Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in public Monday, alive and apparently quite well. He met with the president of Kyrgyzstan, who confirmed that Putin was hale and hearty. This leaves open the question of where the Russian leader was the past 10 days, when Putin failed to appear in public as questions intensified about his personal and political health. His public spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, emphasized all along that he was simply busy and that all of the public speculation was pointless. He appears to have been right.
Yet there remains a fundamental mystery. Russia is, and wants to remain, a great power. It is involved in a conflict with Ukraine and at least a duel of words with the United States. It is under sanctions from the United States and Europe. And a group of men on a bridge near the Kremlin killed a leading spokesman for the Russian opposition. The killing was followed by charges of CIA and other foreign involvement and then the arrest of five Chechens. At the same time, Russia's economy is faltering amid the decline in oil prices.
Russia is facing multiple crises. They are likely manageable, but at the core is the assumption of prudent and consistent management. This is needed both to make certain the crises do not become unmanageable and to reassure the Russian public that the leadership is united and in control. The last 10 days did the opposite. They made it appear that either the leadership was caught in a power struggle or that Putin — if he was merely busy, as Peskov said — was irresponsible.
It is certainly true that a leader can take a vacation, but this one was so sudden that it involved canceling meetings and treaty signings. It is also true that leaders can work out of the public's eye. So if Peskov's description was correct, Peskov and Putin had to be aware of the concerns arising and that not allaying those concerns for 10 days tended to undermine confidence in Putin's judgment or cause unease about his authority. The idea that the concerns had no foundations was possibly true. But the concerns were not unreasonable, and Putin acted as if he were indifferent to them. Peskov's contemptuous dismissal of any apprehension was hardly calming.
Here are some possible explanations, in order of increasing dubiousness:
One answer is that Putin may be genuinely unaware of the public consequences of the president's failure to publicly carry out duties. This may simply be the case.
It could be that he was ill and that his aides did not think it prudent to announce it, preferring the confusion to the truth.
Another explanation might be that there was an attempted coup, a power struggle, and that in the end Putin emerged victorious.
Or, if there were a successful coup, Putin was coerced somehow to appear because the coup leaders do not want to make the coup public.
It could be that there were rumors of assassination attempts targeting him, perhaps from the Chechens who were said to have killed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and his guards wanted him hidden and moving around until they found the assassins.
Or it could be that Putin expects to be intermittently inaccessible in the future for some reason and is trying to establish a pattern of inaccessibility so that it becomes normal.
As you can see, the explanations become stranger and stranger, and as a parlor game we recommend the "Why Did Putin Disappear" game as being of endless entertainment and a true waster of time.
But the point stands. At any time, and certainly at a time of international and domestic crisis, a responsible leader does not compound problems by seeming to be another source of instability. Putin has not run Russia for some 15 years because he is irresponsible. There is no apparent reason for his disappearance, yet he disappeared. We do not know the real reason, but the one provided is hard to swallow. What the reason was, and whether his reappearance is the end of this behavior, remains to be seen.