Streetwise Professor

March 14, 2015

Где Влад? High Temperature? Room Temperature? Coup-ed Up?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:38 pm

As of this moment, Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public for more than 9 days: you can keep up to the minute track here. Of course this has set off a flurry of speculation about his condition-or his fate. I obviously have no better idea than anyone else, but I’ll just lay out some possibilities.

  • He’s ill, with a condition ranging in severity from a bad cold to a coma, or in the limiting case, he’s dead.
  • There is an attempt to oust him. (Of course, illness and ouster are not mutually exclusive: a physically weakened Putin is a tempting target, and a dead one obviously requires a replacement with multiple contenders making a play.) Anders Aslund hypothesizes that Putin and Sechin, backed by the interior ministry and its forces, are locked in a death struggle with Sergei Ivanov, Russian nationalists, and the FSB. Andrei Illarionov claims that the generals are out to oust Putin. The Nemtsov murder is seen as a catalyst or symptom of these events. One theory is that the FSB is furious with Putin giving Kadyrov a free rein, and is trying to pin the murder on Chechens in order to strike at Kadyrov. It is worth noting that Sechin has been subject to public criticism lately, including by Putin. That could signal some attempt to reallocate power and property that could lead all of the various contending clans to take to the mattresses. Who knows?
  • Putin is playing possum, feigning incapacitation in order to see whether anyone thinks this is an opportunity to seize power. That would be a good way for a paranoid man to smoke out threats.

The Kremlin’s ham fisted handling of the publicity (reporting on meetings that have yet to occur, and releasing photos and video from a meeting that likely occurred before Putin submerged) is only fueling the speculation.

As for illness, it would have to be pretty bad to induce him to go incommunicado for so long, given the angst this is creating. Julia Ioffe argues that Putin cannot even admit to having a cold, as this would puncture the aura of invincibility that he needs to rule successfully. Given the choice between admitting to a cold, and doing something that leads to wild speculation that he’s lying on a cold slab (speculation that can be destabilizing), I would think he’d load up on the DayQuil, make a few public appearances, and bluff his way through. So if it is illness, it would likely be severe.

And if it isn’t, and Ioffe is correct, just think of what that means about Russia’s political system, and its future. A system whose stability depends on the illusion of an invulnerable leader is doomed to collapse with probability one, because the illusion is just that-a chimera. Putin isn’t getting any younger, and Russian men are not noted for their longevity: for most, their old age begins in the early-to-mid-60s, if they are lucky enough to make it that long. So before too long, Putin will suffer a serious health problem, with all the uncertainty that entails in a personalized system with no tried and stable succession mechanism and which has a vast security apparatus that just might be tempted to seize power.

A power struggle in the Kremlin is a possibility, but the dogs are always fighting under the carpet. It’s hard to determine whether anything out of the ordinary is going on now. Isn’t it interesting how Kremlinology is making a comeback?

As for a coup, I’m skeptical. If that was occurring, or had happened, you would expect to see a noticeable increase in military and OMON activity in the capital. A big increase. Either as a defensive measure by Putin, or as a movement by the plotters, or both. No such movement has been reported.

In the absence of information, people are putting dark interpretations on unremarkable events: minds seem to need to fill in blanks.  For instance, last night Twitter was ablaze with speculation about what was going on in Red Square. Semis were seen driving to the square, and there were pictures of bleachers and some sort of construction work. Theories trying to connect this to Putin’s disappearance ran rampant. But the explanation was simple: the outdoor ice rink near GUM was being taken down. (Is there rampant speculation when the Rink at Rockefeller Center is taken down?)

Another kerfuffle: the flag that normally flies over the Kremlin was absent. A sign! An omen! Whatever. If there’s a coup you’ll know soon enough.

This is just Russia living up to Churchill’s aphorism: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. This makes it extremely susceptible to bouts of severe unpredictability, which is a sobering prospect given its aggressive tendencies and massive arsenal (especially its nuclear arsenal). Given the lilliputians in the US and Europe who are responsible for reacting to such a spasm this is not comforting. Meaning all I have to say is: Vlad! Get well soon!

That’s especially true because anyone who replaces Putin is likely to be as bad, or worse. That’s especially true if he’s ousted by a coup, because that’s a process of the survival of the baddest.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem. We have a Russia problem. Putin is a symptom of a political system that will survive him, and will evolve, but likely into something worse.


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  1. According to Swiss sources, his long-time girlfriend checked in at a clinic to give birth to Putin’s third son (or daughter). He’s probably there at the moment.

    Interestingly, it’s the very same clinic where Berlusconi’s daughters gave birth to their children.

    Personal engagments.

    Comment by Steff — March 15, 2015 @ 4:11 am

  2. As people know by now, the Rasha put out a “documentary” – Crimea: Path to the Fatherland – in which Putler brags about taking over Crimea.

    In that “documentary” he also states that Maskva was ready to activate its nuclear weapons in any takeover scenario.

    One of the comments under a recent Washington Post article speculated that Putler was binge-watching House of Cards

    Another post showed an X-ray, with Putler on the table – choking on Ukraine in his throat

    Comment by elmer — March 15, 2015 @ 8:39 am

  3. I hope you don’t mind my imposing, SWP

    Mystery is solved – Ukrainian AutoMaidan people set up a gravestone for Khuylo V.V. (Khuylo is what they call Putler in Ukraine, and it translates roughly as [email protected], and V.V. stands for Vladimir Vladimirovych, of course) in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv.

    Pictures here:

    Comment by elmer — March 15, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  4. Speculation is tempting; my take is that he’s undergone another round of horribly administered Botox pumpin’ and now waits for the swelling and black-n-blues to subside.
    I am afraid the Evil is immortal.

    Comment by ETat — March 15, 2015 @ 9:07 am


    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 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.)


    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 Party of Power 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.

    Comment by elmer — March 15, 2015 @ 11:11 am

  6. Maybe the US should recall its ambassador. If that would not make him to reveal himself, nothing else will.

    Comment by LL — March 15, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

  7. It’s probably an ‘Eastern Bloc’ thing. Xi Jin-ping went AWOL for a while before his elevation to the presidential swivel-chair in China – although I think that was more to do with the ‘experts’ getting the right shade of ‘Grecian 2000’ into his mane than anything as serious as Elmer is suggesting.

    Fascinating. Will be watching closely to see how things unfold.

    Comment by Ex-regulator on lunch break — March 15, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

  8. The problem is crude flu. There is a strong correlation between crude price and VV’s health and for that matter his life expectancy. Crude price at $20/bbl could be fatal.

    Comment by pahoben — March 16, 2015 @ 4:06 am

  9. It makes little sense to me that VV has focused so much on Ukraine rather than the Middle East since a new problem in the Middle East would be a boon to crude price. Maybe the Middle East is so rife with problems it is difficult to create another. The US is apparently willing to accept any agreement with Iran so that reduces the potential for trouble making.

    Comment by pahoben — March 16, 2015 @ 4:12 am

  10. Something looking like Putin has emerged in Leningrad.

    Comment by Ivan — March 16, 2015 @ 5:05 am

  11. I wonder if the latest revelations that Putin was ready to launch a nuclear war in order to seize Crimea has prompted somebody with more sense to speed up his plans a little? Although as Ivan points out, I see that he has shown up at last.

    Comment by Tim Newman — March 16, 2015 @ 6:36 am

  12. He is the present day доктор странныйлюбовь and Rogozin will ride it in wearing his Cossack regalia.

    Comment by pahoben — March 16, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

  13. @Ivan: How soon before it is renamed Putingrad?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 16, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  14. Inidentally, Prof, if you’ve ever fely your the comment were being trolled by the Kremlin – chances are they were:

    In fact you should arguably be offended not to be trolled.

    Comment by Green as Grass — March 17, 2015 @ 3:04 am

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