Thursday on social media I posted speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been missing from public view for nearly two weeks, might be dead. After talking to my Moscow and Washington contacts, I have more grave concerns: He's alive.
Putin has not been seen in public since a March 5th meeting with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. This is highly unusual, since the bare-chested judo champion loves the spotlight. It's not unprecendented, but the Kremlin usually produces photos and videos of the president during enduring absences.
They tried that this time, too. But in the age of the Internet, the photos were quickly debunked as taken at previous meetings. One photo had a desk calendar in the background and Web crawlers scrambled to get the date in focus. It's been a parlor game among Muscovites and Russophiles like myself. But now, almost two weeks later, it's gotten scary.
Today, some still say Putin is dead. That's unlikely, but most agree something notorious is certainly afoot. Russians and Europeans alike are wringing their hands.
This is something you need to worry about, too, so put down your Friday fish fry and pay attention. This isn't a health issue. This is a dramatic and globally dangerous political crisis.
First, you must understand that Putin is not the real master of Russia. He has gained tremendous power since his elevation to the presidency, but it's those who elevated him who pull the strings: a coalition of two very different groups, the Party of Power and billionaire oligarchs.
The Party of Power is a phrase coined decades ago by Russian intelligentsia. This "Party" isn't a real political party, it's a shadowy group of hard line senior military, defense industry and KGB leaders, called "siloviki", who favor aggressive domestic and international policies to restore the grandeur of the Soviet Union. These guys are flat out dangerous; they make Putin look like Mahatma Ghandi. They're likely the force behind the most notorious contemporary activity in the fractured nation, like the unsolved bombings of Russian neighborhoods to gain support for the war in Chechnya and the unsolved murders of a dozen-plus journalists and opposition figures.
They will stop at nothing to regain faded glory - including murdering reformer Boris Nemtsov in the shadow of the Kremlin. (I knew Boris Efimovich. His late February assasination was likely the final catalyst for this crisis.)
The Oligarchs are equally reprehensible, but for different reasons. These are the Russian billionaires who amassed their fortune by raiding government assets and stealing from the people, many of whom still live in abject poverty. When I lived in Moscow in the nineties, President Boris Yeltsin had his favorite oligarchs. With the rise of Putin, Yeltsin's billionaires were jailed or exiled and new ones popped up to back the new president.
They aren't above killing to achieve their goals, but their places in Hell are not likely as hot as those reserved for the Party of Power.
A few months ago, a connected former Putin staffer Andrei Illarionov - who now works for a US think tank - suggested the uneasy oligarch-hard-liner alliance was fracturing. Illarionov is right far more often than he is wrong, and today it appears he was correct about the Kremlin factional fight.
Russia's war against Ukraine, instigated by the Party of Power, was quickly draining the wealth of the oligarchs as Western sanctions bit into their profits. The billionaires pushed Putin to back off Ukraine, and after his men and equipment shot down a Malaysian passenger airliner by mistake he appeared to move in that direction. But the siloviki pushed back hard and, not long after, Putin turned up the heat and shipped more heavy weapons into his men fighting in eastern Ukraine. Ever since, the war has escalated and Putin's rhetoric has heated up.
That's a clear indication that Illarionov was absolutely correct. His most recent and more disturbing calculation came this week: Putin has been overthrown in a palace coup by the hard-liners. He predicts that Russians will soon see an announcement that Putin is taking a well-deserved rest and a new, more dangerous face will be promoted. Others say they’ve already killed the president.
The Kremlin is pushing back, saying everything is fine, Putin is healthy and he will be back to resume cancelled meetings next week. But take it from someone who worked there: you can’t believe what comes out of the Kremlin. He’s got a meeting scheduled for Monday and all eyes are on that confab.
Here’s my take: Illarionov is right. You’ll recall the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev – one I learned firsthand from the players that the Glasnost salesman was complicit in all along. I believe that’s what’s happening right now. The military and intelligence types have snatched up Putin and they are holding him outside Moscow. Like Gorbachev, he’s playing both sides and waiting to see who wins the power struggle. Like a snake, when the body count wanes Putin will buddy up to the winners, hoping he can stay in power.
If I’m right, too – and I might be dead wrong – Vladimir Putin is sitting comfortably in a countryside dacha with a pistol pointed gamely at his head. He’s telling the hard-liners he’s with them while winking at the oligarchs to indicate he’s just playing along. And, like Gorbachev, he’s just waiting to see which faction emerges on top. Whoever it is, he will embrace them.
This is fraught with problems for all of us. Chief among them: this isn’t 1991. There isn’t the same appetite for democratic reforms as when Gorbachev was playing the game. There’s no Yeltsin, no Nemtsov, no coalition of reformers strong enough to rally support behind the oligarchs. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t any military units backing the oligarchs or reformers, like some did in 1991. All are firmly controlled by the Party of Power.
In 1991, there were also precious few new billionaires because they hadn’t yet had the chance to steal the kitchen stove. They had a vested interest in cashing in on the nascent cleptocracy, so they sided with reform. Today the oligarchs mostly live in Europe and America. They don’t have nearly as much skin in the game and are perfectly happy with their own palaces on the Mediterranean and their skyscraper flats in London and New York. They can walk away today. Some already have.
And if the cleptocrats don’t walk away, one of the billionaires will soon turn up dead. Then, the rest will run because it doesn’t matter who you are, the shadowing forces of the Party of Power can get to you. Or your mother. Or your children. Anywhere.
Putin is a bad guy, of course, but I would be far less worried about this if he just had a health crisis. There is a constitutional succession procedure and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is in line. That doesn't mean the hard-liners wouldn't move to control that process and put another of their ilk in place. But it does mean they would have been just as caught by surprise as other factions and the fight might play out differently. Better.
But a coup? That's just going one way.
It is important to note the very real possibility that the siloviki are fighting amongst themselves, with the oligarchs watching nervously from the sidelines. Some veteran Kremlinologists say this is the case, with a powerful Putin ally, Chechen warlord-"president" Ramzan Kadyrov, at the center of it all.
It’s my guess this won’t be resolved over the weekend and we’ll get more excuses out of the Kremlin staff on Monday. Putin won’t show up at a scheduled meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan in St. Petersburg, and his spokesman will scoff again at coup rumors.
I fear for my dear friends in Russia; they are in real danger. And my family in Ukraine? They are in the most trouble of all. If the siloviki emerge, the tactical nuclear weapons Putin shipped into the country will be primed for use and pointed at major cities.
If this is resolved, it probably won't look like anything much happend at all. Putin will reappear, no worse for the wear. But his policy - especially his international moves - will certainly reveal who won. If he backs off the gas pedal in Ukraine, then the oligarchs won. If he blows Cherkasy, Ukraine to smithereens, you can bet the butchers prevailed.
One thing is for sure: while this plays out, the world is in far more danger than we were in February. Pray for us all.
UPDATE 3-13/3PMET: Swiss media is reporting a rumor that Putin's secret paramour Alina Kabaeva, a former gymnast, has given birth in Switzerland. Some of my smart friends in Moscow believe he is there. Or, this is another ruse. Stay tuned.
UPDATE 3-14/12PMET: The Kremlin says Putin's not in Switzerland with his girlfriend. Strap in for a longer ride.
UPDATE 3-15/10AMET: A remarkable Russian state media mistake today - a faked TV news report about Putin's expected Monday meeting aired a full day early - provided further proof of a Kremlin cover up. And the Swiss media confirms Putin was not in Lugano with his girlfriend.
UPDATE 3-15/2PMET: Two key Putin allies have also reportedly disappeared: Chechen leader Kadyrov and General Victor Zolotov, Putin's close friend, judo partner and security chief. Zolotov, whose job it is to defend the president against any physical threat, is rumored to already be dead.