Staunton, March 2 — Vladimir Putin’s disappearance from public view quickly sparked a variety of explanations for his absence; now, his return has led to the wholesale rejection of all of those by many. In fact, it is worth noting, the Kremlin leader’s reappearance has dispelled with certainty only two: that he is dead or that he has been ousted from office in a coup.
But in the black box that is Kremlin politics in the age of Putin, it remains possible that one or more of the theories advanced about his disappearance may be true in whole or in part – even though the information needed to determine which is true and which is not may not be available anytime soon or be convincing to all if and when it comes out.
Consequently, it may be useful to enumerate five of the theories most often put forward during Putin’s absence from the scene and consider what might constitute evidence for or against them as a way of thinking about what may take place in the coming weeks — rather than going, as appears to be the case now, from one extreme to the other.
1. Putin is ill. Putin may have suffered from a minor illness or he may be suffering from a major one. Talking about health issues has never been something Russian leaders are comfortable with, and Putin has made his personal vigor a major part of his public persona. Thus, he may have been ill, or he may even be seriously so – one can, as the author of these lines knows personally, have a serious illness that even promises a bad outcome but that has no major immediate symptoms.
2. Putin went into a funk. Faced with problems in the past, most notoriously at the time of the Kursk accident and the Beslan attacks, Putin has retreated from public view, apparently because he sometimes finds it difficult to cope or alternatively needs private time to recoup his strength and find his focus. Just before his disappearance, he faced the crisis of the Nemtsov murder and its aftermath, one in which he faced obvious disagreements between his agent Ramzan Kadyrov and the major siloviki props of his regime.
3. Putin wanted to distract attention from the Nemtsov case. Putin undoubtedly was glad to have his disappearance distract attention from the Nemtsov case: discussion of that murder under the Kremlin walls virtually disappeared as a result of the focus on Putin’s absence. Might he have decided that this was a useful tactic? If so, however, the question remains: who was he trying to distract: the Russian people, the West, or key members of the Russian elite? Given his approval ratings with the Russian people, the first seems unlikely; given his disapproval rating with the West, the second seems without much hope; and consequently, if this is the explanation, then almost certainly he was trying to distract the elites, many of whom may be troubled by Nemtsov’s murder. By disappearing and thus attracting attention to himself, Putin would in this reading be reminding everyone of just how central and even indispensable he is to the current Russian political system.
4. Putin wanted to distract attention from his aggression in Ukraine or his plans for aggression elsewhere. Vladimir Putin has long taken pride in the fact that he is a master of the indirect approach, doing things to focus attention on one thing while he is preparing to act on another. The extent to which his forces are violating the ceasefire in Ukraine and even more the new military moves in the Russian north opposite Scandinavia are two possible indications that this theory may not be without merit.
5. Putin faced a challenge from within Russian elites who wanted to overthrow him or force him to change course. That there are serious differences within Russian elites is hardly news, and that the interrelationship of power and policy in the poorly institutionalized Russian political system often means that changes in policy require chances in personnel is no news either. Moreover, it is clear as well that many in the elite are hurting as a result of Putin’s policies in Ukraine and on the Russian economy and of Western sanctions. Such anger has been well-documented, albeit in ways that require many of the skills of Sovietologists or Kremlinologists of the past. And it is certainly the case that many of the members of this elite have been asking themselves if, in the wake of the Nemtsov murder, they might be Putin’s next victims.
Were this anger and this fear sufficient to spark a challenge to Putin’s rule? Possibly. Was it successful? Clearly not, if by success one means Putin’s ouster. If such a challenge did happen, evidence for it will likely take the form of ousters, retirements, “accidents,” and even deaths in the coming weeks or months. But might there have been a “soft” coup, one in which Putin had to make some concessions in order to retain power? That too remains an open possibility, even though it may be the hardest thing to provide evidence for given that many appear to believe that Putin has a completely free hand and can change course at will.
With regard to the possibility of an attempted “coup,” there are two other possibilities that should not be discounted in advance and without evidence: On the one hand, Putin may have provoked it in order to determine with greater precision who his real allies and enemies are. Should that prove to be the case – and evidence for it will be very difficult to find and make convincing – he will undoubtedly orchestrate a variety of departures by similar means.
And on the other, there might have been what some call a “soft” coup, one in which Putin had to make some concessions in order to retain power. Again, given the intertwining of power and policy in his regime, such tradeoffs are always possible, even though proving them may be the hardest of all given that many have convinced themselves that Putin has a completely free hand and can do whatever he wants. That is certainly what the Kremlin leader would like everyone to believe; the available evidence suggests that this like so many of the claims made by and for Putin is at a minimum overstated.