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The Week In Russia: Duels And Don'ts -- Salisbury, 'Steak,' and Siloviki Slipups

While Viktor Zolotov’s 19th-century talk of a duel and “military honor” may have been meant to put him on the moral high ground, it came across as a menacing mix of real, raw emotion and the halting diction of a nonactor reading from badly organized cue cards.

One of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies broke the Kremlin taboo on speaking Aleksei Navalny’s name – and vowed to make “mincemeat” out of him in a duel.

Two alleged GRU officers went on TV to explain why they were in Salisbury the day Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned, telling a story that critics said had more holes than the International Space Station.

And Putin stunned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a proposal to sign a World War II peace treaty before the year is out.

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


The name that shall not be spoken has been spoken – and then some.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been careful to avoid uttering the name of his most prominent critic for the last five years, referring unmistakably to Aleksei Navalny on numerous occasions without actually naming him – and much of the Kremlin administration appears to be in on the omerta, not least its main mouthpiece, Dmitry Peskov.

The taboo was suddenly shattered this week by one of Putin’s oldest and closest allies: Viktor Zolotov, his former bodyguard and now chief of the National Guard – an internal security force dubbed Putin’s personal praetorian guard by commentators – lashed out at Navalny in a remarkable rant posted on both his agency’s YouTube channel and its official website.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- who is now serving a 30-day jail sentence -- gestures in a courtroom in Moscow on August 27.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- who is now serving a 30-day jail sentence -- gestures in a courtroom in Moscow on August 27.

Challenging Navalny to a duel in the fighting form of his choice and vowing to quickly pound him into mincemeat – or “a nice juicy steak,” as some translations had it – Zolotov also called the opposition leader and a handful of other Putin critics “rotten, rusty, and decaying” people with “no morals” and “no country, no Fatherland.”

Zolotov wore a high, heavily adorned officer’s cap and the dress of his general’s rank. But the tirade was a gloves-off attack on Putin’s opponents – not just Navalny but also former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and, by extension, all those who have countered Putin or promoted an alternative to the Kremlin’s narrative during his nearly two-decade rule over Russia.

And while Zolotov’s 19th-century talk of a duel and “military honor” may have been meant to put him on the moral high ground, looking down at Navalny through the sight of an ivory-handled pistol, it came across as a menacing mix of real, raw emotion and the halting diction of a nonactor reading from badly organized cue cards.

The tirade was particularly startling because Putin, a longtime former KGB officer, has always sought to portray the fellow siloviki he has brought into top positions as a class above critics like Navalny, using their need to resort to street protests and other methods outside the Kremlin-dominated political system as evidence that they belong on the margins and should stay there, sidelined from discourse between state and society.

Parsing Putin’s Protector

Zolotov did the opposite, commentators said, stooping to take a swipe at Navalny – and in doing so abandoning the mantle of military honor that he was professing to defend. And he did so while the target of his tirade was in jail – held for 30 days over a January protest in a case supporters contend was used to keep him off the streets while Russia held local and regional elections on September 9.

Linguist Maksim Krongaus, who analyzed the six-minute video, said Zolotov shifted swiftly from “the noble language of the past” to “an absolutely – I won’t say gangster context, but a kind of street lingo.”

“In an instant, this high speech falls to the ground,” he told Current Time TV, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Zolotov apparently laid himself open to mockery, and critics on social media quickly moved in for the kill. The video spawned a slew of memes and acerbic responses, many of them challenging him to a one-on-one showdown in everything from breastfeeding and baking to swimming and tic-tac-toe.

Meanwhile, others looked for a motive. Some speculated that Zolotov was on his way out and seeking a way to save face, and some saw evidence of infighting in the ranks of the siloviki.

Putin in the past has publicly criticized security officials who take their closed-door disputes public, and rifts that break out from under the carpet have been seen as signs of his system of rule threatening to unravel.

While that seems far from imminent, Zolotov’s rant undercut Putin's talk of letting the courts, which he claims are independent, settle disputes.

The National Guard chief’s tough, ominous tone seems to suggest that, at least in the understanding of Putin’s former bodyguard and the man responsible for reining in protests, if a showdown between the Kremlin and its opponents does come, it will not be contested in courts or at the ballot box -- it will be fought on the street with firearms, knives, or bare fists.

There has been no public comment from Putin, and his spokesman’s remarks suggested a balancing act.

“Sometimes any possible methods should be employed in opposing shameless libel," Peskov said, but he added that Zolotov’s remarks were not cleared by Putin’s administration in advance.

Peskov also said he did not see Zolotov’s words as constituting a physical threat.

Um, OK. Figurative mincemeat, then.

Russia-watchers also saw evidence of a spat between rival security agencies in the developments surrounding the two men Britain suspects traveled to the English city of Salisbury and smeared a deadly nerve agent on Sergei Skripal’s front door in March, poisoning the former spy and his daughter and deepening the already severe strains in ties between Moscow and the West.

By some accounts, their public exposure in an interview on Russian television was punishment – of both the suspects themselves and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service -- for bungling a presumed plot to kill Skripal and for being found out.

Your Wish Is My Command

While Putin kept his silence on Zolotov, he spoke out about the Novichok case while hosting an economic forum in Vladivostok, saying that Russian authorities had “found” the two suspects and that there was “nothing criminal” about them. He said that Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are civilians – not officers of the GRU, as Britain alleges -- and urged them to come forward and tell their side of the story.

“That would be better for everyone,” Putin said.

Sure enough, two men with the same names and seemingly the same faces as those caught on a Gatwick airport security camera sat down just hours later – if the announced timing is accurate -- for a half-hour interview with state-funded TV station RT.

Suspects In Novichok Poisoning Case Say They Were In Salisbury "As Tourists"
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Before British Prime Minister Theresa May could say that the interview was full of “lies and blatant fabrications,” cybersleuths had spotted innumerable flaws in their explanation of why they were in Salisbury the day Skripal and his daughter were poisoned.

If the suspects’ story left many questions unanswered, here’s another: Does Putin care?

Over the past few years, Russian officials have spun numerous outlandish narratives about issues such as the war in Ukraine, chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the Novichok affair -- and have not blinked when faced by widespread doubt, dispute, and mockery.

Meanwhile, Putin’s comments about the case were not the only remarks he made in Vladivostok that were seen by some as trolling.

On stage alongside Shinzo Abe, Putin heard the Japanese prime minister suggest that the pace of movement toward a treaty formally ending World War II hostilities between Japan and Russia – which both claim a group of islands occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the war -- was too slow.

Apparently seeing an opening, Putin moved quickly to call Abe’s bluff.

'This Is Called Trolling'

"Shinzo said, 'Let's change our approaches.' Let's! Let's conclude a peace agreement…by the end of the year, without any preconditions," Putin said.

Putin’s offer – to end a seemingly intractable 73-year-old dispute in the relative blink of an eye -- was met with applause. But not from Abe.

He may have realized that what sounded like a win-win proposition might actually be a win for only one side, cementing Russia’s control over the islands and leaving Japan with little to show for it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vladivostok on September 10.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vladivostok on September 10.

There was no immediate response from Abe, but he made clear two days later that Tokyo, as before, wants a deal setting out possession of the islands before it will sign a peace pact.

“Of course, Japan’s stance is to resolve the territorial dispute and then conclude a peace treaty,” he said.

Commenting on Ekho Moskvy radio, former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Kunadze said he did not think Putin’s proposal was made in good faith.

"This is called trolling,” Kunadze said.

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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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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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