While I don’t exclude the possibility that something is amiss in the Kremlin, the most likely explanation for the recent disappearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin may be a simple one. It may have started with a flu and then became a deliberate propaganda ploy to divert Western and Russian media attention from the brutal murder of Boris Nemtsov and Putin’s disastrous adventure in Ukraine.
That’s why I was rather surprised that U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which in years past offered solid analysis of Soviet and later post-Soviet events in Russia, jumped on the bandwagon of wild conspiracy theories and speculations.
This may be exactly what Mr. Putin wanted to achieve — emerge healthy and strong to show how silly his political opponents and Western media are. In the meantime, he managed to divert media attention from his real troubles for a few days.
I suspect that Mr. Putin had a head cold. His propaganda team thought it might be a good idea to make fools out of the Western media and to show the Russians what an important leader he is to them and to the world. He could do all of this by disappearing for a few days and then reappearing.
If President Putin were dead, this news would have been already publicly announced. Even when Stalin had died in March 1953, the news of his death came out rather quickly.
If Putin were seriously ill, it would be probably to his advantage to let the Russians know about it. This would allow him to score propaganda points by having most of the country pray for his quick return to health.
I don’t completely exclude the possibility that he may be trying to hide a serious medical problem, such as a stroke, in order not to damage his strongman image. But then he risks speculation of the kind we see now that in the long run could undermine his authority.
One redeeming aspect of RFE/RL reporting was that it highlighted the lack of political transparency in Russia, as even the Russian domestic media seem unable to report accurately and authoritatively on the fate of the country’s top leader. He is behaving much more like a dictator than an elected president.
Russia is a mess under his rule. If this was a propaganda ploy, it also shows a delusional state of mind of an ex-KGB officer.
If there were a coup against Mr. Putin, we would have known about it already. A coup in the Kremlin at this stage is, in any case, highly unlikely, as RFE/RL analysts should have known.
Thus, the most likely explanation, in my view, is that President Putin may have had a head cold, or perhaps no illness at all. His disappearance act was most likely staged as a ploy to score propaganda points against gullible Western media.
At the very least, media outlets like RFE/RL should have explored this possibility. But if I’m proven wrong, and there is something seriously wrong with Mr. Putin (other than him acting like a dictator), I’ll buy their analysts a beer. I’m not saying RFE/RL should not have reported on it, but I expected a little deeper analysis, and less hype.
Ted Lipien is an independent journalist and writer. He was acting associate director of the Voice of America (VOA) and now serves as co-director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org). CUSIB supports quality news reporting by U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG, which include both VOA and RFE/RL.