The Corner

Where’s Vova?

I have no real idea where Putin is or what his ‘disappearance’ means (and, indeed, by the time this gets posted he may have already allowed himself to be seen), but the fact that the Russian leader has been out of the public eye for so long means something, and the fact that none of the easy steps that could have been taken to quash the rumors about his absence have been taken (recently released footage of a meeting with the head of the Russian supreme court could have been filmed at any time) could well mean that that something is serious.

Mark Galeotti dismisses arguments for a military coup:

What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility.

That last is right, I think. As I argued after Boris Nemtsov’s murder:

One of the reasons that full Stalinism never returned to the Soviet Union after the dictator’s death was that the elites decided it was too dangerous for them. Putin has to be careful not to push the elites into thinking that he has become too dangerous/unpredictable not to be opposed.

And I don’t think that things have come to that point.

Galeotti also points to the absence of conventional signs that a coup is in the works:

[W]ere this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’d be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.

Could Putin be coming under pressure from far harder-line nationalists?  They certainly exist. Nils Usakovs, the ethnically Russian and  (broadly)  pro-Putin mayor of the Latvian capital, Riga (and, in the view of some, a potential ‘little green mayor’), was heavily criticized last year for pointing out that the alternatives to Putin could well be even worse. We can question Usakovs’s motives for saying that, but not the diagnosis. With the ‘liberal’ opposition marginalized (incidentally Alexei Navalny, the most effective opposition leader left standing, is neither much of a liberal nor does he have much of a following outside Moscow and St. Petersburg), there is an obvious danger that what comes next could indeed be worse.

As a reminder of that, Window on Eurasia reports on recent comments from Igor Strelkov, the former ‘defense minister’ of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (I wrote a bit about him here):

Igor Strelkov… told his supporters in Ekaterinburg that Vladimir Putin will suffer the fate of Nicholas II who was shot in the Urals in 1918 [In Ekaterinburg, to be precise] or of Slobodan Milosevic who died in a Hague prison in 2006.

As Strelkov sees it, under the influence of ‘fifth columnist’ advisers (with cash and familes stashed abroad), Putin is throwing away the momentum he gained with the annexation of the Crimea and the early successes in eastern Ukraine and will end up angering both liberals and nationalists, as, in Strelkov’s view, did Milosevic.

Strelkov is an eccentric, an ambitious eccentric, but an eccentric with, I suspect, limited political staying-power, at least in any meaningful sense, and it’s easy to contradict his analysis of the Ukrainian war. As the people of Mariupol have been the latest to discover, Russia’s ‘salami tactics’ are working pretty well. Despite the grit of Ukraine’s soldiers, Ukraine’s political/military command has failed to impress. There’s also the little matter of Ukraine’s impending economic collapse.

Nevertheless, Strelkov does represent a strand of Russian opinion that, fairly or fairly, would be inflamed by the thought of a victory being thrown away:

Strelkov added that despite the ceasefire and all the talk in the media, true Russian patriots in “Novorossiya” plan to renew the fight because “Ukraine is part of Russia,” and many people “in Odessa, in Kharkov, in Kherson, and in Nikolayevsk are waiting for Russia. In fact, many are waiting for Russia in Kyiv including those who consider themselves Ukrainians.”

If that doesn’t happen, expect talk of betrayal:  a Dolchstoßlegende can take many forms…

Finally (for now), Julia Ioffe, writing in the Washington Post , notes that even for Putin to admit to have fallen sick is not without its difficulties:

First, manly men don’t get sick. Putin’s carefully cultivated image rests on never showing weakness, which is crucial in hypercompetitive Russia. If one shows some weakness, then one is all weakness—and therefore prey. This is why Putin never apologizes and, in the rare instance in which he reverses a decision, will do so long after the public gaze or outcry has moved on. Putin is the national leader and does not admit mistakes. It is beneath national leaders to do such lily-livered things.

The second problem is that no one would believe Peskov [Putin’s spokesman]. The flu would become its own meme and people would parse that statement for clues about Putin’s secret death or secret stroke or secret tumor. That’s because the Kremlin has done such dissembling before. As columnist Leonid Bershidsky points out in Bloomberg View, Boris Yeltsin’s flack became expert at these tales, since Yeltsin would periodically disappear at critical times—either on boozy benders or with yet another heart attack. Putin himself disappeared for a while in 2012 after he threw out his back in a judo match, according to Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Before that, there was also a brief absence after which Putin reappeared with a noticeably puffy, stretched face. He sat in the audience at a comedy show and, as the cameras zoomed in on him, he tried his best to make his new face laugh….

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