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The Week In Russia: Summit Signals And Election Extremes

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow on March 10, 2011.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow on March 10, 2011.

Ahead of a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva, Russian President Vladimir Putin advanced a narrative of blame for the bad state of the relationship. Ahead of elections at home, he turned the screws tighter still, barring anyone associated with groups branded "extremist" from seeking office.

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

Blame Game

When a romantic relationship goes sour, the partner ending it sometimes tries to soften the blow of a breakup by shouldering the blame: "It's not you, it's me."

When it comes to responsibility for long-troubled ties between Moscow and Washington, President Vladimir Putin's approach for years has been to assert, on the contrary, that the fault lies with the United States: "It's not me, it's you."

Putin repeated this formula not long before his first meeting with Joe Biden since the U.S. president took office in January. Using an annual investment forum in St. Petersburg to send signals before the planned summit in Geneva on June 16, he said that Russia had "no disagreements with the United States."

"They have a disagreement [with us]: They want to hold back our development," he said in the remarks on June 4. "Everything else stems from that."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on June 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on June 4.

It's a claim Putin has repeated many times in over 20 years as president or prime minister, and one that the United States denies: Washington wants to curb any "malign activity" and protect its own security, but is interested in a successful, thriving Russia, U.S. officials say.

Putin also made a dire prediction about U.S. development, asserting that a hubristic, overconfident United States was "marching down the very path once taken by the Soviet Union with confidence, determination, and in a straight line" -- in other words, that it is on the road to collapse.

Five days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also laid the blame for bad relations on Washington and, as he has many times in the past, echoed Putin's suggestion that Russia is ready to mend relations and that it is the United States alone that must change if ties are to improve.

Your Move

"I hope that those [U.S. officials] working with the Russian Federation will assess Russia's actions, interests, and position -- our red lines at least -- and that they will learn from past mistakes and refuse to hold dialogue solely from the position of claiming hegemony in global affairs," Lavrov said on June 9.

As an effort to prepare a narrative about the Geneva meeting, the tactic seems simple: If the meeting manages to improve ties, the Kremlin can suggest to the Russian audience that it convinced the United States to be more cooperative while making no concessions of its own.

But if the summit produces no progress or only adds to tensions, Moscow can blame Washington, asserting that the United States is just not ready to do the hard work needed to begin to mend the relationship. "It's not me, it's you."

Russia has used a variation on this approach to score diplomatic points in the past, making a proposal that casts Moscow as constructive and Washington, if it shoots the idea down, as the spoilsport, the side that is not genuinely seeking improvements.

In fact, Putin did it the last time he met face-to-face with Biden, 10 years ago, when Putin was the Russian prime minister and Biden the U.S. vice president.

Ten Years Gone

While Putin is often described as pragmatic when it comes to policy, and the Kremlin portrays him as a straightforward statesman, he "opened with a curveball," as The New York Times put it, when he met with Biden in Moscow on March 10, 2011.

Near the start of the meeting, before reporters were sent away, Putin made a surprise proposal to abolish visa requirements between Russia and the United States -- an idea that U.S. officials said he knew was unrealistic and that analysts said was for show.

Vladimir Putin taking part in the bilateral meeting at the Russian White House in Moscow on March 10, 2011.
Vladimir Putin taking part in the bilateral meeting at the Russian White House in Moscow on March 10, 2011.

"The Russians know full well, as do the Americans, that there are legal requirements set by Congress to be met for visa liberalization that the Russians have not yet achieved," Antony Blinken, who was then Biden's national-security adviser and is now secretary of state, said at the time.

State TV and pro-Kremlin media ate it up, though, and political analyst Dmitry Trenin, then as now the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Times that Putin's proposal appeared to have been aimed at dominating the news cycle. He described it as a "successful operation."

Biden's 2011 Moscow visit came at a high point in Russian-U.S. relations, weeks after the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty entered into force and nine months before Putin accused the United States of fomenting street protests led by Aleksei Navalny and others after parliamentary elections marred by evidence of fraud that December.

That Was Then

The June 16 summit is in Geneva. But even if it were held in Moscow, at least one of the events on Biden's agenda on his visit a decade ago would be hard to duplicate: A meeting with opposition figures.

Several of the attendees are not around: Opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin in February 2015, and Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master and staunch Putin critic, left Russia in 2013 for fear of politically motivated prosecution.

Vladimir Ryzhkov and Grigory Yavlinsky, prominent officials in the 1990s and longtime State Duma lawmakers, have been out of the lower house of parliament since Putin's first two terms as president, in 2000-08, and have been pushed further to the fringes as he has stepped up efforts to silence dissent.

Joe Biden (right) meets with opposition leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow on March 10, 2011.
Joe Biden (right) meets with opposition leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow on March 10, 2011.

Navalny, meanwhile, is currently the prime target of those efforts, which for now appear focused on the Duma elections coming up in September: He is in prison on what he says are absurd parole-violation charges after surviving a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin.

Three organizations that Navalny founded, including the nationwide network of offices he set up for an attempt to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential vote, before he was barred from the ballot, were declared "extremist" by a court on June 9.

Five days earlier, on Navalny's 45th birthday, Putin signed a bill barring members and supporters of "extremist" organizations from running for public office.

The current clampdown goes far beyond Navalny and his associates and supporters, however.

"Few would contest that the Russian regime has taken on a new character," with multiple developments showing "that the mechanisms of the political system in Russia have dramatically changed," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in a June 9 article.

In the eyes of the authorities, she wrote, "Everything is either pro-regime or anti-regime -- i.e., criminal."

'Bad For The Country'

The Duma elections are seen as a test of Putin and the unpopular but dominant United Russia party, a key element of his rule, and as a stage setter ahead of 2024, when Putin has the right -- after pushing through a constitutional amendment allowing it -- to run for a fifth term. He could then seek a sixth term in 2030, meaning that he could remain president until May 2036, when he will be 83 years old.

The removal of restrictions on Putin's time in office has made him "an eternal and static backdrop" to politics, the economy, and life itself in Russia for the foreseeable future, Stanovaya suggested. "He is conserving the system rather than developing it."

Rewind back to Biden's visit to Moscow 10 years ago, when Dmitry Medvedev was manning the Kremlin while Putin took the No. 2 spot to avoid violating the constitutional two-term limit that still exists for everyone but him and his former "tandem" partner.

When Biden was in Moscow, the March 2012 election was a year away, and it was unclear whether Putin would use it to return to the Kremlin. The announcement that he would -- which was one of the catalysts for the wave of protests led by Navalny, Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, and others -- was not to come until late September.

After the meeting with opposition politicians, participants said Biden had told them that Putin should not return to the presidency.

"At the end of the meeting, Biden said that in Putin's place he would not run for president in 2012," Nemtsov wrote in his blog, "because it would be bad for the country and for himself."

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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.

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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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