compassion, collaboration & cooperation iN transistion
In the vaulting confines of St Ekaterina’s Hall in the Kremlin, they sat like guilty children in detention as Putin, ensconced behind a desk, called on them one by one for their views. Everyone knew there was only one right answer. Not even the hawkish security officials close to Putin seemed at ease. No wonder: foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin was treated to a demeaning public reprimand when he became flustered. When he said he “will support” recognition (of the independence of the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk), Putin curtly pressed him: “Will support, or do support? Tell me straight!”
After all, for the best part of two years, Putin has been kept in a biosecurity bubble of such severity that people scheduled to meet him spend a fortnight in guarded isolation, and even then have to pass through a tunnel fogged with disinfectant and bathed in ultraviolet light. Beyond a relative handful of his closest aides and friends, everyone has become a two-dimensional figure on a screen to him, his country a foreign land experienced through the TV news. No wonder he seems more isolated, even paranoid. Even without Covid, long-serving leaders don’t age well, and it is becoming increasingly clear that – like so many autocrats – Putin is becoming a caricature of himself.
I was once told by a former Russian spy that they had learned you “do not bring bad news to the tsar’s table” – and, certainly, the scope for him to be presented with inconvenient truths has shrunk, the circle of those to whom he listens has narrowed, and the gap between him and his closest officials, let alone his people, has widened.
After 20 years in power, he is less willing than ever to be disagreed with and appears to believe himself indispensable. He may occasionally flirt with the idea of stepping down, but that seems to be becoming less, not more likely over time. In part, this is a matter of trust. In a system without true rule of law, it would mean handing power over his and his friends’ fates and fortunes to a successor.
Putin is not a man to trust easily, at the best of times.
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