A Kinder, Gentler Putin?

Leaked documents suggest that the Russian president is considering a re-branding. Don't count on it.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to take the ice at an ice hockey exhibition at Moscow's Megasport Arena on May 7, 2012. (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin may be about to undergo an extreme image makeover. Putin the chest-thumping and siloviki-loving tough guy could be on his way out. And a kinder and gentler Vladimir the Wise might be on the way in. "Putin's political advisers have decided to abandon the macho image in favor of that of a wise patriarch," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" writes, citing a Kremlin strategy paper.

According to the report, Putin will also seek to "reassure the population" that has become increasingly less confident in his rule by moving closer to the liberal faction of the elite and begin to curb the powers of the siloviki. But given the amount of power Putin has granted the security services over the years "it will be difficult to do so without damage."
The impending image makeover and policy shift, along with the ongoing anticorruption campaign, were sparked by a measurable "decline of trust in the country's senior management and the almost revolutionary sentiments in the minds of Russians," the daily wrote, citing unidentified Kremlin officials.
The rebooted Putin, the officials say, will be launched when the president gives his annual address to parliament later this month.
Or maybe not.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly and curtly denied the report, saying it was "from the realm of falsification." But "Nezavisimaya gazeta" stood firmly by the story. Speaking to Vladimir Kara-Murza of RFE/RL's Russian Service, the paper's politics editor, Aleksandra Samarina, insisted that the Kremlin report existed and that the paper's reporting was accurate.

So what's going on? Did "Nezavisimaya gazeta" overplay what it had? The paper has a solid track record of strong political reporting and is known to have good Kremlin sources. It identified the document in question as a report prepared by Putin's political strategists for an unidentified regional governor.
So is Peskov just stonewalling? Possibly. As Samarina pointed out, it would have been strange for him to come out and just verify a story based on a leaked Kremlin strategy paper and anonymous officials.
But documents like this don't just leak without a reason. Such instances are almost always part of a larger game in which one Kremlin faction or another is attempting to advance its agenda. Rarely do they reflect settled policy. As has been widely reported, the Russian elite has long been locked in a bitter "cold war" between its siloviki and technocratic factions over how to deal with the country's rapidly changing political dynamic.

Likewise, the ranks of Kremlin political strategists are also split between those loyal to the regime's current chief ideologist, Vyacheslav Volodin, and holdovers from the team of his predecessor, Vladislav Surkov.
The hard-liners in this constellation -- the siloviki and Volodin -- have had the upper hand since Putin returned to power in May, as evidenced by the regime's harsh suppression of dissent. The technocrats and Surkov's people have been waiting for the crackdown to fail, which would give them a chance to push for, if not a full-fledged thaw, then at least a softer and subtler alternative. "As with so many strategy documents over the years, this is probably an attempt to try to influence a process, but it likely isn't a blueprint," Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told me in an interview.
Nevertheless, there are also signs that the time might be right for the authorities to switch paradigms. The leaks about Putin's impending image makeover and policy shift come amid persistent reports that the president is in poor health that the Kremlin has been unable to squelch.
Whatever is or isn't going on with Putin's health, the unrelenting speculation about it has severely damaged the image the regime would like to project. Kremlin strategists have long used Putin's virility and vigor as a metaphor to illustrate Russia's revival during his rule. This was easy when he was in his 40s and 50s. It will only get more difficult as the now 60-year-old president continues to age.
"He needs to be able to construct a public narrative of success and competent authority and leadership, which is where his own physical fitness and Russia's return to economic health are in many ways overlapping," Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West" said in a recent interview. "It's very hard for him to do that now, when people laugh at you and when you seem visibly uncomfortable appearing in public. He's a fast-decaying asset, both in terms of being able to project the regime as a success and in being an internal arbiter in its many disputes."
Moreover, on the same day the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" story appeared, the Moscow Carnegie Center released a report titled "The Russian Awakening" that painted a bleak picture of the health of Russia's political system. Among the report's conclusions are that the political system Putin created "has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the more dynamic, modernizing, and now politically active segments of society."
As well, Russia's economy, based on the collection and distribution of natural resource rents, "is cracking" and volatile energy prices have "put the Russian economy at risk" as "the government struggles to meet its massive social obligations."
And Putin's vaunted "power vertical," in which officials offer "fealty toward the Kremlin in exchange for a license to grow superrich is crumbling as Russia's leaders are seeking to discipline the elite in order to save the system."
Whether Putin's image is Vlad the Tough Guy or Vladimir the Wise -- and whether he is in good health or ill -- this is the dire reality he needs to address. "There is no overlap between the image [the Kremlin is creating] and what is actually going on in the country," Samarina said. The first hint about what, if anything, will change should come with Putin's much awaited address to parliament in a couple weeks' time.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.