Yes, I read the news today. Vladimir Putin is alive and seemingly well. His handshake is firm, judging from the expression on the face of the president of Kyrgyzstan, and he may even have driven the car between two places in St. Petersburg. Despite an avalanche of hashtags, conspiracy theories, Austrian physicians and illegal children, when the main question – that is, whether Putin was dead, or even worse, dethroned – was solved today, the world seems to have lost interest in what caused the eleven-day hiatus in his public appearances. Putin is certainly alive in the physiological sense of the word. But there is a smell of decay lingering around the system that he built.
When the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that Zaur Dadayev and four others were detained for supposedly participating in the murder of Boris Nemtsov, my first thought was similar to Brian Whitmore’s: there is a convenient explanation for the Kremlin. Chechens have always made excellent scapegoats in Russia, and the mention of radical Islam fit seamlessly into a narrative that the Russian government had been trying to promote, namely, that jihadism posed a greater danger to the world than did Russian expansionism.
Kadyrov in the focus
Then, however, the focus quickly changed. After all, Dadayev was exposed as a former associate of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, and even more importantly, Kadyrov publicly supported Dadayev, whom he called a Russian patriot. So did Kadyrov go rogue? At the same time, he also further fuelled the talk about a religious motive. Days later, he got decorated by Putin. How could this happen, if Kadyrov had gone rogue? And if he had not, why did the Chechen president speak up for Dadayev?
It had been well-known that Nemtsov and Kadyrov held grudges. So did Kadyrov and some of the siloviki leaders in Moscow. Maybe Kadyrov was set up? This became another popular explanation. After all, this was not the first time that the Chechen leader’s “contract” with Moscow – limitless power for security and loyalty – was challenged. In December last year, a deadly terrorist attack on Grozny shocked even those that were aware of Kadyrov having enemies both in Moscow and the Caucasus. But did the FSB actually believe that Kadyrov, a man who is able to wreak havoc on the Caucasus could be dismissed like a “regular” governor? Or did they simply want to put the president between a rock and a hard place, presenting him with a riddle he cannot solve? And if the plan was actually the dismissal of Kadyrov, what was planned to happen with Chechnya afterwards? The third Chechen war? And who would benefit from the destabilisation of the Caucasus? Those who want the war in Ukraine to end, or those who need another tangible enemy to present to the people, in order to conserve their grip on power?
The balance is upset
As I have blogged several times before, the past year saw major changes in the power balance of Russian politics. European sanctions and the free fall of global oil prices brought the oil industry to its knees. Rosneft suffers from debt accumulated during its expansionist splurge, clogged investments and unprofitable refineries. Gazprom was forced into disadvantageous agreements with China for ephemeral political successes. Igor Sechin, the “energy Tsar” previously thought to be second only to Putin in Russia was scornfully rebuffed by the president when he asked for state support – support that may dry up for Rosneft and its sanctions-ridden proxies this year already. Even his imminent dismissal – later denied by Rosneft – was rumoured. Meanwhile, defence minister Sergei Shoigu, the only powerful man in Russia today whose political power predates Putin’s, became the winner of the war in Ukraine, together with the arms industry that seemed to enjoy the comfort of an untouchable state-funded modernisation program. Shoigu was, apparently, becoming so influential that he was starting to get referred to as one of the potential successors of Putin.
It is perhaps safe to say that these developments irked another man, standing in line for almost a decade for the presidency: Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, as it happens, a former KGB officer, with strong links to the FSB. Ivanov was widely considered to be Putin’s hand-picked successor in 2007, but as the president was not ready to actually hand off his duties, the predictable and obedient Dmitry Medvedev got the job. Four years later, in 2011, Putin announced his comeback and ushered in an era, in which both the political elite, waiting in line for promotion, and the population was patient, rather than enthusiastic about the prospect of having the old boss back for six more years. Maybe Ivanov was one of the less patient. Or on the contrary, maybe he was one of those that saw a renewed opportunity in Putin’s comeback and was ready to wait for his turn. In any case, he was certainly not interested in a rival gaining traction.
Recently, I analysed to the realignments in the Russian political elite in greater details. There, I suggested that a system that was built on a delicate balance of its constituents will not be able to suffer such an imbalance for a long time, and that someone will pull a trigger or revolt. Were it the chekists, in fear of losing influence? Or the Defence Ministry, in order to take out two rivals at once? Or neither? Or both?
For whom the bell tolls
The most striking about this is the sheer number of fathomable explanations, alliance combinations and conspiracy theories. One thing seems clear: either Vladimir Putin has lost control over its proxies, or he is afraid enough to lose control to send them such a gruesome message. He may have tried to underline, with his eleven-day long absence, how necessary his presence was for the system to work – his sarcastic remarks today certainly suggest this – but in reality, it was more reminiscent of the grotesque disappearances of Konstantin Chernenko in his late days. The system seems to think that it works just fine without its creator. Whether it would or not is another question – but the past month marked the end of an era, if not yet a president.
I was of the opinion that Putin was the one that reaped the lion’s share of the benefits of the war in Ukraine. I still think so. However, Putin did not share these benefits with others, while he did shift the costs to them. And while his approval ratings are still sky-high, giving him, supposedly, some sense of comfort, this only shows the efficiency of state propaganda and nothing else. The Russian elite, or at least a considerable part of it, has a vastly different view on the war in Ukraine. They view it as a failure that isolated them from Western finance, that significantly weakened the prospects of the Eurasian Union, and that did not manage to win even Ukraine back. On the other hand, Ukraine seems to have destroyed taboos, too. It showed that Putin was not infallible. It showed that Russia was vulnerable. Through the murder of Nemtsov and the suspicious disappearance of the president, it brought back the feeling of insecurity, when no one is too important or too influential to be killed. Or even worse, dethroned. Not even Putin.