Is Putin Dead?

The status of Putin’s health was first seriously called into question when he disappeared from view in autumn 2012.  He canceled 5 foreign trips over a period of several weeks, and postponed his annual show where he answered Russian citizens’ questions on live television.  Putin was not seen in public for nearly a month, and did not make any trips abroad for nearly two months.

Rumors swirled that the newly re-elected president had had plastic surgery, that his back had been thrown-out during a PR stunt in September, that he had cancer in his spine, and even that he had died and been replaced by a body double.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, issued a series of denials, but this only seemed to pique people’s interest even more.

Nearly two and a half years later, we appear to be back in the same story.  But things have changed.  Putin’s position as President seems weaker than ever, despite alleged approval ratings of 80% or more.  And the rumors swirling around the story of Putin’s failing health come right on the heels of the murder of Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin’s walls.  Something that appears to have exposed cracks in the facade of the system, with the security services rumored to be fighting for dominance.

And once again, Dmitry Peskov is only pouring more fuel on the fire of the rumors by making statements like the following:

The comic Sergey Elkin responded:

Peskov was also vague about Putin’s future plans.

I don’t believe the system is as fragile as people like to make out.  The Medvedev experiment, where Putin and his Prime Minister switched job titles, revealed many things about the way Russian politics works.  One of those things was that the President could be easily replaced.

The question is, however, how much the decision to move Putin back into the president’s seat in 2011 changed that.  The degree to which this is an unanswerable question is one of the reasons for the panic taking place in Russia right now.

To be honest, I think this is all a storm in a teacup, and people are over-dramatizing either for the sake of a story, or to push their own agenda.  But the response from Russia’s media does seem to indicate that there are some very real fears of a change taking place at the top.

My bigger concern is that all of the drama that has been stirred up is just a distraction for a big push over the weekend to connect Crimea with mainland Ukraine.

As I was writing this, the Kremlin came out with a statement saying that Putin would be in St Petersburg on Monday to meet with the President of Kyrgyzstan.  They also released a photo of Putin meeting with the chairman of Russia’s Supreme Court, but the date of the photo has yet to be verified.  It is unclear if Putin will travel to Kazakhstan at all next week.

In my opinion, this was an experiment to test response time and how the markets would react to news of Putin’s demise.  Time will tell if I am right or not.

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