Kremlinology is more art than science. It requires a constant awareness of potentially pivotal events, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin's temporary disappearance this spring, which fueled a great deal of speculation. Rumors that Putin is ill have abounded for years, but his absence from the public eye at the culmination of struggles between Federal Security Service (FSB) and non-FSB players in the Kremlin adds to the intrigue surrounding his disappearance. Putin remains at the heart of the Kremlin, and his brief absence could signal his weakening ability to arbitrate clan feuds.
A series of odd circumstances surrounding Putin began Aug. 7, 2014, when Svoboda Radio, a series of Duma members and state television operator VGTRK reported that Putin planned to give an "emergency speech" about Ukraine that night. Russian media speculated that the speech could signal a change in Russia's tactics in Ukraine and possibly a military intervention. However, Putin's emergency speech never happened. That night, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said no speech was planned. Speculation rose that either something was wrong with Putin or there was a division within the Kremlin on Ukraine.
The following week, Putin gave a speech in Crimea that was set to air live across all Russian time zones on multiple state television stations. However, the speech was never broadcast. Four hours after Putin gave his speech, small pieces of footage appeared on state-controlled television with no audio. Instead, a news anchor read a transcript published by Interfax and Itar-Tass, both FSB-controlled media outlets. Rumors re-emerged that Putin was ill or that something occurred that the FSB had not approved.
In early September, Putin casually mentioned in an interview that the FSB would undergo a "restructuring." The president did not indicate what the restructuring would entail, and other than rumors of layoffs in the middle tiers of the intelligence organization, the restructuring's intent is unclear. The next month, Putin behaved oddly once more by celebrating his 62nd birthday in the Siberian forests instead of in Moscow or working as he had in previous years. With the declining economy, the critical situation in Ukraine and intensifying internal struggles in the Kremlin, Putin's trip to Siberia could have been an indicator of the pressure he was under or evidence of illness, as the media has frequently speculated.
By October, the competition within the Kremlin began to escalate. Rumors from media outlets independent of FSB influence suggested that Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev would soon resign and be replaced by First Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Zolotov. Zolotov once served as Putin's bodyguard and is known to be extremely loyal to the president. The rumors could indicate that Putin was concerned about the FSB's influence in the Interior Ministry and needed to ensure that the ministry's powerful security forces were directly under his command. Though the rumors have not yet proved to be true, they have been mentioned frequently since they emerged.
In December 2014, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov gathered some 20,000 of his troops, fully armed and wearing backpacks, in a sports stadium in Chechnya. Kadyrov told the troops that they could resign and volunteer to go fight in Ukraine but that he was awaiting Putin's order. He ended the speech by rallying the soldiers, chanting, "Long live our national leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin!" That same month, Stratfor received a report that influential FSB figure Nikolai Patrushev would soon be dismissed as the head of the Security Council — a rumor that also has yet to come to fruition.
In early February, Putin began consolidating lesser intelligence groups under the Interior Ministry, the FSB's rival. By the end of the month, events began to unfold rapidly and became even more confusing.
On Feb. 27, leading Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge near the Kremlin. On March 4, Kadyrov posted a picture on Instagram showing himself with Putin, laughing and embracing, and posted a message that he would lay down his life for Putin. That same day, Vladislav Surkov, Kadyrov's ally and an anti-FSB power player, left Russia with his family. It is possible that Putin went "missing" the following day, although the public did not know of the president's absence until March 10.
On March 8, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov announced the arrest of two suspects in the Nemtsov assassination and the detention of three other suspects, with a sixth having committed suicide while being apprehended. All of the suspects were Chechens, and one of them (Zaur Dadaev) had personal ties to Kadyrov. Kadyrov took to Instagram to call Dadaev a "true patriot." During the next week, rumors erupted that the FSB was targeting Kadyrov, with some theories speculating that Kadyrov ordered Nemtsov's death to show the FSB that he could get away with such a public assassination. Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that Putin had awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, a clear sign of support for the Chechen president.
On March 11, the Kremlin canceled Putin's March 12-13 trip to Kazakhstan to meet with the Kazakh and Belarusian presidents, as well as a meeting with a South Ossetian delegation that was already in Moscow. Peskov said the meetings were simply "postponed." The Kremlin also posted a picture of Putin holding a working meeting with the head of the Republic of Karelia — a meeting that was confirmed to have taken place six days earlier, meaning that Putin was out of the public eye and his whereabouts were unknown.
The day before the story broke that Putin was "missing," the FSB's top brass began to make a show of important meetings. Patrushev met with Kadyrov after a Security Council meeting. The following day, Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin convened with Russian Orthodox Church officials. The FSB also held one of its large annual meetings, which Putin missed.
The president was not seen for 10 days, raising rampant speculation in the media about his whereabouts, whether there was a coup, and if he was ill or dead. Rumors spread of various members of the elite being killed or fired and of the Russian military deploying on the streets of Moscow, none of which transpired as far as we know. Peskov was hammered with questions about Putin's location, to which he gave a string of contradictory explanations before ordering the media to stop asking. When Putin finally emerged 10 days later in a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart, he remarked, "Life would be boring without rumors," a fitting response to the Kremlinologists trying to untangle this string of events.
Questions Linger After Putin's Absence
Though the struggles between the FSB and non-FSB members of the elite are fairly clear, two key questions emerged after Putin's disappearance. First, has the FSB interpreted Putin's affinity for loyalists such as Kadyrov and Surkov as a stance against the FSB? If so, then this is a power struggle between the FSB and Putin. Second, has the struggle already been settled behind the scenes in the FSB's favor, and the security agency is now acting as the puppeteer behind the Putin presidency?
Once again, we must sift through a series of clues to form a complete answer. Since Putin's vanishing act, the FSB has made a series of power grabs in key areas. FSB counterintelligence chief Oleg Syromolotov was appointed deputy foreign minister and charged with managing counterterrorism operations. State Duma deputy and FSB Col. Igor Barinov was appointed head of the newly created Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs. The two appointments put FSB personnel in positions that oversee many issues regarding Chechnya and Kadyrov.
In addition, Russian commentators in social media and on Russian television channel NTV frequently mention the feud between Patrushev and Surkov over the Ukraine portfolio. It is possible that this battle could lead to an attack on Surkov. For example, Russian ultra-nationalist Ilya Goryachev will be going on trial any day now for allegedly masterminding 10 high-profile murders carried out in recent years by the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists. Goryachev has said Surkov was actually the mastermind behind the assassinations, and media outlets have said the FSB is orchestrating the trial to give Goryachev the opportunity to accuse Surkov.
The largest indicator that the FSB has gained the upper hand in the ongoing struggle is reports from Ukraine that pro-Russian Chechen forces fighting there are leaving. If Surkov and Patrushev were struggling over control of the separatists in Ukraine, the exodus of the forces that report to Kadyrov, Surkov's right hand, could signal that the FSB has greater influence over the Ukraine portfolio.
Together, the indications that the FSB has gained strength could explain why both Kadyrov and Surkov have once again begun acting strangely. When Interior Ministry forces killed a suspected criminal in Grozny on April 19, Kadyrov took to the media to order Chechen interior forces to "shoot to kill" any non-Chechen forces in the republic. Later that day, he again took to the media to clarify that he was not at war with the FSB. A week later, on April 30, Kadyrov said that he was prepared to resign from the Chechen presidency and that he had asked Putin to allow him to do so. All of these events could signal an FSB-induced crackdown on Kadyrov behind the scenes. In addition, Surkov took to Instagram during Victory Day celebrations to congratulate the FSB on the holiday, an odd singling out of the security services.
Each day a few more clues emerge, but the direction and magnitude of the current Kremlin struggle are difficult to see clearly. Like many previous competitions for power, it could take days or years for the most recent contest to settle or spur a change within the Russian government. As Winston Churchill said, the nature of the Kremlin's intrigues is not clear until a victor emerges from the obscured fight.