Is Vladimir Putin in pain? Until now, there has been plenty of chatter about the wellbeing of his minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu. Before the war, this veteran political survivor from the Yeltsin era was famous for being photographed on manly Siberian expeditions with his new patron, the bare-chested saviour of ‘All the Russias’.
Putin and Shoigu camped out together in the taiga, with moody fireside photos and a spot of fishing – ‘Brokeback Mountain 2’, jested Russian bloggers. Though in reality, the two looked a more like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a dreary remake: Frumpy Old Men.
More than evidence of enduring affection, the staged video sequences were part of attempts by Kremlin media managers to maintain Putin’s image as a ‘muzhik’ – a Russian word that is hard to translate adequately. In ordinary English, the word ‘bloke’ will have to do. But in Russian it implies a more pugnacious masculinity. And lots of admirers in the west have bought into this image when it comes to Putin.
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, however, the bromance was muttered to have gone sour. The rumour mill suggested Shoigu had been put under house arrest – perhaps for planning the so-called ‘special military operation’ so shoddily; or even for being somehow in cahoots with western intelligence.
A few weeks later, the next time he failed to show up for a significant period, it was whispered Shoigu may be suffering from a previously undiagnosed heart condition: in modern Russian politics, that’s often code for state-sponsored poisoning, or defenestration.
Yesterday, the indefatigable defence minister was back on camera. Not looking his best, it must be said, and sitting on the very edge of his seat, as he reported to Putin that the long-besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol had been ‘liberated’ by forces under his command. Shoigu read in a monotone, shuffling his prompt cards, as though at an unexpected and unwanted acceptance speech.
The wood-panelled room was randomly dotted with pot plants and decorated with a couple of flags for props – a familiar Kremlin backdrop. Less expectedly, Shoigu and Putin were seated on this occasion at a regular-sized office table. In most recent photo-opportunities, the president and his guests have been at opposite ends of tables almost as long as Russia’s recently sunken warship. So Shoigu may indeed be the one man the president trusts to sit close enough to feel the breath of? Perhaps they really are good chums.
But it wasn’t this, the brotherly seating arrangements, that were notable. Nor the greyish-looking Shoigu’s reappearance from supposed banishment, or worse. No. It was the agonisingly wooden demeanour of Putin himself.
Gone was the bumptious braggadocio of mid-February, on the eve of invasion, when a hyper-animated Tsar-like figure gave his closest advisors among the Kremlin hard men a smirking dressing-down for the cameras.
Instead, Putin seemed barely able to pay attention to the laundry list of battlefield data that Shoigu read out. He nodded perfunctorily throughout the briefing, every now and then offering a grunt. It might have been a pastiche of Soviet gerontocracy. But this is how modern Russia is governed, too.
The media alighted upon a quote from Putin’s closing comments: how Mariupol’s benighted Azovstal steel plant should be sealed off so that ‘not a fly should be able to pass through’. The rest of what he said was a strangely disjointed paean to the dead who had helped ‘guarantee the existence of Russia itself.’ For once, Putin didn’t seem to be able to animate the words that puttered from his botoxed jowls.
These were two depleted politicians, seemingly going through the visual motions for a Kremlin film crew that wasn’t really trying either. Putin and Shoigu looked a bit like the elderly wise guys in Scorsese’s movie, The Irishman: hunkered in a place they would leave if they could, muttering the lines they knew had to be said out loud. It wasn’t clear if they were trying to reassure the audience or merely themselves.
Neither man looked well or at ease in his skin. Throughout the 12-minute exchange with Shoigu, Putin tapped his feet awkwardly while his right hand gripped onto the edge of the table vice-like, as if desperate to steady himself: here was the Kremlin muzhik for once displayed in what seemed to be abject discomfort.
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