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Why has Putin gone missing?
by Frida Ghitis

(CNN)Vladimir Putin is not a self-effacing man. That's why when the Russian president suddenly disappeared from view people took notice. When Russian officials tried to trick the public by passing off old photos as new appearances, speculation about Putin's whereabouts went viral.

Hashtags such as #Whereisputin and #ПутинУмер -- Russian for #PutinIsDead -- became the tip of a giant social media iceberg, much of it streaked with dark humor.

In Ukraine, the neighboring state besieged by Putin's forces, someone reportedly left a large funeral wreath at the gate of the Russian embassy. A handwritten message addressed Putin with an expletive, telling him, "Thank you for croaking."

The fast-moving iceberg of speculation may melt as fast as it emerged. The Kremlin has now started pushing harder against the rumors, trying to prove that Russia's foremost -- nay, only -- major political leader, is alive and well. Early on Friday, officials released what they said was a picture of Putin taken the day of. But on social media, onlookers accused officials of dusting off old images. Those keeping track insist Putin has not been seen since March 5.

Regardless of how or when this speculation ends, it tells us much about the political realities of Russia.

This whole thing started after Putin's trip to Kazakhstan was canceled on Wednesday and a Kazakh official told a reporter that the Russian President had fallen ill. Then the Kremlin released a picture of Putin speaking with the leader of the Republic of Karelia. But it turns out that happened on March 4.

On Thursday, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the President would miss his regular meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB). When asked about his boss's health, Peskov said he is "absolutely healthy," his handshake so strong he could "break your hand." To illustrate the point, the Kremlin's Russia Today posted a picture of the mighty President slamming a judo opponent hard against the ground. Peskov says Russia is in the grips of a "spring fever" that is causing people to dream up harebrained scenarios.

Amateur sleuths and creative minds have speculated wildly about Putin's health problems. The Swiss magazine Blick said Putin is in Lugano, where his girlfriend just gave birth to their baby. Some have said he has cancer; others report a heart attack or a stroke. There are even suggestions that he went off to join ISIS, or is playing hide-and-seek a la Where's Waldo.

Does Putin ever catch a cold? Does he ever get sick? The Kremlin doesn't want to allow Putin's image of virility and strength to become tarnished by the weaknesses of mere humans.

That's hardly surprising. Putin is not your average president. On paper, Russia is a democracy. But no objective observer believes that. Putin is the state. Every important decision is made by him.

Putin rules in the old-fashioned style of a personality cult. His approval ratings are stratospheric, even if his brazen policies would warrant more significant levels of disagreement. Approval ratings nearing 90% are the product of suppression of dissent and media maneuvers demonizing, ridiculing, and ultimately silencing critics. The system requires propaganda and image control. It needs Putin to be larger than life.

The recent murder of Boris Nemtsov, Putin's foremost critic, has spawned fears that there is a hit list, a roster of Putin critics whose days are numbered. There are rampant rumors of intrigue inside the Kremlin.

The level of fear is said to be higher than it has been in years. The term "Kremlinology" became the study of intrigue and power machinations in inscrutably dark systems.

Russia has a long history of concealing the illnesses of its leaders. In the Soviet era, some mysterious disappearances were followed by funerals. In those days, there was usually a succession plan. And in the post-Stalin days, the passing of one leader meant that the party chose the next strongman.

In 1991, the last USSR leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, went to his summer home in Crimea. He was visited by a group of high-ranking Soviet officials. The next day, the Russian people were told that Gorbachev was ill, and could not perform his duties. Gorbachev was held against his will. There was a coup in progress. Putin's mentor, President Boris Yeltsin, also had a history of "disappearing" from view. He was really ill and/or drunk.

Even if Putin is in perfect health and the social media whirlwind turns out to have just been an outlet for creativity, talk of Putin's disappearance raises important questions.

What would Russia become if he suddenly left power? Is there a successor in place? Is there anyone who would continue Putin's policies? If there is a power vacuum, a conceivable scenario given just how thoroughly Putin dominates, what would the consequences be?

Whatever Putin is doing at this exact moment -- whether he is hunting tigers, visiting with friends, or convalescing from an illness -- and no matter what he does in the days ahead, the Internet tempest of the past few days is a reminder that the man who embodies today's Russian state, who dismantled the country's once-fledgling democracy, won't be around forever. Which raises the question, what then?

In Ukraine, Oligarchs' War of Words May Turn Into War of Bullets and Bombs
by Sputnik

Ukrainian politician and former Dnepropetrovsk businessman Oleg Tsarev says that the political and economic conflict between the country's oligarchs may turn into outright street warfare and a new Maidan.

Commenting on the recent scuffle between oligarchs over Ukraine's oil transport company Ukrtransnafta, former Ukrainian parliamentarian Oleg Tsarev warned that the skirmishes involving corporate raids, hostile takeovers and the siphoning of state wealth may soon turn into a battle of bullets and bombs in the streets of Kiev.

In his article, published Saturday on his blog for independent broadcaster Echo Moskvy, Tsarev stated that "the conflict between Poroshenko and Kolomoisky is ready to turn into open warfare." In Tsarev's view, "Kolomoisky is capable of burying the latest American project in the same way as occurred earlier in the conflict between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. Except this time, considering the current situation, this war may not be limited to mudslinging, and may well turn into an armed confrontation."

According to Tsarev, "the two sides are ready for such a scenario, which is why today there are special forces in the center of Kiev, and the territorial battalions Kiev-1 and Kiev-2 have been activated. We also know that Ministry of Interior forces are ready to head to Dnepropetrovsk. Igor Kolomoisky has brought his own Dnipro battalions to combat readiness. They now consist of up to fifteen thousand fighters, and a few days ago Kolomoisky ordered them to triple their number."

Discussing the conflict over Ukrtransnafta, Tsarev noted that "control over the company is of extreme importance to Kolomoisky not only because he has become used to treating these government structures as his own personal property, but also because a change of the company management would have unquestionably resulted in questions about the multitude of abuses committed by people loyal to him." Tsarev estimated that the damage done by Kolomoisky against Ukrtransnafta alone may amount to up to $2 billion, including up to a billion dollars in damages caused by improper use of the pipelines.

"The nighttime capture of the Ukrtransnafta office was aimed not just at attempting to preserve the ability to steal state resources, but also an attempt to cover up evidence of the crime. It is believed that on the night of the raid, several trucks-worth of documents were taken from the building," Tsarev noted. The politician emphasized that "this will make investigation into the criminal negligence and outright theft much more difficult."

Tsarev believes that Kolomoisky's personal involvement in the affair, including travel to Ukrtransnafta's headquarters, is unusual, and that he "could have been forced to participate in this special operation personally only out of dire need –the threat of criminal charges, the threat of arrest against him and his businesses."

Tsarev notes that the compromise said to have been reached Friday, where it was determined that Poroshenko's man would ultimately take up his post, would mean either that a real investigation "will not occur, or that it will be carried out by foreign auditing companies" at such a pace that the results of their investigation will become moot by the time they reach their conclusions. "Does it mean that Kolomoisky, Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko have agreed to share in the robbery of the country together? Time will tell. But one thing is for certain: the country is rapidly sinking into impoverishment. In order the preserve their capital, oligarchs and the Kiev government will face only more conflicts [over time]."

In this connection, "the United States will have to openly, publically intervene into the management of the country. The US ambassador to Ukraine has already openly noted that he was involved in the resolution of the [Ukrtransnafta] conflict, with MP Sergei Leshchenko saying that the order to change the company's management came from Washington."

Oleg Tsarev, a former MP in Ukraine's Rada from the Dnepropetrovsk region, was forced to leave the office and withdraw his candidacy for president last year following numerous threats against him and his family. In April, 2014 Tsarev was beaten by a mob after a television interview in Kiev. Withdrawing his candidacy in late April, Tsarev called on anti-Maidan politicians to boycott the elections, which he felt could not take place in conditions of civil war following an unconstitutional coup. Tsarev was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in June, 2014, and has since become a wanted man on the territory of Kiev-controlled Ukraine. He presently serves as the Speaker of the Unity Parliament of the self-proclaimed Novorossiya Confederation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

About 1,750 Ukrainian Military Killed in Eastern Regions - Defence Ministry
by Sputnik

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry announced that nearly 1,750 Ukrainian servicemen were killed since the beginning of military operation in eastern Ukraine.

MOSCOW (Sputnik) — Nearly 1,750 Ukrainian servicemen were killed since the beginning of military operation in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said Sunday.

"The National Military Historical Museum of Ukraine has at its disposal the most complete data on the slain Ukrainian soldiers and members of the volunteer battalions since the beginning of hostilities. At present, the database includes 1,750 people. This data is until February 1, 2015," Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said in a statement on the web portal

Thousands of Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers died during the shelling in the town of Debaltsevo alone, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Alexander Zakharchenko said at a press briefing on February 23.

Debaltsevo, a strategic transport hub in Ukraine's southeast, had been at the epicentre of intense fighting with Kiev troops encircled there by Donbas militia in February.

On February 12, a ceasefire deal was agreed on to deescalate hostilities in the region during the talks held by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

The military offensive launched by Kiev forces against independence supporters in April 2014 has claimed the lives of over 6,000 people, according to UN estimates.
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