Are We Seeing Putin’s Swan Song … Russian Style?
When it comes to autocratic nations like China, North Korea … and Russia, intelligence analysts often have to interpret subtle changes in the norms. What does it mean when some top official is no longer seen in public or has been photoshopped out of official pictures? What do rumors mean?
Just a month ago, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was seen as having a firm grip on power. There were no questions being raised about his health. He had – by edict – shut down all quasi-independent news sources. He even made it illegal to disagree with his war propaganda. He extended the jail term of his chief rival. He has essentially ended demonstrations against his regime and war with brutal arrests and the imposition of Draconian jail terms for merely protesting. He put the “Butcher of Syria” at the head of his war on Ukraine.
The main western theory was that Putin is firmly in charge – and will be so for the foreseeable future. In past commentaries, I had written about the need to take out Putin – and I did not put any exceptions on the list of methods. But there was the conundrum. Virtually every western voice agreed that Putin had to go. Even President Biden said as much out loud. But, virtually every western voice did not say how it would be possible. As in the old song, the “irresistible force” was up against the “immovable object.” And as the song concluded, “something has to give.”
There are now signs that something has in the case of Putin.
One of the options I and most other pundits and analysts laid out for the removal of Putin was an internal coup. It is based on the theory that those around Putin would recognize the danger of his madness and eventually be forced to take action. The situation was not unlike failed attempts to kill Hitler orchestrated by some of his top military advisors.
In the past couple of weeks, there have been rumors questioning the invincibility of Putin. Initially, it was about his health. There were whispers about cancer, leukemia, and Parkinson’s Disease. Then there was talk about surgery. Within the rumors was the name of the man who would hold the reigns of power while Putin was under anesthesia – a guy potentially more dangerous than Putin, security chief Nikolai Patrushev.
About that time, I began to wonder and speculate if this was the lead to an eventually report that Putin did not survive his surgery. That is how those things happen in secretive Moscow.
And now something even curious has occurred – something that cast even a darker cloud over the future – and possibly the life expectancy – of the Madman of Moscow.
Former Col. Mikhail Khodaryonok – a popular media defense analyst – was a panelist on the tightly controlled airwaves. His comments were offered up at a time when we have been led to believe that nothing appears in the state-controlled news media without the approval of Putin – and certainly nothing that pushes back against his war policies and propaganda — nothing that tells the truth about the war. Such talk supposedly results in jail time.
Khodaryonok made statements in direct opposition to Putin’s propaganda. He said that “The main deficiency of our military-political position is that we are in full geopolitical isolation, and however much we would hate to admit this, virtually the entire world is against us.”
Referring to Putin’s propaganda claims that the Ukrainian military is suffering low morale, Khodaryonok countered by referring to the official version as “information tranquilizers” and said, “All of that (low Ukrainian morale), put mildly, is false.”
Khodaryonok pulled the rug out from under Putin’s narrative that Ukraine is not an independent nation, but part of Russia’s populated Russian-speaking people who want to be reunited with the Motherland. Their desires are being thwarted by an illegitimate Nazi Regime. That was not Khodaryonok’s take on the situation. He said the Ukrainians were “fighting for their country.”
Khodaryonok is not the only voice to be piercing the Putin propaganda. Separatist Commander Igor Girkin reacted to Russia’s failing effort to take over Ukraine by blasting Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in the strongest terms. Girkin said, “I directly accuse Sergei Shoigu of, at minimum, criminal negligence. I have no grounds to accuse him of treason, but I would suspect it.” Shogiu has since dropped from the public eye – and is now said to have had “a massive heart attack.”
The use of the term “swan song” in the headline was not a casual selection. Russia has an unusual history of having Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” used as a code for the Russian people. The message could indicate a change in leadership or even the death of a leader. It could indicate opposition to a leader. It all depends on which of several versions of “Swan Lake” is performed. A signal could be the position of the ballerina’s foot.
A much longer explanation is contained in an online article in Newsweek by Brynn Shiovitz entitled. “Is Putin Dead? Pay Attention When Russia Starts Broadcasting ‘Swan Lake’.” In the article, Brynn writes:
“The airing of the Soviet recording of the ballet made NBC’s nightly news … leaving many Americans puzzled by the telecast of old Swan Lake footage during dead airtime. But TV Rain’s gesture was perfectly legible to Russians. Symbolizing much more than nostalgia, it was the latest in over a half-century of Russian and Soviet media utilizing the ballet as an indication of crisis—and even leadership change.”
In view of the overwhelming world reaction, the criticisms from within the Kremlin, and the use of “Swan Lake” to fill in media airtime – perhaps Putin is looking for an exit ramp or has been pushed off on one.
The pugnacious and acerbic dictator seems to have softened his jingoistic propaganda rhetoric – at least a bit. He has flipped from threatening a severe response if Finland and Sweden joined NATO to passive acceptance. For the moment, he does not seem to be escalating his war effort. The civilians of Mariupol have been rescued and the soldiers part of a negotiated prisoner exchange. He told leaders of a few of his puppet nations that he now has “no problem” with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, as long as there are no nuclear weapons stationed in the Nordic nations.
With events like this swirling around Putin, we may next see him trying out as the main character in “Where’s Waldo.” Stay tuned.
So, there ‘tis.