Vladimir Putin: Dead Man's Bluff
There are few indulgences Russia-watchers enjoy more than applying their knowledge of Russia’s eternal complexities to decipher the “truth” from the fragments of information available. I know because I do it myself.
This tendency was to the fore again during the baffling ten-day disappearance of President Vladimir Putin. Feverish speculation and fishing for signs abounded. Was Mr Macho ill and afraid of looking feeble in public? Had he been indulging in plastic surgery like the last time he went AWOL and had a bad bout of botox? Perhaps there had been a palace coup by oligarchs revolting against the financial pain brought on by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Or - the ultimate shiver of excitement - was this the Kremlin’s latest revival of the Cold War cloak and dagger days we secretly love so much and was he dead like his Soviet-era mentor Andropov, with his circle keeping it secret until they had figured out what to do next?
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, played with this notion by announcing that the President “was very much alive and working on documents”. Which in Soviet “newspeak” meant “very much dead but we are not saying so until we have sorted out who his successor will be”. Peskov also threw in a knowing reference to the Yeltsin era by asserting that the President’s handshake was still crushing – a euphemism once used to claim that Yeltsin was fighting fit when he was actually laid low by alcohol poisoning or a heart attack.
Putin blew the speculation away by resurfacing on Monday, with his strut and chilling grin exactly as they were before he disappeared. And in the moment he reappeared it became clear that we have all been had. Some of the theories for Putin’s absence might be correct but we will never know. What is clear is that while we have been speculating about Putin’s whereabouts, we have been talking less about his brutal invasion of Ukraine, the evidence in the Litvinenko Inquiry connecting the killers to the Russian State or its murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the nonsensical arrest of another few sorry individuals from the cupboard of random Chechens that the Kremlin keeps for such eventualities (see also, for example, the alleged culprits in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya).
The exploitation of Putin’s “disappearance” is the kind of manipulative manoeuvre patented by his political mastermind, Vladislav Surkov. In its aching cleverness and ferocious cynicism, it epitomises the mindset of Russia today. Truth is what you make it. No-one (anywhere) is honest. All politicians, everywhere, are rampantly corrupt. All that matters is PR and how smart you are in gaming the system.*
This method wins many small battles for the Kremlin, at least on its own terms. But the carefully cultivated cynicism that permeates Russian society and keeps Putin in power is the disease that is slowly destroying a once great country. Even in the modern media era, you cannot control a country by spin alone, however smartly spun. In order to survive, any human society needs enough people to have a minimal stake in its collective success beyond what they can individually extract from it right now.
The Russian regime eventually will collapse under the weight of its own cynicism. And its reliance on such manipulation is also what makes it vulnerable to external pressure. The spin only works because it is backed up by enough oil and gas money to provide the population with sufficient “bread and circuses” to keep them docile. Tightening the economic sanctions would put the Kremlin in trouble because the gap between its rhetoric and the everyday reality staring the population in the face would soon become too big for most Russians to ignore.
So the question falls ultimately to us and our leaders in the outside world. Is Putin right in his judgement that we are willing to be complicit in his cynicism and too addicted to corrupt Russian money to act? Or are we ready to recognise the threat his current trajectory poses to Europe and to look after our own long-term interests by doing what we can to stop him now?
*Anyone wanting to know more about how Putin’s Russia operates should read Peter Pomerantsev’s superb and horrifying “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible”.