Only a handful of people know the exact place where president vladimir putin is celebrating his 70th birthday in St. Petersburg on Friday, but critics say he is spending more and more time in isolation deep in nuclear bunkers.
The Kremlin has announced that Putin will spend his birthday working. Trapped, as it is, in tThe biggest self-made disaster of his presidency.And, that only raises more worrying questions about what kind of orders you’ll issue on your big day. Backed into a corner, what is Putin considering next?
People who have known Putin for many years say that the Russian leader is “nervous” and “tense” these days; political groups online speculate on Telegram that Putin is planning to “use tactical nukes outside a bunker, far from Moscow,” as Kremlinologists debate how to prevent a looming doomsday scenario.
Putin himself has said that he will respond to the grim daily news from Ukraine, where his army suffers defeat after defeat, with “all means at our disposal.” That, he added, “is not a hoax.”
In an alarmingly symbolic gesture, he promoted on Wednesday one of his closest and most notorious allies, the leader of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is now a general. His promotion came just a couple of days after Kadyrov called for a more drastic escalation in Ukraine, including the declaration of martial law in Russia’s border areas and “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”
The Russians are increasingly worried about the state of mind of their leader.
In his most recent public appearance, Putin’s eyes were sunken and cloudy. He spoke to a group of teachers from a small office via Zoom. The idea was to celebrate “Teacher’s Day” on Wednesday, but Putin couldn’t resist ranting about so-called “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine.
“That part seemed really crazy,” high school student Vitaly Shatrov, 17, from St. Petersburg told The Daily Beast. “Putin, who many compare to Hitler for the violence against the Ukrainian people, talks to professors in some bunker about the Nazis.”
Shatrov is so concerned about nuclear escalation that he is clinging to the idea of peace talks as suggested by Pope Francis and Tesla boss Elon Musk, who have been derided for suggesting that Ukraine actually accept defeat. “I am afraid of a nuclear war. There are no politicians in the world who can calm Putin down. Instead, everyone makes fun of him, threatens him, so he goes even crazier in the upside-down world he’s created.”
One thing is clear: Putin has a wide variety of bunkers to retreat to. One of his favorite hideouts is in the Altai Mountains. Any taxi driver in the remote Ongudaysky region near the Mongolian border will show you the way to “Putin’s bunker” or Altayskoye Podvorye. During the pandemic, residents told The Daily Beast about the presidential helicopter regularly seen in the air over the mountains. Locals talk of a giant underground bunker where all of Putin’s family members and employees of Gazprom and the Kremlin could hide from radiation in the event of a nuclear attack, but like much of the president’s security apparatus, that never has been officially confirmed.
Another famous hideout is almost 1,000 miles from Moscow in the republic of Bashkortostan, in the southern Ural mountains. The construction of this immense network of bunkers began with Boris Yeltsin, but the project was frozen after the fall of the USSR. Western spies have suggested that the huge underground complex could hold between 100,000 and 300,000 people; others suggested it was a nuclear command post or secret weapons store.
Putin’s whereabouts are often a subject of fascination in Russia. When he conducts his meetings on Zoom it’s hard to know where he is, but during the pandemic it became clear that he has at least two identical offices, one in Moscow and the other at his Black Sea residence in the city. from Sochi.
Gennady Gudkov, an exiled former Russian parliamentarian, told The Daily Beast that the president was taking precautions as the war in Ukraine spirals out of control.
“Putin is going to hide in a bunker in case of a nuclear war,” he said. “But he’s not safe there either; he will be destroyed, that is what Biden should clearly say to Putin now.”
Putin’s allies say the president’s nuclear threats are being overinterpreted outside the country, but blame the West for that. “Russia will attack only in response to an attack. Decision-making to use nuclear weapons is complicated, involves many people, and there is no Kadyrov among them,” pro-Putin political analyst Yuriy Krupnov told The Daily Beast.
He said the average Russian, even in elite circles, knows he would have no protection if a nuclear conflict really did break out. “No bunker will help Moscow, of course. Perhaps only the leadership has proper shelters.”
Veteran human rights campaigner Valentina Melnikova, who has been helping Russian families avoid conscription, said she was not so sure the world was safe from nuclear war. “I am sure that our generals are capable of bombing Kyiv and Washington with torpedoes and nuclear bombs. I say this because I know the Russian military well: they will obey any of Putin’s orders and there is hardly anything that can stop this disaster right now.”
Many more Russians are beginning to think the unthinkable.
Perceptions have changed a lot in the last two decades. At the start of Putin’s rule, few Russians would have believed that a journalist like Anna Politkovskaya could be assassinated in the center of Moscow. And yet it happened, on Putin’s birthday, in 2006.
People’s understanding of what Putin might do is changing faster and faster.
A year ago, most of the public did not believe that the Kremlin would launch a full-scale assault on a neighboring country, such as Ukraine. Even then, they were sure there would be no mass mobilization, but then again, it’s happening right now.
Russians have always feared a nuclear war, but most never imagined that their own homeland would start one.
Now, they are not so sure.