Refuting the "third term party" theory

One of the theories about the Litvinenko poisoning blames it on a shadowy group of Kremlin insiders described as the “third term party” – allegedly seeking to destabilize Russia enough to force Putin to stay on for a third term. This theory seems to assume that Putin is either powerless or stupid.

The theory that President Vladimir Putin poisoned Alexander Litvinenko doesn’t have many supporters, since it is extremely contrived.

In an attempt to come up with a theory which is even remotely plausible, proponents of the Kremlin connection are inclined to prefer blaming a mysterious (naming no names!) but influential group called the “third term party.” According to this theory, members of the “third term party” believe that they will be displaced if Putin steps down on schedule, as he has repeatedly promised to do, and hands over the reins of power to someone else. In order to retain their jobs and influence, these people are allegedly trying to create the kind of instability that would make it impossible for Putin to step down, so he would be forced to stay on for a third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) term.

The hypothetical “third term party” fails to consider that if their destabilization efforts succeed, they may indeed drive Putin into a third term, but their chief objective wouldn’t be nearly as secure as they imagine. This theory tacitly assumes that once Putin’s selfish minions have thoroughly ruined his reputation, he would become like Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, unwelcome in the West. Actually, this is not such a horrifying prospect; the leader would be alive and well, our revenues would still be coming in, and the West’s criticism can always be ignored. But the theory fails to consider that if the operation attributed to the mysterious “third term party” succeeds, Putin’s reputation wouldn’t be like that of Lukashenko; it would be immeasurably worse.

If anyone wished to construct a defense of Lukashenko, it could be argued that although he does have certain flaws, they are somewhat redeemed by the fact that at least he’s fully in control of the situation in Belarus, and at least there’s someone to hold accountable for the situation. It’s one version of the “injustice is better than disorder” principle. But if there really is a “third term party” out there – not controlled by Putin, doing whatever it likes – then no such defense is possible. In this case, the flaws are not redeemed; rather, they are exacerbated by the idea that someone in Russia is claiming the right to kill people – anywhere in the world, and using methods that pose a threat to public safety – while Putin can’t do anything about it. If that were the case, Russia couldn’t be described as an authoritarian state like Belarus (or even Turkmenistan); it would be a black hole, a failed state, where the use of force is completely demonopolized and may be directed at anyone at all, anywhere in the world. It would be hard to think of a clearer, more coherent justification for imposing external management on such a country, or at least surrounding it with a tight cordon sanitaire. And that would mean serious problems for our revenues.

Yet we are being asked to believe that this obvious conclusion wouldn’t have occurred to the “third term party” (let’s assume all its members are stupid) or even to Putin himself, whose present and future are allegedly being destroyed right before his eyes, while he either doesn’t understand what is happening or can’t do anything about it. Apparently, he has no methods at all – absolutely none – to counter those mysterious people from his inner circle who are deliberately destroying him.

This contradiction might be easily resolved if we assume that the mysterious people aren’t all based in Russia. Those who are outside Russia wouldn’t be deterred by the abovementioned consequences; they might even consider them desirable. But such an assumption – call it crazy – would dismantle this entire world-view, so it’s easier to believe that the denizens of the Kremlin are entirely irrational.