Unpredictable Putin

The Russian president seeks power through the element of surprise – but that could be a weakness.

Vladimir Putin dropped two bombs this week. One, literally, tested a ferocious explosive device. The other – his naming of a virtual unknown as prime minister and potential heir – was a political shock. The flash from both illumines his own power, and his quest to restore Russia's greatness.

Like any former KGB agent worth his borscht, he pursues power through the element of surprise – keeping friends and foes alike off balance. He certainly did just that by plucking the obscure head of the federal financial watchdog agency, Viktor Zubkov, to be premier. That upset political expectations before December's elections for parliament and the election next year of a new, post-Putin president.

Because Russia has no set succession system, the expectation was that Putin would repeat the process that brought him to power in 2000: the president, at that time Boris Yeltsin, appointed his chosen successor (Putin) to be prime minister, and from that spot, the chosen heir ran for the presidency.

However, the speculation this time focused on two other men. The sudden emergence of Mr. Zubkov has thrown everyone off. What does it mean that a man at retirement age, with apparently no political ambition, will take over as prime minister – and possibly president?

Does Putin expect Zubkov to be merely a caretaker president, whom Putin can manipulate and then replace with himself at the next election? (The Constitution forbids the president from holding more than two consecutive terms, hence Putin's oft-repeated statement that he will step aside next March despite sky-high public approval ratings.)

As president, Zubkov might do his close friend's bidding. He's intensely loyal to Putin, and was his mentor and deputy when Putin was starting out in politics in the St. Petersburg mayor's office. On the other hand, Putin knows firsthand that once a person holds the powerful presidency, he can throw off those trying to control him.

Perhaps Putin has other plans. Whatever they are, expect them to reinforce his own power. This vibrant, experienced, forceful leader won't shrink from the national and world stage, and he's said as much. In the meantime, he avoids any whiff of lame-duckness.

Now, about that other bomb, the world's most powerful nonnuclear bomb. That display of force, dubbed the "father of all bombs," was meant to show up America's weaker "mother of all bombs." It's part of Putin's push to restore Russian "greatness," especially militarily.

The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion of NATO put Russia on the defense. Putin tired of that. He's pouring petro rubles into the military. He's standing up to the West: using fuel supplies as a political weapon; pulling out of a NATO conventional arms deal; planting the Russian flag on the Arctic seafloor, and last month, suddenly resuming air-bomber patrols over the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic. What will Russia pull next? As at home, unpredictability is at work abroad.

But keeping people in the dark can be dangerous. Just look next door at China, about to have another secretive Communist Party reshuffle, with protests bursting out all over even as the economy booms. One wonders whether Russia's big surprise will be on itself.

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