PARIS Vladimir Putin turned 63 this week with his now traditional display of sporting prowess, and an announcement that Russian naval vessels had launched a wave of missiles against Islamic State in Syria.
The Russian leader has never appeared more confident and his grip on power never more secure. In the past two years he has outmaneuvered the West in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria. Western sanctions have apparently failed to blunt his ambition.
But some of Putin's former allies, those who have fallen from grace during his 15 years in power, paint a different picture: Putin's position as Russian leader may be far less assured, they say.
"Putin is a hostage of his entourage," Sergei Pugachev, who once counted the Kremlin chief as a close family friend, told Reuters in an interview in Paris.
The animosity between Pugachev and the Russian government is well documented. Pugachev says his $15 billion business empire spanning shipbuilding, coal and real estate was expropriated by Kremlin rivals. He is suing Russia for $12 billion. Russia, meanwhile, is seeking Pugachev's arrest for embezzlement and misappropriation of assets, charges Pugachev denies.
Given the secrecy of Putin's Kremlin, it was impossible to confirm Pugachev's account. But interviews with other Russian businessmen and foreign diplomats painted a similar picture, albeit a partial one.
The descriptions may offer rare first-hand views of Putin's court and some clues about a question that has preoccupied oligarchs, Western governments and even Putin's advisers: How long will Putin remain as Russia's paramount leader?
For Pugachev, the keys to the puzzle are Putin's perceptions of his own personal safety, finding a successor and the clan battles over the spoils of a former superpower.
"Until he finds a path to an arrangement which secures his safety, he will remain in power," Pugachev said.
"He no longer has confidence in his closest circle and if I were in his place I would not trust them either: What they say to his face and what they say when he is not there is completely different."
When asked about Pugachev's comments, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "We see them as the words of a citizen who is on a wanted list."
Since Putin was appointed acting president by Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999, he has been cast, variously, as Czar, reformer, secret policeman and Russia's richest man.
In diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010, U.S. diplomats depicted Putin as Russia's "alpha-dog" autocrat who ruled by allowing corrupt officials and spies to steal. The Kremlin called that idea ridiculous.
Friends and enemies have cast Putin as a leader attempting to unite modern Russia with its Soviet superpower past and the mystical traditions of pre-revolutionary Orthodox Tsars.
The Kremlin has shown Putin grappling with a Siberian tiger while supporters this year unveiled a bust in his home town showing him as a modern Caesar. The New York Review of Books has written of "The Emperor Vladimir".
But Pugachev's description of a less secure leader chimes with the views of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, who was arrested in 2003 before his YUKOS business empire was ripped apart and its main production units taken over by Gazprom and Rosneft.
"No matter what the PR machine and propaganda of the Kremlin might say, President Putin is no superman," Khodorkovsky, who was freed in 2013 after a decade in Russian jails, told an audience in London in February.
"The Russian business and ruling elite is becoming increasingly anxious in response to Putin’s political course; even those who are loyal to him. It is obvious that autumn has arrived for Putin."
For Pugachev, the cruder interpretations of Putin's power miss the underlying instability of post-Soviet Russia: Putin must navigate the chaotic clan battle for wealth with care.
"These people, it is the way they are, will serve anyone who defends their venal interests," Pugachev, 52, said of the clans around Putin.
"These people are hostages to their crimes - basically the whole establishment - and they need someone who will at minimum represent their interests. If the situation changes and they consider Putin is not sufficiently defending their interests then I think anything could happen."
Behind the patriotic swagger of wealthy Muscovites, according to this analysis, there lies a danger for Putin: The fall in the oil price and Western sanctions for his war in Ukraine have reduced the profits of this moneyed class.
A Western diplomatic source said Putin was poorly informed and it was unclear how long he would remain in power given Russia's economic problems. The rouble has halved in value against the U.S. dollar since 2012, the year Putin was elected for a third term.
"In these situations, you see nothing and then all of a sudden it goes," the diplomat said.
An influential Russian businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a Russian taboo on discussing Putin's future, said: "The economy is very bad."
"These situations are impossible to predict but they can change very fast. When it happens it goes very fast," the Russian said. He used the Russian word for 'brittle' to describe the current economic and political situation.
LEADER FOR LIFE?
Pugachev said Putin's shift toward confrontation with the West over Ukraine flowed from his reliance on the guidance of hardliners inside the Kremlin.
"He trusted the hawks and he has had a lack of success. He is not a leader of the hawks himself but over the 15 years he has migrated between the different circles," he said.
Another Russian businessman with knowledge of the Kremlin cast Putin as an isolated leader who understood he could never leave power.
"No one tells him the truth," said the Russian who spoke on condition on anonymity. "He cannot leave. He knows that. He believes in plots."
One Russian emigre, however, cautioned against overestimating internal opposition.
"Yes, Vladimir Putin has to take into account interests of various stakeholders," said Sergei Guriev, an economist who fled Russia in 2013 for France.
"However, in the current system - certainly, since the Yukos affair - nobody within the Russian elite could come even close to him in terms of power and authority. If he personally decides to do X, no clans or elite groups will be able to stop it."
So will Putin stay in power for life?
"It is difficult for me to say how it all ends," Pugachev said. "I think that stagnation is probably here to stay for a long time."
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Janet McBride)