Saint-Petersburg -- You could hear a pin drop on the floor of the tsarist-era Konstantinovsky Palace just outside Russia's second largest city of Saint Petersburg. As the great doors to the majestic room opened, that silence was broken by camera-clicking fanatical journalists looking for the most wanted image in the civilized media world: Vladimir Putin making his first public appearance in 11 days.
One journalist commented Mr. Putin looked "somewhat pale", another disagreed saying "there was nothing in his appearance that indicated any obvious health problems." Asked about the various stories about his whereabouts of the last few days, Mr. Putin himself simply commented, "It would be boring without gossip."
For 11 straight days, the media onslaught was nonstop. The rumors varied in seriousness, from a simple flu to being treated for recurring back ailments. There was the story of Putin being the victim of one the most lethal forms of pancreatic cancer. The last health-related story saw the President dead by stroke. Then there was the soap opera version of him loping to Switzerland to be with his girlfriend who was giving birth to his illegitimate daughter. Finally, there was the James Bond version, a palace coup of course; we are in Russia after all.
Kremlin communications staff scrambled, and fumbled terribly, to manage the back-to-back social media feed frenzy. A picture of white smoke coming out of a Kremlin chimney appeared with the idiom: "It appears we have a new Tsar." Hashtags followed, #whereisputin and of course #PutinIsDead. So frustrated was Putin's personal spokesman Dmitry Peskov with the continued barrage of questions asking him to confirm his boss's health was fine that the man finally barked: "Yes. We've already said this a hundred times. This isn't funny anymore."
Of course most of the pain Mr. Peskov was complaining about was self-inflicted. Posting pictures and images of his boss meeting with people he had in fact met months and even years earlier for example. State media posting the story of the President meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart two days before it actually happened, oops, didn't help either.
And since the rodeo show wasn't colourful enough, as if his grand re-entrance into the public domain needed any additional bang for effect, Mr. Putin decided to mobilize Russia's entire Northern Fleet, over 40,000 troops, at least 41 warships, 15 submarines and some 110 aircraft, for a range of military exercises he personally ordered. The entire northern fleet people. This after appearing Sunday in a one-year anniversary documentary on the annexation of Crimea, during which he said he has been ready to put Russian nuclear forces on alert over the small Ukrainian territory.
Now, we could blame all of this nonsense on badly botched communications issues management. Alternatively, we could be led to believe that something did in fact happen, but that Putin has, so far, managed to survive and discourage whatever it is he was facing. However, there is an alternative scenario one could consider.
What if all this show was anything but botched, what if this mess was exactly what he wanted it to be, a useful distraction from a series of other issues he would rather we not pay as much attention to, like the mysterious murder of his primary opposition critic just outside the Kremlin walls?
It could also be most useful to remind both friend and foe alike that you may not like me or what I'm doing, but if I left tomorrow, what do you think would come next? In other words, careful what you wish for people. In the final analysis, we may still be witnessing the end of Vladimir Putin. Alternatively, it may simply be Putin's wag the dog communications strategy.
Joseph Soares served as a communications issues advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada (2008-2010), as well as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (2006-2008).
You can follow Joseph at josephsoares.com
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