For the past week and a half, the main topic for political speculation on the Russian Internet—but not on state-run TV—was the disappearance of President Vladimir Putin from all public events, and even from the Eurasian summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, which had to be postponed until March 20. The hosts were rather irritated by the lack of explanations from Moscow, guessing that Putin was probably sick (Newsru.com, March 11). Rumors exploded when Putin failed to appear at a session of the Collegium of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Meanwhile, “canned” footage of his briefings with mid-level officials, which had actually happened the week prior, further added to the doubts about Putin’s meeting with the president of quasi-independent South Ossetia that was re-scheduled for the coming Wednesday (March 18) (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 13). Putin finally reappeared in public on Monday, March 16, speaking to journalists in St. Petersburg after his meeting with Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev (RIA Novosti, March 16).
It was certainly not the first time that Putin took an inexplicable break from the office, but this latest timing inevitably inspired reflections on Josef Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, and on Konstantin Chernenko’s death on March 11, 1985, which opened the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms exactly 30 years ago (Moscow Echo, March 14).
What has turned these rumors and reflections into political discourse is the increasingly obvious crisis of leadership and governance, which is fast deepening despite Putin’s sky-high approval ratings. A major catalyst of this crisis is the investigation of Boris Nemtsov’s murder on the Kremlin’s doorstep on February 27, which has centered on the “Chechen connection” leading directly to lieutenants of Chechnya’s despotic ruler Ramzan Kadyrov (see EDM, March 11; Novaya Gazeta, March 13). Kadyrov has defended the Chechen suspects as “true patriots” and professed absolute loyalty to Putin, possibly indicating his deep worries about the lack of access to his patron and intrigues of his old enemies in the FSB (Forbes.ru, March 12). The evidence supporting this version (to the degree it is known) remains flimsy, but it is clear that Kadyrov had much less interest in organizing such a high-profile murder than the FSB has in pinning it down on him (Slon.ru, March 12). Putin, indeed, faces a dilemma about whether to hold Kadyrov responsible for the demonstratively public murder, or find the plotters and executioners among his own lieutenants (Moscow Echo, March 13).
The fact of the matter is that Nemtsov had few ties with or exposure to the smoldering crisis in the North Caucasus but took an active anti-interventionist stance on the Ukraine crisis. For Russia’s extreme “patriots,” who set the tone of state propaganda, and for their siloviki (security services personnel) minders, Nemtsov’s appeal to the United States and the European Union to tighten the sanctions regime was tantamount to treason (Svoboda.org, March 10). Stakeholders in the “hybrid war” could have planned the shocking murder not only as a lesson to other “traitors” but also as means of compelling Putin to move into the next offensive phase from the present stalemate codified by the “Minsk Two” ceasefire deal on the war in eastern Ukraine. Loath as he is to discipline Kadyrov, Putin is undoubtedly perfectly aware of the risks related to uncovering the “special operation” that targeted Nemtsov (Novoe Vremya, March 12). His system of power is based on and driven by corruption not repression, and the apparent breakdown of control over some of its predatory clans was a shock for Putin, who has opted for hiding his head in the sand of denial.
However, nothing stands still while he plays the disappearing act, thus testing the loyalty of his subordinates who are experienced in court politics. Meanwhile, the war gears up for the next escalation of hostilities as “volunteers” from Russia are sent to eastern Ukraine with due fanfare (Rosbalt.ru, March 12). The propaganda campaign is fully underway, paying scant attention to the fragile ceasefire and turning the celebrations of the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation into a hate campaign against Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 13). The economy continues its downward slide as new data shows monthly oil and gas revenues more than 40 percent lower from the same period in 2014 (Newsru.com, March 13). The Central Bank has achieved a degree of stabilization in the financial system through massive expenditures of its hard currency reserves. But real incomes keep declining, and unpredictable new shocks to the economy are certain to come (Slon.ru, March 13).
Putin has no control over these fast-moving and entirely incompatible processes, and he can no more easily order the war machine to halt than he can command the economy to grow. Yet, he personally both symbolizes the integrity of state institutions and concentrates all of Russia’s decision-making processes on every serious matter pertaining to the “hybrid war”—and increasingly “hybrid peace.” He has boldly abandoned his trademark political pattern of stability and now presides over management of multiple crises conceptualized as an epic struggle for Russia’s identity. However, he does not appear to be ready, psychologically, to take on the role of crisis manager; and his subordinates fall short of becoming an effective rescue team. At the same time, the country, while pretending to rally around the war flag, is not ready for real mobilization. In different quarters, dissimilar expectations of necessary and imminent change are rising: the economists debate the depth of reforms, the “patriots” seek to exterminate the liberal opposition, and the generals await combat orders. Putin, however, obstructs reforms and continues to procrastinate on delivering the promised victories to such a degree that the arrival of expected change is becoming conditional on his departure (Grani.ru, March 13).
Since the Ukraine crisis exploded a year ago, Putin’s system of power has rigidified into a uni-centric combination of a police state, kleptocracy and “propagandocracy” (if such a word could be invented), in which no transition of authority can be planned or envisaged. His recent poorly camouflaged and worse explained “disappearance” has not re-confirmed his indispensability, but signaled that the courtier-siloviki will not be able to manage the appointment of a new boss without unleashing a multi-clan feud—in which Kadyrov with his battalions and billions could be a major force. Putin is leading Russia toward state failure; and the incapacitation of this disastrous leadership by some sort of “Ides of March” scenario would likely trigger a big leap forward in this degradation.