Winston Churchill once described Russian politics in the following way: “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” Mr Churchill’s observations do little to help understand the strange movements in Russia this week.
First, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved his long-time aide Sergei Ivanov to a lower position. It was the latest in a string of purges, many of whom have been replaced by his personal bodyguards. The removals show the Russian leader is concerned about becoming a target of his network of oligarchs and spies, who are increasingly feeling Mr Putin may not be the best man for the job. But his purges are haphazard, showing he doesn’t know where the threat might emerge.
Second, Mr Putin continued his patching efforts with Turkey by offering to compel Armenia – a long-time Russian proxy – to return parts of contested territory to its rival Azerbaijan – a long-time proxy of Turkey. The offer will please Turkey and help disrupt US plans to contain Russia by bringing Russia closer to Turkey. Turkey seems open to this political overture, the question is for how long.
Third, media claimed Ukrainian Special Forces attacked Russian-held Crimea, while a S-400 anti-air missile system was reportedly set up in the territory. Also, unconfirmed reports suggested a Russian brigade entered rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine while Russian military exercises continue in the region. All of this looks like preparations for war.
So not only is Russia appearing worried, and acting eccentrically, it is difficult to tell whether those movements are calculated or incoherent. Once again, though, Mr Putin managed to distract attention away from Russia’s struggling economy and paint his country as a legitimate and functioning state. But whatever is happening, whether it is true aggression or simple bluff, will be seen in due course.