Putin is back – but where’s Obama?
Russians once again sleep in comfort with the knowledge that their leader is safe and sound.
Well, the wait is over. Having been away from public sight for 11 long days, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally reappeared on March 16, hosting a summit with the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, in the grand surroundings of the Constantine Palace outside St Petersburg, basking in the glare of publicity, Mr. Cool himself. He was fit and well and appeared to have no idea what the whole fuss over his brief spell out of the spotlight was all about.
But let me tell you why there was a fuss in the first place when Putin failed to register a single appearance since March 5. The Russian president is normally such a fixture on Russian TV news bulletins; not a day passes that he is not seen meeting his ministers, or foreign dignitaries, or paying a visit to some location, or making a speech, or visiting foreign lands.
According to the Kremlin spin doctors – I was one myself some years ago – the nation works, rests and plays better when it knows that its leader is carrying out his duties without any interference.
So there he was hosting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the Kremlin on March 5 and then – bam! – not a single sighting the next day and the following 10 days in a row.
Russians expect to see the president on television on a daily basis, sometimes more than once. So alarm bells started ringing when he suddenly disappeared from sight.
All questions directed at the presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, about Putin’s whereabouts and state of health, bounced off like tennis balls off a brick wall. Peskov, who often has that mischievous twinkle in his eye and likes to treat his audiences as if they were small children, stuck to his guns for the whole duration of the saga of the missing president. His position was, it was none of anyone’s business where Putin was and what he was up to. Albeit, he did say that he was feeling well and was working hard, in his regular hardworking style. This, of course, made no one any wiser and sent the rumour mill in Moscow and far beyond into overdrive.
Naturally, all sorts of wacky scenarios were entertained during the 11 days of the Russian leader’s great disappearing act, as some foreign hacks called it. Some people speculated that there may have been a “palace coup”, waged by a group of “mad generals” who were not happy with the way Putin was handling the crisis in Ukraine.
Others surmised that Putin might have been a victim of a failed assassination attempt and was kept in a secret location by his bodyguards, so that no harm would come to him while his people searched for the perpetrators.
The more colourful version of that scenario included Putin hiding in a special bunker, in the seaside resort of Sochi, waiting for things to calm down. Another version was that Putin might have been recovering from an attempted poisoning by people who wanted revenge for the death of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
The romantically inclined were saying that the Russian leader actually went abroad, to Switzerland perhaps, to be present at the birth of his illegitimate son that he had supposedly fathered with his girlfriend Alina Kabaeva, a retired gymnast and former parliamentary deputy. Others claimed that Putin actually had another foreign girlfriend and was visiting her in Paris.
The less imaginative entertained the possibility that Putin may be suffering from a serious illness, like cancer or a stroke, with the Kremlin paralysed with indecisiveness over what to say to the worried nation.
The reality, according to my sources in Moscow, was less exciting. They tell me that Putin had a cold and was resting at his country retreat outside Moscow. Why on earth did the Kremlin press people not find the courage to just say so, I have no idea. I suppose that in keeping with the image of a strong leader, the truth was deemed inappropriate and could – in their view – have made Putin come across as a bit of a sissy.
Putin as Mr Cool
And speaking of the strong leader image, it so happened that the eagerly anticipated documentary about Crimea becoming part of Russia, entitled “Crimea, The Road Home”, was first shown the day before Putin reappeared in public. It ran for two and a half glorious hours and contained a long interview with the Russian president, who described his role in the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
According to the Kremlin spin doctors - I was one myself some years ago - the nation works, rests and plays better when it knows that its leader is carrying out his duties without any interference.
The main message of the whole interview was that Putin kept a cool head all throughout the events, took matters into his own hands and personally guided the Russian intelligence services and the armed forces through the troubled waters that surrounded Crimea – pardon the pun.
The climax of the interview was the revelation that Putin was at one point considering putting the Russian nuclear forces on stand-by, in case the situation in Ukraine got out of control, but later decided not to do it.
Now, cynics might see something fishy in all this. After all, it is hard to believe how the supposedly brilliant Russian military and intelligence services failed to see the political crisis in Ukraine coming, especially considering the widely-held Russian view that the country’s nemesis, the US, was behind it all, as Putin pointed out in his interview. Because it’s one thing for Iraq or Libya to go down in flames, but it’s a totally different matter when neighbouring Ukraine loses its president and government and becomes a hostile entity to Russia.
What further fuelled the rumours over Putin’s disappearance was the fire that broke out in one of the towers of the Novodevichiy Monastery in Moscow, which was under renovation, on the very night the documentary about Crimea was broadcast on Russian television. Some people took it as a bad omen, considering that at the time, no one had any idea where the Russian president was, and some even suggested that the pesky Ukrainians might have snatched Putin.
But now he is back and the Russian nation once again sleeps in comfort with the knowledge that its favourite son is safe and sound. Mind you, some Russian bloggers are now asking: where is US President Barack Obama who has not been seen since March 8?
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.