“He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases.” President Vladimir Putin must have basing himself on Lewis Carroll’s great poem. He’s been doing lots of annoying and teasing lately. Taking his summer vacation in Siberia and apparently out fishing on the banks of a river, he posed stripped to the waist, or better still, stripped for action, in a series of photo ops. All biceps and pectorals – got the message? Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once in Siberia for rather different reasons and I could not help remembering his description in The Gulag Archipelago of the mosquitoes swarming in Siberia in the summer in such numbers that if they settled on you they could sting you to death.
No sooner is Putin back in the Kremlin than he sends Russian bombers over European air space, and British pilots scramble to see them off. Better that, I suppose, than murdering exiles like Alexander Litvinenko in London, and then covering up for the suspect wanted by Scotland Yard – that whole case has gone into abeyance. And the next step was to test out the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever manufactured, one that wipes out all life in an area of several square miles. That should impress the unfortunate Chechens, Georgians, Moldavians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and others for whom Putin is duly flexing those biceps and pectorals. At the same time, they have just launched a super-submarine, nuclear-powered and capable of staying submerged for twenty days. More impressive still, he’s just sold the latest anti-aircraft defence system to Iran.
His most recent move, only yesterday, has been to dismiss his whole government, just like that, on the spur of the moment, no warning, no apparent motive – just the way they do these things in Russia. So he appoints a new government, with one Viktor Zubkov as prime minister. Only a very few in or out of Russia have ever heard of the man. Experts tell us that he too is a former KGB man like Putin, and a financial specialist who helped rob the oligarchs and send oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky out to Siberia for ten years, without fishing. Boris Yeltsin once picked the then unknown Putin in exactly this personal manner, like the conjuror who pulls a rabbit out of a top hat.
What’s the meaning? According to the constitution, Putin can serve only two terms as President. Nobody would be surprised if he were to wangle his way round a paper obstacle as flimsy as that. But perhaps he thinks he can install this Zubkov as his successor, and manipulate him like a puppet. If all this isn’t annoying and teasing, then it’s real trouble ahead.