A Putin Puzzle

6 MINS READMar 12, 2015 | 01:19 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Yesterday, we had occasion to focus this diary, which is intended to be a discussion of the most significant event of the day, on China. There, an odd statement, widely circulated, caused us to wonder about the direction China's purges would take. It also caused us to feel as if we were living in the 1960s, when enigmatic wall posters were the only available hint of what was happening in China.

Today's diary must focus on Russia and resurrect the ancient art of Kremlinology to ponder whether something is going on at the top of the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to attend a Eurasian Union summit in Astana on Thursday with the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan. He was also supposed to attend a treaty signing with the leader of South Ossetia on Wednesday in Moscow. Both meetings were unexpectedly canceled. The news of the first cancellation came from Kazakhstan and included a statement that Putin was ill. The Russians quickly confirmed the cancellation but denied that he was sick. In fact, the presidential spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, made a point of saying there was no illness involved. The second cancellation was reported by Russian news agency Vzglyad, which speculated that Putin's schedule was "oversaturated."

That left open the question of why the meetings were canceled. Presidents do not casually cancel summits and treaty signings. Yet he did. It was then noticed that for the last week his schedule has been surprisingly light, with meetings announced only after they happened. In the midst of rumors today, the Kremlin issued a picture of Putin meeting with the governor of Karelia.

We know three things. First, the cancellations were odd. Second, the insistence that he was not ill was also odd. Third, the Kremlin did nothing to allay concerns about Putin's status. The Russians had to know that they were not allaying concerns; denying that he was ill but giving no alternative explanation for the cancellations seemed strange as well.

When you have no idea what is going on, as we didn't, you turn your attention to anything else that was odd. The best we could do was an announcement two days ago that the Russian defense minister and the heads of the Federal Security Service and the Federal Protective Service were all in Crimea. Their presence did not seem connected to any particular event or to any known military exercise. It is not unprecedented for these three to be out of Moscow at the same time, but their presence in Crimea, a particularly sensitive area, was bound to cause speculation. Another oddity is that Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Gazprom-owned media outlet, tweeted that he was pulled aside at the Bolshoi ballet Wednesday night and told that Rosneft chief and senior Politburo member Igor Sechin would be fired tomorrow. Rosneft denied the rumor.

These oddities have no clear connection at all to Putin's cancellations, save that they were strange events not fully explained and occurring at a sensitive time, raising further questions about what exactly is going on in Moscow. One phrase from the announcement from Peskov that was particularly striking to us was that the decision to cancel the meetings was made by the "leadership." In the old Kremlinology style, we note that he did not say that Putin decided on the cancellations, but that the "leadership" had. Normally, we would pass over the phrase, except lacking other information we have to wonder whether the leadership was a reference to Putin and the Belarusian and Kazakh presidents, or whether a different leadership was making decisions about Putin's schedule instead of Putin.

After Josef Stalin died, the Soviet leadership went to the ballet. Missing was Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD secret police. It seemed odd that he was not there. One explanation was that Beria didn't like the ballet. This was a reasonable explanation. It was also untrue. Beria had been executed, and the purpose of the collective visit to the ballet was to showcase his exclusion from the leadership by announcing that it was caused by his exclusion from life.

In the Soviet Union, observers watched carefully for these signs to determine what was going on. The Kremlin knew that observers were doing this and used such signs to signal events that they were not yet ready to announce. When the Kremlin did not want to make things official but wanted the Soviet citizens or the West to have some idea of what was going on, an absence from an event, where an official stood while reviewing parades and the precise wording of statements took on enormous importance.

The insistence that Putin was not ill might be intended, along with other evidence, as a signal that he is quite ill. Or it might be pointing to the fact that Putin is really not ill and is canceling meetings for political reasons. The presence of the senior military and intelligence leaders in Crimea while Putin fails to make significant and scheduled appearances may have no connection, or it may have a deep connection.

We have been reduced to very old methods to try to figure out what is going on. That alone is significant. But so is the fact that these meetings were canceled. Readers may recall that we have raised the question of whether Putin could survive his failures in Ukraine and the economic shambles he faces. We are far from the only people who have raised that question. Certainly, the Kremlin is aware of the speculation, and we would expect the Kremlin to be rigorous in assuring that a normal routine of business is maintained in order to drive home the point that Putin is firmly in charge. That pattern has slipped, the Kremlin knows it has slipped, and it was content to let it slip without explanation.

We are puzzled, when the one thing that Putin would not want is anyone to be confused about his power. If we believe he is not sick, then there must be another explanation for his absence. We should not jump to conclusions, as they are probably wrong, but we must be forgiven for being puzzled as to why Putin is letting us, and many others, be puzzled.

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