One opposition candidate for the Russian presidency spent last week campaigning -- in the United States -- with a message that often sounded suspiciously like the Kremlin's.
Another traveled to the United Kingdom to persuade exiled businessmen to return to Russia with their assets, a longtime goal of Vladimir Putin's.
And yet another hinted about being open to taking a job as a Kremlin adviser after the election.
With opponents like these, who needs allies?
In just the past couple weeks, we've had Ksenia Sobchak's careful messaging in Washington; Boris Titov's entreaties to expatriated oligarchs in London; and Grigory Yavlinsky's musings about becoming a Putin adviser.
Don't look now, but the nominally liberal pretenders to Russia's throne are acting more like Kremlin surrogates.
Meet the human faces of Putinism.
They may look, feel, and even act and speak like challengers. But each is playing a key supporting role in the ongoing choreographed stage play the Kremlin insists on calling an election campaign.
Writing on Facebook, Yuri Tsarik, head of the Russian Studies Program at the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, noted that Sobchak, Titov, and Yavlinsky each appears to have received "a mission from the Kremlin" that each appears to be working to fulfill.
"The wheels are rolling, the machine is working," Tsarik added.
An Opponent Or An Envoy?
Take Sobchak, for example. Sure she grabbed headlines in Washington with ostensibly controversial comments about Russia's interference in the U.S. election and the Crimea annexation.
But as the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service noted in its annual report that was released this week, "Sobchak's criticisms of the government are entirely safe as far as the Kremlin is concerned and her political agenda is perfect material for the appearance of an open public debate."
And moreover, if you listen carefully to Sobchak's public speeches and interviews in Washington, you will also hear Kremlin talking points skillfully weaved into all her apparently controversial statements: isolating Moscow is dangerous, regime change could lead to adverse and unpredictable results, and the West is partially responsible due to its rejection of Russia in the past.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, Sobchak said, "I believe we could have avoided" the current tensions "if Russia were not rejected by the European Union. Unfortunately, the Europeans have not overcome their instinctive fear of Russia and never invited my country to join their great project."
The remark, of course, misses the fact that Russia neither applied to join the EU nor showed any willingness to go through the arduous accession process.
But never mind. Comments like this are part of a well-worn Kremlin narrative that the West rejected and isolated Moscow in the 1990s and is therefore responsible for today's conflict.
In his column for Republic.ru, Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote that Sobchak is now "a carefully calibrated tool in Russia's diplomatic game to break out of confrontation with the United States."
In addition to assisting the regime in legitimizing the March 18 election in the West and undermining Aleksei Navalny's status as an alternative to Putin, said Frolov, Sobchak also helped transmit the Kremlin's message to a broad American public.
"With her trip to Washington, Sobchak has laid serious claim to a special role in Russian foreign policy in coordination with the Kremlin's interests," he wrote.
Bringing The Oligarchs -- And Their Money -- Home
Sobchak wasn't the only nominal opposition candidate spending time abroad recently.
Boris Titov, the Kremlin's ombudsman for entrepreneurs' rights, says he held a private meeting with exiled Russian businessmen in London last weekend.
And when he returned to Russia, he gave journalists a list of 16 of them he said wanted to return in exchange for amnesty.
Titov said he sent Putin the list, a letter, and 81 pages of appeals from the exiled businessmen. He asked the Kremlin leader to review the cases and provide "appropriate legal guarantees" for those who fled abroad due to criminal cases "they consider illegal and unfounded."
It resulted in the most media attention Titov received since declaring his candidacy for president.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no plans for a broad amnesty any time soon. But he added that Titov’s appeal would be passed on to the appropriate authorities, adding that Russian law is the “best guarantee” for the exiled businessmen.
It has, of course, been a longstanding goal of the Putin regime to get rich Russians -- exiled or not -- to repatriate their assets.
But writing in Republic.ru, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya notes that the idea is a nonstarter even if Putin were to grant such guarantees because the current Russian system is so dependent on the ability of predatory bureaucrats to monetize their authority.
"Guaranteeing private property would amount to regime change," she writes. "And the authorities are not capable of such changes, unless, of course, they are committing self-destruction."
So what was the purpose of Titov's mission to London?
"This is for internal consumption," veteran journalist and Kremlin-watcher Kiryl Sukhotski, executive editor for Current Time TV, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.
"What he is doing here is presenting a message to the public that things are so great in Russia that even those people who fled are keen to return."
Teasing A Thaw -- And Making Putin Look Reasonable
And then there is Grigory Yavlinsky, who is on the presidential ballot for the first time in 18 years.
And on the surface at least, he's acting like a real opposition figure.
He's called on Putin to comment publicly on reports that Russian mercenaries in Syria were killed in a U.S. air strike.
Like Sobchak, he's filed a formal complaint about the state-controlled Channel One's plans to rebroadcast The Putin Interviews, U.S. director Oliver Stone's fawning four-part documentary about the Kremlin leader, in the midst of the campaign.
But he really raised eyebrows with remarks in late January that were not critical of the Kremlin at all.
Yavlinsky added that he would consider the proposal if it were raised again.
The Kremlin has not commented and the silence is revealing.
Because at first glance, the fact that Putin would offer -- and Yavlinsky would consider -- such a proposal appears patently absurd.
Yavlinsky's campaign platform calls for an end to the "aggressive" war in Ukraine, a renunciation of the annexation of Crimea, and an international conference on the peninsula's status.
But having speculation out there about Yavlinsky taking a Kremlin job serves Putin's purposes.
It signals to Russian liberals that a thaw might be coming after the election, thus broadening Putin's potential support base; and it sends a message to the West that Moscow may be seeking a way out of the war in Ukraine.
As Stanovaya notes, it helps make Putin appear more "well-rounded," flexible, and "open to the ideas of his moderate and constructive opponents."
And the idea itself is not as far-fetched as it appears, she adds, as "the authorities have accumulated considerable experience in integrating their political competitors."
In fact, two former high-ranking members of Yabloko have joined the regime -- the party's co-founder, Vladimir Lukin, became the Kremlin's human rights ombudsman and Igor Artyemev, the former head of the party's St. Petersburg branch, became the head of the Anti-Monopoly Service.
And when erstwhile opponents join the regime, their "opposing or even incompatible ideological views" are not a problem because those joining tend to "adapt both their rhetoric and their views."
The Strawberry Communist
Of course, not every mission is a success.
Initially, the Communist Party's decision to take the unlikely step of nominating Pavel Grudinin appeared a win-win for the Kremlin.
He's a former member of the ruling United Russia with ties to Putin dating back to the 2000 presidential election.
As the head of the Lenin Collective Farm outside Moscow, Russia's largest producer of strawberries, his business interests are highly dependent on the goodwill of the authorities.
And he was even floated late last year as a potential governor of Moscow Oblast.
"Initially, the Kremlin was glad to have Grudinin" on the ballot, political scientist Abbas Galyamov told Novaya Gazeta.
Having a fresh face leading the Communists would drive up turnout by bringing out leftist voters who were turned off by the party's moribund leader Gennady Zyuganov.
But in late December, Novaya Gazeta reports, the Kremlin got spooked when an on-air poll on the radio program Vesti-FM showed him winning a dangerously high 45 percent of the respondents.
Those figures, Grudinin's spokesman Aleksandr Yushchenko told the newspaper, "frightened one of the Kremlin's towers."
After which, pro-Kremlin media launched a campaign against Grudinin, accusing him of holding foreign bank accounts, cheating shareholders, and of owning a villa in Europe.
The Only Real Candidate?
The biggest mistake observers make when assessing Russian politics, Stanovaya writes, is looking at the so-called "systemic opposition" as "an autonomous political force," when in reality it is an integral part of the regime.
"Today we cannot speak about relations between the authorities and the systemic opposition," she adds. "But rather a homogenization of the system in which different ideological currents serve and legitimize the rulers."
There is, of course, one figure who is behaving like a real candidate -- but he isn't on the ballot.
Last week Aleksei Navalny, who is encouraging his supporters to boycott the March 18 election, released his latest expose targeting Kremlin corruption.
It featured an oligarch, Oleg Deripaska; an official, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko; a yacht, and an escort worker who goes by the name Nastya Rybka.
And it clearly touched a nerve in the Kremlin.
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, ordered Internet providers to block Navalny's website due to the video -- and have threatened to block YouTube and Instagram over it as well.
Yet despite the fact that Navalny is clearly getting under the authorities' skin, rumors and speculation persists that he, too, is a Kremlin project -- or at least enjoys support from figures in the elite who may be hedging their bets in case the regime ever falls.