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The Week In Russia: Image And Influence Abroad, Coronavirus In The Cabinet

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive for global clout hit barriers in Prague and Damascus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive for global clout hit barriers in Prague and Damascus.

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The official number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia rose above 100,000, with deaths exceeding 1,000, and the prime minister tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s Syria “headache” persisted and a bitter dispute with the Czech Republic took a dramatic turn.

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

Prague Spring Chill

Russia has problems in the Middle East and Central Europe. The problems are vastly different in the two regions and from country to country, in terms of both nature and scale.

In Syria, for instance, Moscow is struggling with what may be the inability to exert substantial influence over a leader it has strongly and unflinchingly supported in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

In the Czech Republic, Russia has watched its image worsen amid bitter disputes over a statue in an out-of-the-way park and the name of the leafy square outside its sprawling embassy complex in Prague.

Arguably, though, these problems share a common root: President Vladimir Putin’s drive to increase Moscow’s influence on the global stage after its clout contracted substantially when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Aleksandr Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of its website, argued that the desire to boost Russia’s role – and ensure that any gains made over his 20-plus years in power do not slip away – were a major factor in Putin’s decision to give himself the option of seeking to stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

“In our opinion, one of the main reasons that prompted him to take this step was his fear of repeating the mistakes of perestroika, the fear of perestroika-2 that reigns among those in the Russian elite who consider the geopolitical defeat of Russia to be the main result of the change in the 1980s-'90s,” Baunov wrote in an editorial published on April 29.

Putin “sees the global status of Russia as his primary area of responsibility, and its restoration as his highest achievement,” he wrote.

Lately, though, those efforts have suffered setbacks.

In the Czech Republic, Putin’s perceived thirst for the restoration of Russia’s influence in the present and future seems to have run up against Moscow’s demands that Prague pay homage to the Soviet role in Nazi Germany’s World War II defeat – and against the Kremlin’s own reluctance to reckon with the fact that many people in the Czech Republic, and the wider region, see the postwar decades through a different, darker prism.

Prague waved goodbye to a statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev.
Prague waved goodbye to a statue of Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev.

A bronze statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev was removed from its pedestal in a small park far from the heart of Prague on April 3, months after the local district assembly voted to take it down.

Troops under Konev’s command retook most of Czechoslovakia from Nazi forces and entered Prague on May 9, 1945, after it had been at least partly liberated by resistance and anti-Soviet forces. He also commanded the troops that crushed the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary and helped build the Berlin Wall, and some historians say he helped plan the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.

Many Czechs view him a symbol of the decades of Soviet dominance after the war. Putin has at times acknowledged that millions of people in the former Warsaw Pact countries see the Soviet Union more as an occupier than as a liberator.

But in recent years and particularly ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat, he and other officials in Moscow have seemed determined not to let that bull – or elephant, as the Russian phrase has it – into the china shop of their narrative of the war and its aftermath.

Following the monument’s removal, masked assailants threw smoke bombs at the Czech Embassy in Moscow and Russia took or threatened symbolic reciprocal moves, opening a criminal case that has no force outside Russia and mulling naming a southern Moscow subway station after Konev instead of Prague.

Narratives And Nemtsov

Russia argues that dismantling the statue – erected in 1980, when Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe seemed fairly secure – violates a 1993 friendship treaty between Russia and the Czech Republic. As recently as April 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is awaiting a response from the Czech government on a proposal to begin a “dialogue” about the matter.

But the tension goes beyond the fate of a 40-year-old monument. On February 27, authorities in the same Prague district where the Konev monument stood renamed the square outside the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the vocal Putin foe and former Russian first deputy prime minister who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin on that date in 2015.

That raised the Kremlin’s ire and resulted in some geographical gymnastics by the embassy, which shifted its main address to a building far from the stately entrance on Boris Nemtsov Square – a gate with a display case featuring portraits of Putin, Lavrov, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

The newly renamed Boris Nemtsov Square is just in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague.
The newly renamed Boris Nemtsov Square is just in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague.

And the story of the countries’ suddenly more sour relationship took a dramatic turn when the Czech weekly Respekt reported that Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib and the district mayor who backed dismantling the Konev statue, Ondrej Kolar, had been singled out by Russian intelligence for poisoning with a deadly toxin.

Respekt cited security sources it did not identify as saying a suspected Russian intelligence officer had arrived in the Czech capital three weeks earlier on a diplomatic passport and with a suitcase containing ricin.

Russian officials have repeatedly ridiculed the report and dismissed it-- but have done so in ways that seem to fall short of a direct denial.

Lavrov, for example, described the overall thrust of the claim set out in the Respekt report, but added details that it did not include, and then asked: “Who in their right mind would agree and believe all these inventions?”

The answer to the question of who would believe the Respekt report might be different if not for incidents such as the fatal radioactive-polonium poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England in 2018.

Putin’s Assad Problem

In the Middle East, Putin has raised Russia’s profile in recent years by pursuing warmer ties with Saudi Arabia and providing powerful diplomatic and military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the nine-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and forced millions from their homes.

But Russia jeopardized the relationship with Riyadh in early March when it rejected a Saudi proposal for top oil producers in the OPEC+ group to cut output in a bid to push crude prices higher.

Putin then blamed Riyadh on the failure to agree, drawing a reprimand from the Saudi foreign minister, who said his statement was “fully devoid of truth” -- possibly the first time a senior official or diplomat from a non-Western country has publicly accused Putin of lying.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad light candles while visiting an Orthodox cathedral for Christmas in Damascus on January 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad light candles while visiting an Orthodox cathedral for Christmas in Damascus on January 7.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, where it launched a campaign of air strikes against Assad’s foes in 2015 and stepped up its presence on the ground, helping avert what might have been the Syrian president’s ouster, has doubtless made Moscow more of a force to be reckoned with the region.

But that clout has been clouded by persistent questions of how much influence Russia holds over Assad and whether it will ever be able – if it is willing – to push him into a political settlement.

Doing so would be a big win for Putin, easing strains the military campaign has put on the Russian budget and showing the world and the West that Russia can be what it has claimed to be in several wars: a peacemaker.

An April 28 report from Bloomberg News emphasized what one Russia analyst of Mideast affairs called the Kremlin’s Syria “headache.”

Citing several reports in Kremlin-linked publications that featured criticism of Assad, the Bloomberg article said that Putin was showing his impatience with a Syrian president “who isn’t proving as grateful for being kept in power by Russian intervention in his country’s brutal civil war as the Kremlin leader needs him to be.”

“Consumed at home by the twin shocks of collapsing oil prices and the coronavirus epidemic, and eager to wrap up his Syrian military adventure by declaring victory, Putin is insisting that Assad show more flexibility in talks with the Syrian opposition on a political settlement to end the nearly decade-long conflict,” it said.

The article cited four unnamed people it said were “familiar with Kremlin deliberations on the matter.”

“The Kremlin needs to get rid of the Syrian headache,” it quoted Aleksandr Shumilin, a former Russian diplomat who runs the Europe-Middle East Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying. “The problem is with one person -- Assad -- and his entourage.”

COVID In The Cabinet

One way that Putin may have hoped to raise Moscow’s global profile was to avoid severe consequences from the coronavirus pandemic: As it spread around the world and hard in countries such as Spain and Italy, there were signs that the Kremlin may have believed Russia would largely be spared.

That did not work out, and a pair of developments that occurred on April 30 seemed to drive that fact home.

In the morning, when Russia updates its COVID-19 tallies, the official number of confirmed cases pushed past 100,000 and deaths from the disease exceeded 1,000 – even as questions about the accuracy of the state’s figures persist.

On that evening, Prime Minister Mishustin announced that he had tested positive and would self-isolate. A spokesman said he would be hospitalized.

Worldwide, Mishustin, 54, is one of the highest officials to contract COVID-19. In Russia, his positive test is a reminder of the big plans that Putin had for this spring – and that have been put on hold by the coronavirus.

Putin appointed Mishustin to replace longtime Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom he dismissed hours after a January 15 state-of-the-nation speech in which he announced plans for constitutional amendments changing the power structure in Russia. The timing means that Mishustin’s name, not widely known until that day, is associated with those plans.

On March 10, eight days after Russia recorded its first coronavirus case and nine days before the first reported death, Putin gave his backing to a newly revealed proposed amendment that would allow him to run for president in 2024 and again in 2030, potentially extending his time in office until 2036.

The constitutional amendments were to have been given a seal of public approval in a nationwide vote on April 22. But that vote – and a May 9 military parade in Red Square – have been postponed due to COVID-19.

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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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