MOSCOW - It was by Vladimir Putin’s swashbuckling standards all rather low-key. There was no riding horses bare-chested or allegedly saving a television crew by shooting a tranquilizer dart at a wild tiger which obligingly appeared from out of nowhere in the woods.
No stripping to the waist to wade deep in the waters of mountain rivers to catch fish. Nor was there was any flying on an ultralight alongside endangered Siberian white cranes supposedly nudging them on to their migration path.
The Russian leader’s hike Monday on the eve of his 67th birthday in the Siberian wilderness seemed more contemplative than trailblazing — a contrast with other presidential birthdays.
Accompanied by defense minister Sergei Shoigu, a 64-year-old Siberian native, as well as a state media crew, Putin is pictured picking mushrooms and sitting on an elevated spot overlooking the Yenisei River chatting.
“Super,” he says to Shoigu, “we are a bit higher than the clouds.” The video and photographs lapped up by the Russian media seemed almost elegiac in tone.
Is Putin preparing the country for change? Or was he and his aides using his 67th birthday as just another occasion to keep people guessing?
It isn’t the first time that Russia’s defense minister has vacationed with Putin in Siberia, but it comes just days after the normally reclusive defense chief gave his first extensive media interview in seven years, in which he lauded his role in reviving the Russian armed forces “as if by magic.”
For some, Shoigu, whose poll ratings are second only to Putin in terms of popularity, appeared to be auditioning — either to replace the country’s prime minister, the long-serving, some say long-suffering, Dmitry Medvedev, or even with the presidency in mind.
Others are taking the combination of interview and hike as a sign that Shoigu has already been earmarked to succeed Putin. Or is that what the Kremlin want people to think, while in fact no decision has yet been made?
One Russian commentator, Alexander Pokrovsky of Tsagrad TV, wondered if in fact Shoigu in his interview was taking leave of the military in preparation for retirement, not promotion.
Since his election last year to his second consecutive term as Russia’s leader, the big political question in Russia has been whether Putin will change constitutional rules governing presidential term limits and remain in power after 2024, or whether instead he will step aside after orchestrating a managed leadership transition.
With the clock ticking, apprehension is building and with it a sense that Russia is being held hostage waiting for the big decision.
“Politics is all about perceptions, and whether the president and his political technologists like it or not, 2019 has been the year when people began seriously and openly talking about 2024,” according to Mark Galeotti, author of the book, “We Need To Talk About Putin.”
But, Galeotti acknowledges, in a series of articles for the Dutch website Raam op Rusland, that it is hard to tell what Putin’s intentions are given his style of governance is “by indirection, by hints and whispers.” The result, though, he says, is dysfunction because “no long-term political strategy can be elaborated” until Putin has decided whether he’ll stay or go.
A Kremlin insider told VOA he suspects Putin won’t make up his mind for some time. “Why does he need to? He has another two or three years to decide,” he said.
But that is adding to rising uncertainty and adding to the fears of various competing Kremlin clans, who want to position themselves to secure their futures.
Aside from Shoigu, a popular politician for his hands-on management style and high visibility during natural disasters when emergencies minister, others appear to be auditioning for a bigger role. Among them economic development minister Maxim Oreshkin.
A newer generation of princelings — the sons of plutocrats and Kremlin bosses — also appear to vying for larger roles. The Kremlin insider says the various divisions within the Kremlin are a lot more complex than appreciated by most Western observers, who tend to see a simple broad split between a security faction (the Siloviki) and modernizing technocrats.
The last time there was uncertainty in the years leading up to 2008 when Putin had to decide whether to re-write the constitution or trade temporarily places with his prime minister Medvedev, it triggered power struggles within the Kremlin as major players maneuvered to ensure their own safety or jockeyed for the chance to succeed Putin, if he decided to quit.
There were casualties then in the factional struggle for supremacy and survival — a struggle Putin seemed to encourage, inadvertently or otherwise, by delaying a decision on what to do, prompting those who reckoned they could succeed him, or who wanted to anoint a successor themselves, to start infighting and intriguing.
That in turn led to a clampdown by Putin. Is that what Putin is doing now, encouraging contenders to show themselves, only to cut them down to size?