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The Week In Russia: Georgia, The G20, And 'All This Fuss About Spies'


A Russian tourist soaks up the sun on a beach in Batumi amid reports of danger for Russians in Georgia.

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"Cynical, aggressive, daft" -- that's one of the damning reviews from critics who panned Vladimir Putin's move to prevent Russians from traveling to Georgia this summer. But Putin scored a long meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and, in an interview with the Financial Times, gave no ground on issues like the Skripal poisoning and the desire for change in his own country.

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

I Know What You Didn't Do This Summer

"Georgia should be your next adventure," an ad on the National Geographic website advises.

Vladimir Putin disagrees -- at least, he does if you're Russian. A day after clashes between police and protesters left 100 people injured in Tbilisi, Putin signed a decree barring Russian airlines from flying passengers to Georgia as of July 8, and a ban on Georgian airlines doing the same swiftly followed.

The Kremlin described the flight ban as a security measure, saying it was needed to protect Russians from a hostile environment and could be lifted "only when the situation in Georgia is normalized and there is not the slightest threat to the security of our citizens." To underscore the point, Putin ordered the Foreign Ministry to help those Russians in Georgia get out as fast as possible.

There are a lot of them -- more than 1.6 million Russians visited Georgia in 2018, amid growing in interest in a former Soviet republic long known for its wine, food, and friendly atmosphere -- and there was little sign that they were in a rush to leave.

One Russian tourist who spoke to Current Time in Tbilisi said that, before traveling, she had asked on social media whether it was safe and heard nothing to deter her. "Those who had visited Georgia were saying that it's good here. They had a nice trip and enjoyed the khinkali," she said, referring to traditional Georgian dumplings.

Russian Tourists In Georgia Unfazed By Putin's Flight Ban
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Rooted deeply in Tbilisi's aspirations to join NATO and integrate more closely with the West, tension between Russia and Georgia persists nearly a decade after their five-day war in August 2008, when Russian forces drove deep into the country and Moscow strengthened both its support for and its influence over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But, like that war, the incident that sparked the protests outside parliament in Tbilisi had little to do with ordinary citizens of either country. The spark was anger over the fact that a Russian State Duma deputy -- a little-known Communist named Sergei Gavrilov -- sat in the chair of the speaker of Georgia's parliament during a conference of lawmakers from Orthodox Christian countries.

Bombing Voronezh

Critics of the flight ban saw it as disproportionate, misguided, and self-defeating: a fresh example of "bombing Voronezh" -- the term some genius coined to describe those awkward moments when the Russian government takes aim at the West but ends up seeming to shoot itself, or its own citizens, in the foot.

"The fact that Putin is interfering is doing more harm to Russians than to Georgians," a Russian man who did not give his name told Current Time, a Russian-language channel led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

According to The Bell, Russian airlines stand to lose 3 billion rubles ($48 million) as a result of the flight ban, which the media outlet said would force 155,000 Russians to return their tickets.

Putin could call it off, of course -- but that would probably only add to the impression that he overreacted in the first place.

Plus, he may not care much about spoiling some summer vacation plans. A Venn diagram might show some convergence between Russians with the money and mindset to travel to Georgia -- most of whom would fall somewhere between those with villas abroad and those who cannot afford to go abroad at all -- and Russians hoping for political change in their own country.

In an interview with the Financial Times that was published on June 28, Putin -- who in mid-August will have been president or prime minister for 20 years and is not far into a fourth Kremlin term that could be his last -- suggested that political change was not on his agenda.

Prefacing a triumphant declaration that "the so-called liberal idea…has outlived its purpose," Putin answered a question about how long Russia could "remain immune" to the kind of backlash against the establishment that he said brought Donald Trump to power, the Russian leader suggested that the main potential causes of public dissatisfaction or unrest are economic, not political.

Critical But Stable?

The Soviet Union collapsed because "the shops were empty, and the people lost the intrinsic desire to preserve the state," he said -- though later he implied something close to the opposite, saying the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. was decided at the top and lamenting that "nobody asked the people."

Using the word "stable" 18 times -- to describe Russia's economy, its role in the Middle East, and "traditional values," among other things -- Putin said that "one thing we must do in Russia is never forget that the purpose of the operation and existence of any government is to create a stable, normal, safe, and predictable life for the people and to work towards a better future."

And while critics pointed to the decree banning flights to Georgia as a sign of a widening rift between Putin's ruling circle and ordinary Russians, he suggested that the "gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people" is a monumental problem in the United States and Europe but not in Russia, at least for now.

The Financial Times interview put Putin in the headlines on a day – the first day of a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Osaka, Japan -- that might have been dominated by Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. And he used it both to thrust himself into the spotlight and signal firm stances -- or repeat assertions he has repeatedly repeated, in some cases -- rather than to suggest anything new.

Putin played variations on themes going back as far as the Soviet collapse of 1991 and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty a decade later, which he suggested was the original sin behind global security fears and the threat of new nuclear arms race today.

'Did Someone Die?'

He reiterated Russian suggestions that the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which documented "sweeping and systematic" interference by the Russian government in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, had found no such evidence.

Putin also weighed in on issues as broad as liberalism and as specific as the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, with the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok in March 2018.

Speaking about what Western leaders say was the first military-grade nerve-agent attack on European soil in over 70 years, in remarks published in a top British newspaper hours ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Putin said that the Skripal poisoning and "all this fuss about spies and counterspies...is not worth five kopeks."

Reminded that one person was killed after apparently randomly coming in contact with the Novichok -- though the victim was a woman, not the "gentleman who had a drug problem" described by the FT editor who conducted the interview -- Putin suggested he was unaware of that, asking, "Did someone die?"

He repeated a denial of Russian involvement -- and a statement that "traitors must be punished."

Merkel And Trump

Analysts say one of Putin's main foreign-policy goals is to sow divisions in the West. In the interview, he used the issue of migration to badmouth German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- saying she made a "cardinal mistake" by adopting a liberal policy on immigration from the Middle East -- and to cozy up to Trump ahead of their closely watched meeting.

Trump's calls for a wall on the Mexican border might be "going too far," Putin said, but "he had to do something about the huge inflow of migrants and narcotics."

"He is at least looking for a solution," Putin said, adding that "ordinary Americans, they look at this and say, 'Good for him, at least he is doing something.'"

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28.

As for the meeting itself, it seems likely that Putin will see it as a success.

While there was no sign of a breakthrough on arms control or any of the other contentious issues they addressed, a brief White House readout of the 80-minute meeting said "both leaders agreed that improved relations between the United States and Russia was in each countries' mutual interest and the interest of the world" -- hardly thrilling words, but ones the Kremlin likes to hear.

'Don't Meddle'

An exchange at the start of the talks seemed to play into Putin's hands and support his narrative about the 2016 U.S. vote: When a reporter asked Trump whether he would warn Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election, the president replied, "Of course," and then turned to Putin and sardonically said, "Don't meddle in the election." He then repeated the request, and Putin laughed.

That a meeting was held at all was a victory of sorts for Putin -- or at least was touted as one by Russian state TV.

The Rossia channel pointed out that when Trump canceled a sit-down meeting with Putin at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires late last fall he cited the fact that 24 Ukrainian seamen seized by Russian forces near Crimea days earlier had not been returned home.

Seven months later, the Ukrainians remain jailed in Russia, where they face trial and up to six years in prison if convicted on border violation charges.

About

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by RFE/RL's News Editor Steve Gutterman.

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