Vladimir Putin will not be attending the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November – a decision decried in self-absorbed Britain as representing a major snub to its PM Boris Johnson.
There is certainly little love lost between the administrations of London and Moscow, with already terrible relations qualified only by the probability they will become even worse.
But there is also nothing unusual about Mr Putin’s decision to turn down a foreign trip. The Kremlin has been fairly consistent in using Covid to call off travel. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been abroad just once – flying to Geneva in July for a presidential summit with US president Joe Biden.
Mr Putin has already confirmed he will not be attending the G20 summit in Italy on October 30-31, for example, just as he pulled out of the Central Asia security summit in Dushanbe in the week before September 19 elections in Russia. Then, the Russian president was supposedly shielding after unnamed members of his entourage reportedly caught the virus.
In both cases, Vladimir Putin swapped face-to-face meetings for online participation. Indeed, a spokesman appeared to hold out that possibility for the Glasgow climate summit, suggesting on Wednesday the Kremlin was still in negotiations with organisers about the nature of their participation.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, the Kremlin has enforced the strictest biological security around the entity and institute more simply known as “telo”, or “the body”.
As a rule, anyone wanting to share the same air as the body has been required to observe a two-week hotel quarantine. Remarkably, that situation has not changed since the president belatedly announced he had been vaccinated in March.
Mr Putin has also reduced the time he spends in the Kremlin itself, preferring instead to receive guests at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow. According to one local publication, he may also have secretly spent much of the pandemic in Sochi, recording presidential speeches from an identikit windowless office in the Black Sea resort.
Those allegations have been laughed away by the Kremlin. But the image of a president “hiding in a bunker” has stuck.
The extreme measures the Kremlin has taken to protect the body are a reflection of the importance Vladimir Putin now holds for his personalised system of governance – and especially those in his closest entourage.
The 69-year-old is not immortal, however, and Russia already appears to be at the start of a power transition. There have been several as yet unsubstantiated rumours about Mr Putin’s health. There does not as yet appear to be an acceptable replacement – and that means turbulence lies ahead.
The Kremlin’s confirmation he won’t travel to Glasgow is a blow to the Global Britain brand. But the story that underpins the decision probably has much more serious consequences.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as Cop26, begins on 31 October.
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