Putin’s Disappearance: What Was That All About?

2015-03-20T094809Z_1_LYNXMPEB2J0DV_RTROPTP_4_UKRAINE-CRISIS-PUTIN
His death wouldn't throw Russia into chaos, nor would bring it democracy. Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

The rumors surrounding Vladimir Putin’s 10-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those 10 days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular.

Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisers, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisers would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies.

In short, Putin’s Russia—and its odious foreign policy—probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does.

Emma Ashford is a visiting research fellow with expertise in international security at the Cato Institute. This article first appeared on the Cato Institute website.