"We see the real Putin moving around Moscow: people are stuck in traffic jams for hours because they block the entire city if Putin is traveling with his motorcade of 40 armored cars, so it's not clear which one he is. And then they show another Putin driving a Toyota through Crimea. I don't believe it."
Respect for Xi
Putin, or someone who looks very much like him, arrived in Mariupol the day after the International Criminal Court charged him with war crimes in relation to the Russian abduction of Ukrainian children from occupied territories.
Was this the same germaphobic leader?
The visit took place at night. Putin met and chatted with locals, walked around the city and drove a car. Journalists were astonished that this was the same germaphobic leader who negotiated with French President Emmanuel Macron from the opposite end of a six-meter-long table, and who forced Russian security officials and members of parliament to quarantine for weeks before he would meet with them.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian opposition writer and analyst, believes Putin has used doubles for smaller meetings and at some public appearances, although he shows up in person for meetings with country leaders or to deliver speeches.
He’s sure Putin would never "would never humiliate" Xi Jinping by sending a look-alike to meet with the Chinese leader. But that’s not the case in Ukraine, he says: "In Mariupol, it wasn't Putin. He has all sorts of look-alikes.”
Saddam and Fidel
Russian journalist Michael Nacke agrees. "I have no doubts that Putin has so-called look-alikes,” he says, noting that both Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro are believed to have used body doubles to avoid assassination attempts.
The doubles may look alike, but have completely different behavior, he says: “Periodically, we see Vladimir Putin in different impersonations.” There's on Putin who stands off to the side during Christmas service and won’t let even the priest get close, or has snipers cover him as he lays flowers at a gravesite; while another Putin is comfortable glad-handing and getting up close and personal with soldiers and civilians.
“It's a completely different pattern of behavior,” Nacke says.
“If you are a dictator hated by many people both inside and outside the country, you're being hunted, you live in a bunker and ride an armored train, you'll want look-alikes,” Nacke says.
The use of body doubles fits the classic portrait of the paranoid dictator — and becomes an absurd, darkly humorous detail when, as they did this week, observers compare photos of Putin, looking at the shape of his chin and jowls to figure out if the man pictured is the real deal or an impersonator.
Whoever was in Mariupol last week, the Russian president is in Moscow this week meeting with Xi — and now wanted on an international war crimes warrant, it's unlikely the real Putin will be traveling widely any time soon.