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Putin's Performance At Geneva Summit Seen As A Master Class In 'Whataboutism'

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16.

MOSCOW -- Of all the memorable moments in Russian President Vladimir Putin's press conference after meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16, one in particular stood out.

After some cautious but warm words about Biden, and a harsh denunciation of his jailed political foe, Aleksei Navalny, Putin called upon Rachel Scott, an ABC reporter sitting in the front row.

"The list of your political opponents who are dead, in prison, or jailed is long," Scott told Putin, alluding to critics like Boris Nemtsov, shot dead a stone's throw from the Kremlin in 2015, and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist murdered in 2006, as well as numerous activists currently languishing in Russian jails.

"So, my question is, Mr. President: What are you so afraid of?" she said.

Putin sidestepped the question, and after a follow-up from Scott he launched into a tirade about the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. He said participants face jail time on "unclear grounds", overlooking the alleged involvement of several dozen people with ties to far-right groups and the reams of evidence made public about their actions.

"Many countries are going through exactly what we're going through," Putin continued, referring to political instability in Russia. "Let me just repeat: We sympathize with what was happening in the States, but we do not wish that to happen in Russia."

This type of "whataboutism" -- swatting away probing questions about Russia's policies with caustic and usually exaggerated commentary about issues faced by its former Cold War adversary -- has become a staple of the narrative advanced by Moscow and faithfully echoed by state television presenters and Russian government officials of all stripes.

Putin has often been the originator or at least a key conduit of this kind of deflection. During his press conference in Geneva, he also justified Russia's crackdown on opposition-minded media outlets it has declared "foreign agents" by equating it with the United States' own restrictions on some foreign media, not mentioning significant differences between the two.

When asked by a BBC News reporter about the unpredictability of Russian politics and how it impacts relations with the West, Putin offered up what one commentator termed a "master class in whataboutism" -- cycling through a list of international crimes the United States has purportedly committed without ever addressing the Russia-oriented substance of the original question.

And when confronted about the suspicious number of cyberattacks that Western intelligence services blame on Russia-based hackers allegedly acting with tacit state support, Putin claimed that "from American sources, it follows that most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber-realm of the United States."

He did not specify the sources or address the fact that U.S. experts and officials have implicated Russian-speaking hackers in the most damaging cyberattacks on record, including the NotPetya virus that caused over $10 billion in economic damages in 2017 and the May attack on Colonial Pipeline, which shut off fuel supplies to the U.S. east coast for five days.

"He deals with all the difficult questions in his traditional style: 'You should look in the mirror,'" Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said in an interview with Current Time after the Geneva summit.

False Equivalencies

Moscow's practiced reversion to false equivalencies with events abroad also extends to defending the policies of its allies.

Putin and other Russian officials have compared Belarus's grounding of a Ryanair commercial jet in Minsk in order to seize a dissident blogger who was on board with the landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane in Austria in 2013 after Germany, France, and Spain denied the plane overflight privileges during the U.S. campaign to intercept whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But at times, when challenged on his seeming preoccupation with U.S. problems, Putin has apparently struggled to respond. When Keir Simmons of NBC News pressed the Russian president on Moscow's latest clampdown on the so-called "foreign agent" media during an interview on June 12, Putin again cited U.S. legislation as a reason for his government's stance.

"There you go again, talking about the United States," Simmons said.

"Yes, yes, yes. Again, you are not letting me. But I will -- I will -- I will revert to us. I will go back to us," Putin answered. "Everything will be clear to you. But you don't like my answer. You don't want my answer to be heard by your audience. That is the problem. You are shutting me down. Is that free expression, or is that free expression the American way?"

Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden at their summit in Geneva on June 16, 2021
Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden at their summit in Geneva on June 16, 2021

With the Geneva summit viewed at least in part as a chance for Putin to prove he's not an international pariah and as a face-saving measure for the United States after then-President Donald Trump's controversial 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, critics say both men sought to persuade voters at home of their ability to talk tough with a long-time geopolitical foe.

But some say that back in Russia, the tireless "whataboutism" that Putin engages in is becoming less convincing to a public angry over falling real wages and economic stagnation that many see as resulting from government policies.

"With time, people start to perceive such a narrative as a way of evading tough questions and that begins to grate on them," said Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin. "They start to develop the impression that you're a shifty character."

And while the narrative focused on U.S. problems has long been a feature of Russian -- and, indeed, Soviet -- foreign policy discourse and the coverage on pro-Kremlin television channels, Gallyamov says one key thing has changed: Moscow no longer seems to care about the optics.

"The difference now is that Russian authorities are no longer trying to prove they're good – they're trying to show that others are no better," he said. "Call it a policy of global mudslinging."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.