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What the Story of Putin's "Disappearance" Says about How the West Misunderstands Russia

A story was spun out of thin air — simply because it fit the West's fantasy about Russia torn by internal conflict

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

A week has now passed since the collapse of the media story concerning Putin’s "mysterious disappearance".  That makes it a good moment to take stock of what happened.

Firstly, in its reporting of Putin’s "disappearance" the Western media finally exposed the utter incompetence of its reporting on Russia.

<figcaption>Nice try.</figcaption>
Nice try.

A glance at Putin’s website shows Putin never "disappeared".

Putin’s "disappearance" is supposed to have begun on 5th March 2015.  Yet on 8th March 2015 he met in the Kremlin with a group of women to celebrate International Women’s Day.  The meeting was publicised and photographs exist

On 12th March 2015 Putin spoke over the telephone to the President of Armenia.  His website on the same day carried a report of the conversation. 

On 13th March 2015 Putin met in his country residence at Novo-Ogaryovo with Vyacheslav Lebedev, the head of Russia’s Supreme Court.  The meeting was again publicised and television film and a partial transcript of the meeting also exist and were made public on the same day the meeting took place. 

On the same day, 13th March 2015, it was publicly announced that Putin would be travelling to St. Petersburg on 16th March 2015 to meet with the President of Kirghizia.

All these events and announcements took place as the Western media was becoming increasingly shrill spreading stories that Putin had disappeared.  The announcement of Putin’s meeting with the President of Kirghizia in St. Petersburg on 16th March 2015, which should have finally silenced the story, failed to do so.

It beggars belief that any of these people Putin is reported to have met or whom he was going to meet, especially the head of the Supreme Court and the presidents of Armenia and Kirghizia (two proudly independent countries), would be parties to a plot to conceal from the Russian people and the world that Putin was ill or dead or away fathering a child in Switzerland or was facing a political crisis or had been overthrown in a coup.  

The film of Putin’s meeting with Lebedev on 13th March 2015 shows him fit and well.  That incidentally proves that the rumours that he was ill with the flu were also untrue.

Putin did postpone a Eurasian Union summit meeting with the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus.  A Russian liberal website found in a local newspaper a report that a meeting between Putin and a regional governor, which Putin’s website said happened on 11th March 2015, may have taken place on 4th March 2015.  Putin also postponed ratification of a defence agreement with South Ossetia.  Lastly, Putin skipped a meeting with the personnel of Russia’s state security service, the FSB. 

None of this however proves that anything was amiss or shows that Putin had disappeared.

The Eurasian Summit meeting might have been postponed for any number of reasons.  A good candidate is that Putin wanted to canvass the opinions of the president of Kirghizia, whom he was due to meet in St. Petersburg on 16th March 2015, and postponed the summit meeting with the two other Eurasian leaders in order to do so.  Kirghizia wants to join the Eurasian Union and it might have been that Putin wanted to iron out some issues with its president before the summit meeting.  Another possibility is that Putin wanted to flesh out the details of his proposals for a currency union, which he made when the summit meeting finally took place on 20th March 2015.  Or there could be any number of other reasons.  

Summits of this sort are often postponed and for all sorts of reasons.  European Union summit meetings get postponed all the time.  That is not usually taken as a sign of crisis.

As for the meeting with the governor, if it really did take place on 4th March 2015 and news of it was indeed held back until 11th March 2015 in order to cover up Putin’s "disappearance", then that can only mean that the "disappearance" and the coverup were planned in advance.  

That seems overcomplicated and even absurd.  Most likely the report of the meeting in the newspaper was a mistake.  The newspaper probably simply reported a routine meeting before it took place.  That would show how routine and formal meetings like this have become.  It does not show that anything important was going on.  Such things probably happen all the time without anybody noticing.

As for the postponement of the defence treaty with South Ossetia, that is hardly an important agreement with an important country but is merely a tidying up document that confirms what is already the case, while the meeting with the personnel of the FSB was also a relatively unimportant commemorative meeting and it is not clear that Putin was even expected to attend it.

Most likely the truth behind this whole bizarre episode is that Putin, like many busy people, had fallen behind with his paperwork and decided to cut down on his meetings to give himself time to get on top of it.  

The real mystery about this affair is not why Putin "disappeared" for a few days, given that he actually didn’t disappear at all, but why for almost a week the Western media became so obsessed with this story and continued to report it long after it had become obvious that it was untrue?

At a most basic level, what this episode shows is the unhealthy obsession the West has with the person of Vladimir Putin.  

It is now practically impossible to read a book or article about Russia in the West that does not refer to Putin, sometimes indirectly but far more often as the lead character.  This is true even of art criticism or film reviews.  For the West Putin is not the big story in Russia,  he is the only story.  The entire life of this huge country is reduced to the words and actions (often misreported) of one man.

This bears no relation to reality.  There are simply not enough hours in the day for Putin to do all the things the West attributes to him.  In fact as anyone who visits Russia for any length of time can see, Putin is not the overwhelming presence in the life of the country the West takes him to be.

This lack of realism about Putin however reflects the West’s failure to understand Russia as a whole.

The Western view of Russia, hammered home in an unending flow of media articles, documentaries, books and talk shows, and which has become an article of faith for many people, is that Russia somehow lost its bearings and became diverted from its supposedly natural course, which would have ended with it becoming a liberal democracy in alignment with the West, by adopting instead a non-Western course, which led it away from the West.  By definition that means that Russia today cannot be a democracy since, according to Western ideology, "democracies" automatically align with the West and do not distance themselves from it.  

Since the West is ideologically incapable of accepting it had any part in this outcome, or that a country like Russia might choose a non-Western alignment of its own choice, it is obliged to look for a villain upon whom to put all the blame.  In Russia’s case it is the country’s longstanding leader: Vladimir Putin. 

Since the West cannot accept that a country that chooses a non-Western path can be a democracy, it also cannot accept that such a country can also be successful and happy.  Instead the West assumes the "Russian autocracy" is corrupt and selfish, lacks political legitimacy, enjoys fragile popular support, and has an economy that is badly run, is inefficient and one-dimensional and depends entirely on oil and gas revenues.

This provides the key to understanding the whole otherwise bizarre "Putin’s disappearance" story.

The West imposed sanctions on Russia assuming the country is economically weak.  It supposed that the sanctions would devastate the economy and that this would in turn trigger a popular revolt against Putin that would either cause his overthrow or which would force him to change his Ukrainian policy.  

The West assumes this revolt will be led by Russia’s business leaders, who in the West are always called "oligarchs" (though there is no evidence any of them actually possess political power and are in any true sense "oligarchs") and who the West always assumes are selfish and corrupt. 

These business leaders or "oligarchs" are supposed to carry out their coup in alliance with pro-Western liberal politicians within the government and with certain pro-Western political activists outside the government who previously headed the Moscow protests of 2011 and 2012.  The latter are in reality marginal figures but mainstream Western opinion has never accepted this and continues to believe them to be far more important and influential than they really are.

We know that this is what the West intended because a stream of articles in the Western media has told us so.  We also know it because no less a person than Angela Merkel has said as much.  

We know that right at the start of the Ukrainian conflict Merkel was advised by the German intelligence agency the BND that Putin risked being overthrown by an oligarch-led coup if Western sanctions were imposed on Russia - which is why of course she imposed them.  Merkel continues to say publicly that the sanctions will force a change in Russia, though she is now more circumspect than before and tends to speak of that change as something that will happen in the distant future.

In the event, what has actually happened in Russia since the sanctions were imposed is the exact opposite of what the West expected.  

Putin has not changed his Ukrainian policy.  Nor has he come under any pressure in Russia to do so.  Far from the sanctions causing the elite to fracture and to plot a coup against him the elite has instead consolidated around him.  Not a single member of the government or of the business community has broken ranks to call publicly for a change of policy or of government.  Putin’s popular support meanwhile has hit unprecedented levels.  Most alarming and baffling of all, instead of collapsing under the weight of sanctions and of the oil price fall as the West expected, Russia’s economy is rebounding.

Western bafflement and frustration at the failure of its policy is what ultimately lies behind the story of Putin’s "disappearance".  

Since the West cannot accept that its ideas about Russia are wrong, its analysts scour the Russian landscape for "evidence" to prove it right and to show that its policy is working after all.  Since the objective of the policy is to provoke a coup - or at least a political crisis - in Russia, Western analysts look obsessively for signs of one.  Since evidence for a coup or of a political crisis does not actually exist, the analysts have to invent it.  This they do by over-analysing inconsequential facts.  Thus a few missed meetings in the schedule of a busy man become evidence of the political crisis the West desperately wants to believe is happening.

What has given this all added urgency is the growing sense in the West over the last few weeks that it is losing in Ukraine.  Not only was the Ukrainian army badly defeated in February but the Ukrainian economy is collapsing and the Minsk Memorandum of 12th February 2015 ceded control to Russia of Ukraine’s border whilst leading to talk of a split between the US and Germany.  If a coup is to happen in Russia before Ukraine is entirely lost, then that coup must happen soon.  That is what lies behind the febrile atmosphere of a week ago.

If this were simply an isolated incident it would be good for a laugh and there would be no more to say.  Unfortunately that is not the case.  The West’s false conception of Russia guarantees that similar episodes will continue to happen, some doubtless even more preposterous than the one we have just seen.  When they do they will cloud understanding of Russia even more.









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