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The Week In Russia: Martyrdom, Nuclear War, And Falling Ratings

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton in Moscow.

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Vladimir Putin told Russians they will go to heaven as “martyrs” if the country is destroyed in a nuclear war, and warned of a new “arms race” if the United States abandons key treaties. The Russian president got bad news on the home front, with a trusted ally issuing a grim economic forecast and a poll putting his approval rating close to an all-time low.

Meanwhile, a Crimean film director who is struggling to recover after a 145-day hunger strike in a Russian prison was awarded the Sakharov Prize, and a prominent Russian director faces trial.

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


In several days of diplomacy dominated by talk of weapons and war, the most striking words came from Vladimir Putin, who said that Russians will “go to heaven as martyrs” in the event of a catastrophic nuclear conflict with the West. Citizens of the “aggressor” country, he added, “would just croak because they wouldn’t even have time to repent.”

If Putin’s promise of heaven was meant to reassure Russians, a hail of comment on social media and in real life suggested that for some, the effect was the exact opposite.

“He’s not afraid -- but we are,” blogger SerpomPo wrote, expressing particular concern about Putin’s claim that Russian citizens have a “predisposition…to give their lives for the fatherland.”

“Everybody to heaven!” was how one bitterly sarcastic meme summed it up, while commentator Viktor Shenderovich said on Ekho Mosvy radio: “I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to live.”

Dmitry Bykov
Dmitry Bykov

Standing before a backdrop of blue skies and cottony clouds on independent Dozhd TV, satirist and Kremlin critic Dmitry Bykov read out a short verse in which he said he would prefer to go to hell, not heaven, but “on the condition that Putin won’t be there.”

Likening Putin’s words to a “jihadist formula,” liberal opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky suggested it was a highly irresponsible statement coming from a leader who, as president of a nuclear-armed nation, has “every opportunity to send us all to heaven in an instant.”

The mocking memes and outraged responses fit in with long-standing suspicions among some Russians that Putin sees citizens of his country not as individuals he should serve but as subjects whose main purpose is to serve the state -- to the point of willingly dying in a nuclear war.

Critics point to past statements as evidence of this upside-down relationship between the Russian public and Russia’s top public servant, including Putin’s suggestion in 2013 that gay couples are less than patriotic because they “don’t produce children” and a remark in which he indicated that a fire that killed 60 people at a Siberian shopping mall – many of them children trapped in a movie theater -- was bad for the country’s “demographics.”

Several posts included the phrase Rai Nash! (Heaven is Ours!) -- a play on Krymnash (Crimea is ours), a sardonic term used to mock the jingoistic outburst that followed Russia’s takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014.

Approval Wanes

Russia’s seizure of Crimea led to a surge in public support for Putin, whose approval rating stood at 64 percent in 2013 -- the lowest since 2000, his first year in office -- but shot up to 88 percent in 2014 and remained at that level in 2015, according to the independent Levada Center polling organization.

This month, approval is down to 66 percent, according to the latest Levada poll -- the lowest since 2013. And the proportion of Russians voicing disapproval was 33 percent, the highest since 2013.

While the Kremlin professes not to pay much attention to Putin’s ratings, the decline has led to speculation that he might do something drastic -- something comparable to the takeover of Crimea -- to push the numbers back up.

Aleksei Kudrin
Aleksei Kudrin

Worse Than We Thought

There’s certainly little evidence that the economy could give Putin a boost in the near future.

The government has forecast that economic growth will contract to 1.3 percent in 2019, from an expected 1.8 percent this year. But Aleksei Kudrin, whose 11-year stint as finance minister included the boom times of oil-fueled annual double-digit growth during Putin’s first two terms, in 2000-2008, said this week that gross domestic product may expand “considerably” less than 1 percent.

“Unfortunately, the deceleration in growth will be sharper than expected by the government,” Kudrin, a fiscal conservative who has been passed over repeatedly for the prime minister’s post and now heads the Audit Chamber, told Bloomberg News in an interview.

Putin’s comments on nuclear weapons and nuclear war may have been meant to seem explosive. After years of anti-Western propaganda, condemning a putative “aggressor” to nonexistence with no chance of redemption might play pretty well with a segment of his domestic audience.

Six days later -- after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to abandon the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and John Bolton delivered the message in person -- Putin followed up with a warning that if the United States deploys currently-banned missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to target the host countries with its own warheads.

Treaty Me Right

In both cases, Putin’s rhetoric probably hid a softer message for the West than it might have seemed on the surface.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared eager to make that clear when he told reporters that that when Putin said Russia would use its nuclear weapons only in response to an incoming attack -- and not fire first -- he meant just that.

Russia “will never be the first to attack anyone” but will respond with devastating force if attacked, Peskov told reporters who asked about Putin’s comments. “This is the key idea, which is important to understand. All the rest is an allegory."

And when Putin spoke of Trump’s stated intention of abandoning the INF treaty, he seemed careful to indicate that a Russian “mirror response” would come not when Washington pulls out of the treaty but rather when -- and if -- it deploys new missiles in Europe in the wake of its withdrawal.

Moscow’s fears on that score are well-founded, Russian analyst Aleksei Arbatov, a negotiator of the 1994 START I treaty, suggested in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center.

New U.S. deployments of intermediate-range missiles in Europe could “force Moscow to commit significant resources to increasing the survivability of its nuclear forces and their control systems…at a time when Russia’s economic situation is necessitating defense cuts,” he wrote.

But while Putin and others in his ruling elite have warned against a U.S. pullout from the INF, several arms control experts have argued that at least at this point, the move may be far more advantageous for Russia than for the United States.

End Of New START?

They point out that it would free Moscow from the treaty’s constraints, which Western nations say Russia is flouting by deploying a missile in violation, while allowing it to blame Washington for the demise of a landmark pact that remains popular in Europe.

In his comments at talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on October 24, Putin suggested he may be more concerned with the future of the New START treaty -- which put caps on long-range nuclear arsenals and is due to expire in 2021 -- than the fate of the INF.

Putin lamented the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002 -- back in his first term, when George W. Bush was in office. Now the INF is under threat, he said, and added that “the fate of New START is unclear.”

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani announces the winner of the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg on October 25, 2018.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani announces the winner of the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg on October 25, 2018.

Sakharov, Sentsov, Serebrennikov

In other news this week, one of Russia’s best-known prisoners won an award named after one of the Soviet Union’s best-known dissidents -- the late physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Oleh Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director condemned to 20 years in prison in Russia after opposing its takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Not all directors facing the prospect of years behind bars in Russia on criminal charges that Kremlin critics say are politically motivated are Ukrainian, however.

Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent Russian theater and film director who has been under house arrest in Moscow for over a year, could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if he is convicted of embezzlement by a court that postponed his trial until November 7 at a hearing this week.

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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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