By Gordon M. Hahn
What now often passes for ‘analysis’ in Western, especially American media and think tanks is nothing of the sort; strategic communications – frequently, biased almost always. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be in good health and enjoys approval ratings of over 80 percent. But if American commentators of things Russian are to be believed he is mentally ill and/or physically on his death bed and soon to be overthrown in a palace coup or revolutionary upheaval. Whether such ‘analyses’ are ordered stratcomm pieces or the fantasies of biased writers, they are delusions that poison the DC discourse and divert analysts and policymakers from serious analysis. Let’s look at American rusologists’ record on the first two of these scores and have some fun in the bargain. The third delusion — Putin is finished, doomed to be overthrown in an imminent coup — we’ll set aside for a separate article.
Putin Is Mentally Ill or Unstable
As the Ukrainian civil war heated up in summer 2014 a slew of articles began appearing claiming that Putin was ‘erratic’, ‘unstable’ etc. None of these claims were based on anything approaching sound evidence. A classic example is Brian Whitmore “Putin’s Plan or Kremlin Chaos,” RFERL, 28 August 2014, www.rferl.org/content/putins-plan-or-kremlin-chaos/26556263.html.
Whitmore claims that “recently, Kremlin policy appears erratic, inconsistent, and sometimes downright incoherent” and on this basis raises two questions: (1) “Is that all just part of the plan? Or is Putin himself becoming erratic?” and (2) “(I)s the collective Putin coming unglued? There have certainly been signs that this might be the case. There have been whispers in Moscow, for example, that Putin has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated.”
Conflating the answers to these questions, Whitmore asserts that there are “signs” that “this” (without mentioning to which question ‘this’ refers) “might be” so. As evidence Whitmore first invokes Moscow rumors that “Putin has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated” and “is appearing live on television less frequently.” He does not provide any supporting data for the latter point.
Whitmore then discusses four events in order to show that when Putin “does appear live on television” it “only adds to the speculation that something isn’t quite right.” Actually, three of the four events actually are cases when Putin did not appear on television at all, as described below.
Whitmore’s Four Events and the Evidence
The first ‘event’ is the supposed cancellation “without explanation” of a Putin speech scheduled for August 7th. The evidence Whitmore offers towards his conclusion that “Putin was scheduled to make a major address to the nation” is an article from a relatively obscure news website based in Sverdlovsk (http://ura.ru/content/primenews/07-08-2014/news/1052187045.html%20http:/pressimus.com/Interpreter_Mag/press/3687. A “major address to the nation” by Putin would not be announced in this way. Whitmore’s claim must be corroborated by at least one major Moscow-based source. There was no mention of any scheduled speech on this day on the Russian presidential website from late July through August 7th.
Whitmore’s second ‘event’ is the failure to show on television either live or even in clips on the news Putin’s August 14th truly hyped speech in Yalta, Crimea to members of the political parties represented in the Russia’s State Duma. He concludes that this event suggests an emerging Kremlin power struggle over the Ukrainian crisis.
Others have offered more benign alternative explanations for the broadcast cancellation. One is an ostensible need to avoid disgruntling Russians with the news that in the speech Putin proposed the allocatation of billions of rubles to support the Crimean economy at a time when Russia’s economy will be challenged by Western sanctions ( Russian political scientists Ivan Tsvetkov, www.russia-direct.org/content/making-sense-vladimir-putin%E2%80%99s-mysterious-yalta-speech). Polish journalist Vaclav Radziwinovicz, writing on August 15th in Gazeta wyborcza, reported that Putin – who is often hours late for important meetings even with high-ranking foreign officials – arrived three hours late and implies that this explains the cancellation (http://wyborcza.pl/1,75477,16482937,Z_duzej_chmury_maly_Putin.html).
Whitmore then makes a leap in logic by citing two strident Russian opposition opinion leaders, Sergei Parkhomenko and Yevgeniya Albats, to suggest that Putin had planned something “he cannot bring himself to do” (Parkhomenko) and “a ‘struggle’ between ‘very dark forces’ seeking to ‘intimidate’ the West and ‘more pragmatic comrades who realize that, after all, their money is there.’” Whitmore explicitly concurs saying that he does “suspect” that “hard-liners appear to have won a round with Russia’s escalation into Donbass over the past week.”
I viewed the speech and perhaps saw some detachment but no evidence of any psychological or physical stress or difficulties (www.kremlin.ru/video/2684). There was no evidence in the video whatsoever to support the view put forth in this piece that something in Putin’s public appearances or even related cancellations indicates in any way that something is ‘wrong with Putin’. The evidence or impression is conjured up and the presentation betraying bias.
The third ‘event’ occurred at the August 26th EEU-EU summit, in particular Putin’s remarks after his two-hour meeting with Poroshenko made in the early morning hours of the 27th during which the Russian president “swayed to-and-fro and made odd gestures. His facial expressions were off. It definitely wasn’t the cocksure Putin.” Whitmore cites his stratcomm colleague, RFERL’s Yelena Rykovtseva: “Something appears to be wrong with him. He twitches and grimaces at random. Maybe this is why they didn’t show him in Crimea.” I viewed the video of this press conference twice and saw absolutely nothing of the kind. The most one could say is he sighed somewhat heavily at times, suggesting perhaps slightly tense and/or tired, but nothing strange or even remotely unusual. To me, he seemed the typical Putin and that his comments were in general effective and believable (www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/46495). Earlier in the day, he seemed to slightly choke up for a second once or twice at the very opening of his official remarks at the EU-EU meeting, but likely reflected only some slight nervousness. The rest of his presentation proceeded normally. Given the importance of the event, nervousness hardly would be surprising even for Putin, and other than that brief glitch he was his usual self and typically effective as communicator and advocate of his position (www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/46494).
The fourth ‘event’ is the publication of the text as opposed to a television broadcast of Putin’s August 29th appeal to the Donbass rebels to open up a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian soldiers encircled in Donetsk so they could return home (www.kremlin.ru/news/46506). Whitmore does not mention this part of Putin’s message in “latest remarks on the conflict” and instead notes that Putin “lauded pro-Russian separatists for ‘undermining Kiev’s military operation.’” Putting aside that effort at spin, we shall stick to the value of the ‘event’. It is possible that the idea of issuing a message urging the formation of a corridor emerged in the evening and to air at that time would have been ‘over the top’ and to do so the next day would have been perhaps too late to prevent a significant massacre.
This is not necessarily to say (or not to say) that Putin would be overly concerned about a growing casualty count among Kiev’s forces from a strictly altruistic humanitarian point of view. However, he would be concerned that such a slaughter would diminish his image in the West further and bring the rift to a point of no return for any hope in resolving the conflict through negotiations any time soon. It is worth adding that late hour in which this declaration emerged suggests Putin is putting in extra hours to deal with the crisis. Over the long-term, this could effect his mental and/or physical health and effect his judgement. Unfortunately, I see no purchase in the claim that this is happening now.
Whitmore’s analysis was predicated on the claim that recent “Kremlin policy” has been “erratic, inconsistent, and sometimes downright incoherent.” However, he does not demonstrate this point and discusses ‘policy’ only once and in a self-contradictory way. He asserts that in recent weeks Putin had been looking for “a face-saving way to wind down the confict,” and yet while meeting with Poroshenko in Minsk on August 26 Putin “was escalating the conflict and sending in Russian troops.” But couldn’t this just have been deception or was the escalation needed to force Poroshenko to the negotiating table?
Finally, on the issue of the elite split, there is bound to be some splitting as oil price decline and sanctions bite the economy. Indeed, Whitmore’s article could very well be part of a strategic communication effort designed to drive a wedge between different factions within the Kremlin and Russian elite. However, I regard the issue of an elite split as not only real but likely over time as the war in Ukraine and the sanctions attending it continue, despite Putin’s high opinion ratings, the absence of social mobilization against Kremlin policies, and no evidence of elite splitting thus far. I discuss the issue of a struggle under the carpet below. There is some incidental evidence to suggest some important decsionmaking was going on at the time and that coincided with ongoing events (the humanitarian aide convoy) and subsequently the Russian military incursions. There were two meetings of the Security Council held with unusual frequency (August 8th in Moscow and August 13th in Sevastopl, Crimea) in the week before the Yalta speech.
The question is whether any intra-elite tensions will reach the level of a full-fledged regime split with open defections of significant figures. Then will the split’s first breaches reach a critical mass so there is a ‘cascading’ effect of growing and mass defections to the opposition. Open defections of significant figures occurred in late 2011 and early 2012 when Putin’s decision to run for the presidency and the State Duma election results prompted mass demonstrations against the regime. I think the issue of Ukraine and war are no less important to Russian society, the state and the elite. There also needs to be consideration of the split leaving Putin stuck in the middle between hard-liners and soft-liners, the so-called siloviki and civiliki. In this scenario, hard-liners would want an invasion of Ukraine to seize the Donbass or at least greater direct and indirect military support for rebels – Aleksandr Dugin’s and Sergei Kurginyan’s line. Soft-liners – candidates for defection from the regime – would come to support no direct military intervention and a greater push for talks with Kiev towards a quick end to the crisis/war and a more rapid return so business as usual with the West to protect their holdings and life interests there. Moreover, a split within the ruling elite becomes even more plausible when one considers that historically the worse relations between Russia and the West become, the more authoritarian the form of rule (regime) tends to become in Russia. This will further aggravate relations between the ruling groups and between state and society. Right now there is no evidence for a major regime split, no less one that threatens Putin’s rule, and such a split will take some time to develop even if sufficient pressures emerge to produce one.
At any rate, as if on cue Russia’s radio Ekho Moskvy (incidentally Kremlin-financed by GazProm Media Holding) and Yevgeniya Albats’ program on the next Monday repeated the Whitmore/PV discussion from Friday. The former called the discussion ‘Putin’s Goals’ (basically the same as ‘What Does Putin Want’. The discussion was much more intelligent and analytical than PV’s. Albats is a liberal opposition voice and editor of the oppositionist Novoe vremya magazine. Whitmore cited Albats in his article claiming ‘something is amiss with Putin’.
Moreover, it is interesting that in a matter of 2-3 days after the Whitmore article and podcast there were four episodes of media taking Putin’s words out of context with the reader being led to infer that he is a little nutty or at least irrationally aggressive.
1) His comments at Seliger on Kazakhstan, in which he was praising Nazarabaev as the CIS’s most effective leader and said that Kazakhstan had never existed before as a state but Nazarbaev had successfully built the Kazakhstan state. RFERL’s spin: “Putin seemed to call into question Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a country” (Is Putin ‘Rebuilding Russia’ According To Solzhenitsyn’s Design?, 1 September 2014, www.rferl.org/section/kazakhstan/158.html). Times of India and others publicized this as well.
2) Ukrainian Defense Minister Geletei says Russia has threatened Ukraine with a tactical nuclear weapons attack through informal channels (Geletei’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/v.geletey/posts/294509377408137). I have documented in part on this website the nearly daily false reports coming from the Ukraine Maidan regime’s stratcomm infrastructure.
3) EU President Barosso claimed Putin told him in a phone conversation that ‘if I wanted to I could take Kiev in 2 weeks’. Ignored in all the hubbub was the phrase ‘if he wanted to’, the real meaning of which is that he does not want to. Putin’s statement was interpreted widely as a threat to march on Kiev and a sign of his supposed megalomania. When the Kremlin threatened to publish transcript/tape of the call, the EU and media stopped talking about it.
4) Finally, media interpreted a Putin statement made in an interview in Tver with Russian state TV as a call for Ukraine’s ‘Novorossiya’ (Donbass) to be given independent statehood (e.g., Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-ukraine-russia-novorossiya-statehood-20140831-story.html). Putin actually was calling for peace talks between Kiev and Donbass on “the political organization of society and statehood in the southeast of Ukraine” (see Pervyi Kanal, 31 August 2014, http://www.1tv.ru/news/polit/266628 or Ekho Moskvy, 31 August 2014, http://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1391062-echo/).
All this supports the view that there was either a Western wave of hysterical paranoia in relation to Putin and/or a broad NATO-US stratcomm campaign afoot at the time; one of many or part of a continuous and ongoing stratcomm campaign initiated since the Ukrainian crisis began. A network seems to take its cues from RFERL, the workers of which have access to U.S. intelligence agencies and are likely fed the subject matter that should be addressed. This is similar to the way propaganda is funneled through much of the Russian state media for stratcomm purposes.
Putin is Physically Ill
Putin appears to have his annual medical checkup in early August. In August 2013, Russia’s Surgeon General, Honored Doctor of the Russian Federation, and Putin’s physician, Sergei Mironov, gave an interview to a Russian magazine the media Putin is “physically younger than his age” and “perfectly fit for work.” Mironov further described Putin as “very athletic” and “considerably younger than his years.” Putin’s numerous hours in flight propmpted a test of his flying capability in which the president was said to have “surpassed all the standards for pilots,” according to Mironov. The doctor also confirmed Putin’s love of swimming for long periods of time and that despite his passion for judo Putin had never suffered a serious injury. Mironov noted apparently in connection with rumors Putin has back problems: “To be fair, it’s not uncommon for the media to exaggerate somewhat the medical histories of our country’s leaders. There were rumors going around not long ago that Putin was having problems with his back. I don’t see any reason to hide information about the health of our president, but there is also a thing called medical ethics. If I underwent an operation on my spine, for example, then I’ll tell you about it myself” (http://ria.ru/society/20130804/954152644.html and http://rbth.com/politics/2013/08/07/putins_medical_secrets_leaked_to_the_media_28749.html).
Likely based on the operating principle for much of the DC consensus that if the Russians say it, then it must be false, the Western media began running rumors that Putin was fatally ill. In October 2014 New York Post writer Richard Johnson, no Russia specialist, claimed “(n)ews outlets from Belarus to Poland” were reporting that Putin had spinal cancer, but Johnson’s own sources told him that Putin had pancreatic cancer and was “allegedly being treated by an elderly doctor from the old East Germany whom Putin met decades ago while serving in Dresden for the KGB. The doctor has been trying various treatments including steroid shots, which would explain Putin’s puffy appearance. The physician, who is 84 years old, quit recently, confiding that he hated coming to Russia and was always mistreated by Putin’s security detail” (Richard Johnson, “Cancer Rumors Swirl Around Putin,” New York Post, 24 October 2014 http://pagesix.com/2014/10/24/cancer-rumors-swirl-around-putin/). A Google, Yahoo or Bing search will yield a host of other Western media reporting the same rumors.
These kinds of articles emerged again in March 2015 when Putin disappeared from public for some ten days. Stratfor reiterated Whitmore’s nonsense in an article in May discussing not only the March 2015 disappearance but some more reasonable speculation on the disappearance and a possible disagreement between Putin and the FSB over several issues, including Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s or other Chechens’ possible role in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Business Insider re-published the Stratfor piece (www.businessinsider.com/we-still-dont-know-why-putin-disappeared-for-11-days–but-there-are-clues-2015-5).
The ‘Putin is physically ill’ and ‘Putin is mentally ill’ memes merged in what appeared to be an Obama administration stratcomm effort launched in February 2015. Suddenly there appeared all over the U.S. media – all of the major television channels and seemingly all of the other major electronic and print media – details of a seven-year old report buried in the Pentagon and produced by the Office of Net Assessment in 2008. claiming that Putin suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome – a kind of developmental deficiency that leaves one in a condition not unlike autism – which left Putin in a “primitive,” “pre-mammalian” and “reptilian stage of development.” According to the report, “Putin’s neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy.” The study also hypothesizes that Putin suffered a stroke while he was still in his mother’s womb and that his mother also may have suffered a stroke while pregnant with him. The report asserted: “His primary form of compensation for his disorder is extreme control and this is reflected in his decision style and how he governs.” It concluded, conveniently enough, that Putin’s hard-wired personal style is likely to change very little (www.cbsnews.com/news/does-vladimir-putin-have-aspergers-syndrome/). In other words, Putin’s ‘aggression in Ukraine’ should be expected to continue. In sum, the details of the report released reminds one of clumsy Russian propaganda.
The release set off a deluge of commentary offering a myriad of additional opportunities to continue the campaign. One of the more creative efforts came in the Washington political rag, Politico.com. The writer criticized the report because it insulted those, like his own son, who suffer from Aspergers, noting: “The report asks us to believe that all of Putin’s political decisions and inclinations are singularly influenced by Asperger’s: his impatience, his wonkish attention to detail, his comfort with routine, his obsession with controlling the day-to-day operation of running a giant country, his “basic personal struggle” to find an inner circle he can trust, seeking glory for himself and the country he leads—all of it because of something that may or may not have happened when young Volodya was a child. This explanation overlooks the tomes of research in sociology, history, political science, and Russian studies suggesting that such traits are all manifestations of the sistema of high-level autocratic politics in Russia—before Putin, under Putin and will continue after Putin—regardless of whether he has Asperger’s or not. … Putin is scary. Autism is scary. Put the two together, and you’ve got a story with legs, if not evidence” (www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/02/putin-has-aspergers-dont-flatter-him-114978).
Putin is still alive, and he has not attacked the Baltic states, Europe or Sweden as some analysts expected under the influence of this kind of stuff. Fun stuff to write and laugh about, to be sure (and that presented above is but the tip of an enormous iceberg). But not that which should inform the general public and the elite making the foreign policy of the world’s lone superpower.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.