefully about what this absence might mean.
Suggestion – President Obama might want to consider a “disappearance” from media view for a few days, maybe meet with some good Russian experts and key military and intelligence leaders at Camp David to think about a new Cold War. Such a reaction might “steal a march” on any upcoming Russian political maneuver. Even if President Putin shows back up with the sniffles, I am certain the time spent by important people thinking about Putin’s absence and the 9th of May will not have been wasted.