Aleksei Venediktov, the long-serving editor in chief of the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station, sees no sign of a "thaw" in Russia's foreign or domestic policies despite recent reshuffles in the Kremlin.
"I don't see any thaw in this regard," Venediktov told Current Time television in his Moscow office on November 3. "I see a negative trend. I see an escalation in some decisions, in the maneuvers of our military, in the supply of new weapons systems to Syria. In terms of actions, I see an escalation."
Early last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed former Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko as his deputy chief of staff in charge of domestic politics, replacing Vyacheslav Volodin, who was seen as a hard-line "gray cardinal." Kiriyenko briefly served as prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin and was a founding member of the center-right Union of Rightist Forces in the late 1990s.
In August Putin also replaced his chief of staff, former KGB operative Sergei Ivanov, with former diplomat Anton Vaino.
On November 2, Kiriyenko held a closed-door meeting with Russian political scientists at which he said he did not support some "radical leanings" of the ruling elite and specifically criticized outspoken state-television personality Dmitry Kiselyov's 2014 remark that Russia could turn the United States into "radioactive ash."
Venediktov, however, cautioned observers to focus on actions rather than such statements.
"This is actually an attack on freedom of speech, as paradoxical as it sounds," the 61-year-old journalist said. "Suppose you hire such a guy on state television. And suppose he sincerely wants to talk about radioactive ash. Are you going to dictate to him what to say like they used to do and like -- apparently -- they now plan to do, only differently? I'd put it this way."
He said Kiriyenko's statements and similar remarks by Putin during the recent Valdai Club gathering of Russia experts were "rhetoric."
"At the same time, the Admiral Kuznetsov was sailing for Aleppo," Venediktov said in a reference to Russia's lone aircraft carrier, which is sailing with other Russian warships toward Syria's coast in the eastern Mediterranean. "At the same time, our submarines are on their way there and at the UN Security Council, [Russian Ambassador Vitaly] Churkin is talking about how we will decide when to bomb and when not to bomb. Considering this, I would not dwell too long on the rhetoric."
Putin, he said, was a master of speaking differently to different audiences. "Where he needs to be, he is conciliatory; where he needs to be, he is inflammatory," Venediktov said.
Venediktov recalled that when Volodin was appointed to manage domestic politics, people thought it was a sign of liberalization that opposition leader and anticorruption advocate Aleksei Navalny was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow.
"But I know for a fact that Vladimir Putin made that decision, not Vyacheslav Volodin," he said. "If Putin had said, 'No,' Volodin would not have done it."
Navalny, still stung by his jailing and charges of criminal wrongdoing that he said were politically motivated, was soundly defeated by the Kremlin's candidate.
These appointees do not "have their own political agendas," Venediktov added. "Their political agenda is the political agenda of the president."
He went on to describe the deputy head of the presidential administration as "a glove on the sovereign's hand."
Asked about speculation by some that Putin could be vulnerable to a "palace coup" as the economy worsens and oligarchs seek an end to Western sanctions, Venediktov was skeptical.
"At present, the president's entourage -- both in the security services and in business -- are going to insist that the leader serve another term," he said.
Putin served as president for two terms after his installment by outgoing President Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999, then moved to the prime minister's post for four years because of a constitutional term limit, before returning to the Kremlin in 2012. He is widely expected to seek reelection again in 2018.
"Changing Putin for another figure -- even someone extremely close to Putin -- would mean turbulence in their interests," Venediktov concluded. "For the people around the throne, even if they are losing out now, turbulence is absolutely not needed."
Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by Current Time television's Andrei Korolyov