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The Week In Russia: Demonizing A Decade

Outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) waves as he hands over his office to Vladimir Putin (left) at Kremlin in Moscow on December 31, 1999.
Outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin (right) waves as he hands over his office to Vladimir Putin (left) at Kremlin in Moscow on December 31, 1999.

NOTE TO READERS: The Week In Russia will next appear on December 31.

Imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny's daughter accepted the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on behalf of her father, while the government's push to close the prominent human rights group Memorial headed toward a late-December denouement amid condemnation from the West.

Russia's leadership scrapped a proposal to require QR codes for access to public transportation amid stiff resistance to coronavirus safety-measure enforcement, even as the number of excess deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed 1 million, according to some estimates.

A German court said the killing of an asylum seeker and former militant from Georgia's ethnic Chechen enclave was ordered by the Russian state, one of several developments that underscored concerns about Russian actions abroad, from eastern Ukraine to Western Europe to West Africa and beyond.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin described the Soviet collapse 30 years ago this month as the "disintegration of historical Russia," adding to worries about his intentions toward Ukraine amid a troop buildup and increasingly insistent Kremlin demands for a binding promise to refrain from expanding further to the east.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Call Me A Cabbie

Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia on the last day of 1999, and has been president or prime minister ever since, for 22 years and counting: He may seek reelection in 2024 and could potentially remain in the Kremlin until 2036, after changing the constitution last year to scrap the term limits he had faced.

While the timing must be mainly coincidental, the fact that Putin came to power hours before the end of the decade has proved convenient for the Kremlin from a propaganda perspective. Also convenient, certainly, is the fact that world oil prices took flight during his first two terms, in 2000-08, fueling strong economic growth in resource-rich Russia.

Over the years, Putin has frequently pointed to the 1990s as a chaotic, desperate time of troubles, underscoring the uncertainty that haunted citizens and emphasizing the economic struggles that millions faced after the carpet of the communist system -- rough and threadbare as it was -- was yanked from under their feet early in the momentous decade.

Vladimir Putin (center), then Russian President Boris Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, poses with friends at a party in St. Petersburg in February 1997.
Vladimir Putin (center), then Russian President Boris Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, poses with friends at a party in St. Petersburg in February 1997.

Putin did this again in a film aired on state TV at prime time on Sunday evening, December 12, claiming that he sometimes used his car as a taxicab, giving people rides for cash to supplement his income -- an assertion that seems at once underwhelming and possibly untrue.

Underwhelming because so many people did it at the time -- not only because they were out for a few extra rubles but because the taxi system left over from Soviet times was unable to meet burgeoning demand brought on by capitalism, so they were fulfilling a need now met by online cab companies, Uber, and the rest.

Possibly untrue for several reasons. Putin has said in the past that he only considered becoming a cabbie. He had a steady job in St. Petersburg starting in May 1990, and in 1993, a legislative committee that investigated a suspected multimillion-dollar kickback scheme called for his dismissal. He was out of work for a few weeks in the summer of 1996, when he moved to Moscow and got his first Kremlin appointment; two years later, the longtime Soviet KGB officer was head of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The cabbie comment, which drew a slew of mocking memes from critics, was mainly about the economy -- as well as an effort to show that he "lived like everyone." But in the state TV documentary Putin took aim at the 1990s in geopolitical terms as well, calling the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 the "disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union."

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

The Soviet Union did encompass most of the territory held by the Russian Empire. And this remark was perhaps nothing very new, coming from a leader whose most famous comment -- with the possible exception of one about killing Chechen militants in the outhouse -- was to lament the Soviet breakup as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century --- or, by an alternative translation, one of the greatest.

But in the context of Moscow's military buildup near Ukraine and its drumbeat of demands that NATO rule out membership for Ukraine, Georgia, and other states and refrain from deploying certain weapons "in close proximity" to Russia's borders, the comment was certainly provocative. Coming almost exactly 30 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, it could be read as a suggestion that Russia has a rightful claim to 14 entirely independent countries.

Ukrainian soldiers patrol near the line of separation from the separatists in the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian soldiers patrol near the line of separation from the separatists in the Donetsk region.

If that interpretation sounds like a stretch, consider that when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, in 2014, Putin asserted that the Black Sea peninsula was "primordially Russian land" -- even though, among other facts that cast deep doubt on that claim, historians say Crimean Tatars are the oldest settled population there since the Greeks left in ancient times.

In any case, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin's fresh lament about the Soviet collapse seemed to fit in with a series of written and spoken remarks in which he has implicitly or explicitly questioned Ukraine's right to nationhood or full sovereignty, adding concern about the Kremlin's intentions toward its neighbor.

A separate state TV show echoed Putin's recent false claim that what is happening in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region resembles "genocide" by Kyiv -- a piece of propaganda that seems aimed to justify any future military action targeting the neighboring county.

On the day Putin's comments aired, state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, who is seen as a chief conduit of Kremlin propaganda, lambasted the 1990s and in particular Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who was Russia's president from 1991 until he handed the reins to Putin on New Year's Eve in 1999.

Kiselyov portrayed Gorbachev and Yeltsin as patsies who got nothing in return for accession to German reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, handed the former Warsaw Pact countries to the West on a platter, and -- most of all -- failed to secure written guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward.

The monologue, as BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg put it, appeared aimed to "big up Putin's role in modern Russia," to "stoke resentment among the Russian public over Moscow's lost influence," and to "convince viewers Russia's under threat."

Threats And Demands

With Moscow quite suddenly pushing hard for legally binding promises from the West, including a pledge to end NATO's expansion to the east, Kiselyov's diatribe may also have been designed to tell Russians that these demands are not only justified but long overdue -- and potentially worth fighting a full-scale war for.

On December 4, multiple media outlets reported that U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia is planning for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, with up to about 175,000 troops involved.

Russia denies it is preparing for a new invasion of Ukraine, where it has controlled Crimea since March 2014 and supports separatist forces who hold parts of the Donbas -- and whose war against Kyiv has killed more than 13,000 combatants and civilians since April of that year.

Russian servicemen display military camouflage equipment during the military exercises in the Orenburg region in September.
Russian servicemen display military camouflage equipment during the military exercises in the Orenburg region in September.

But the Kremlin has devalued that denial by using the military buildup, and the implicit threat of a new invasion, as a backdrop for its demands of the West and of Kyiv, which it is pressing to implement the 2015 Minsk 2 peace plan for the Donbas conflict in the way that Moscow interprets it.

And Russia also denies it has sent soldiers to fight in the Donbas, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence. A dramatic new piece of evidence emerged this week, when media unearthed a November verdict from a court in the Russian region adjacent to the Donbas that referred to food rations meant for "military units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation deployed on the territory of" the separatist-held part of eastern Ukraine.

Following a video call between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden on December 7, there has been a flurry of diplomacy, and there may be more in the coming weeks. But tensions remain high and the threat of an increase in hostilities persists.

On December 16, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that Moscow cannot have a veto on NATO membership of any country and said Russia had increased the number of troops near Ukraine's borders.

"We see no sign that this buildup is stopping or slowing down," Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at NATO headquarters. "On the contrary, it continues."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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