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The Week In Russia: Meet The New Boss

Russian President Vladimir Putin Direct Line call-in show this year was not much different from previous years, as he speaks here at the 2017 version.
Russian President Vladimir Putin Direct Line call-in show this year was not much different from previous years, as he speaks here at the 2017 version.

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President Vladimir Putin held a ho-hum "conversation" with the Russian people a month into his new term, and Russia struggled not to be sidelined from the high-stakes diplomacy over North Korea.

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

Putin just started a new term, but there is an air of same old, same old to the annual Direct Line call-in show he conducted on June 7, exactly one month after his inauguration.

It was the 16th time Putin has held the marathon event, and he went a little longer than last year -- more than four hours fielding questions sent from across Russia -- from a truck cab to a struggling town near the Chinese frontier -- and filtered through a selection process to smooth the rough edges.

Sometimes it seemed like he was just ticking the boxes.

Upbeat assessment of Russia's economic prospects, with some caveats thrown in? Check.

Accusations that the West is seeking to "contain" his country and thwart its progress? Check.

Bid to drive a wedge between the European Union and the United States? Check.

Orders to regional governors to deal with complaints from constituents? Check.

Studious note-taking, soothing words for ordinary Russians, stark warnings for Ukraine? Check, check, check.

It was all there -- and it’s all been there before.

Look Before You Leap

Still, there was a glittering nugget or two in the dross -- including Putin's telling response to this question: "What do you do when you don't know what to do?"

After some hesitation, Putin said: "You know, motorists have a rule: 'If you're not sure, don't pass.' The price of a mistake is very high for people engaged in my kind of activity."

Perhaps more than the piece of advice he said he would pass on from his father to his grandchildren -- "Don't lie" -- that seemed like an honest description of Putin's approach to big decisions. Most of the time.

The "look before you leap" principle can be discerned behind Putin’s actions -- or lack of action -- on issues ranging from the state's treatment of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria.

Over nearly a decade of confrontation with Navalny, the authorities have jailed him briefly many times but have refrained from handing him a long prison term -- possibly because Putin fears that would only bring one of his harshest critics more followers.

And before launching air strikes and stepping up Russia's ground operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, turning the tide of the war and increasing Moscow's clout in the region, it seems likely that Putin decided in advance that the pros outweighed the cons.

A Mess In Ukraine?

But despite his KGB experience and reputation as a competent tactician, if not a great strategist, Putin sometimes seems to shoot first and only later ask himself the question: Should I have held my fire?

The trajectory of Russia's intervention in Ukraine, and its messy results, suggest that in this case Putin the motorist pulled out to pass, saw another car bearing down at high speed, and pulled back into his own lane.

Putin driving the first truck over the Kerch Bridge to Crimea.
Putin driving the first truck over the Kerch Bridge to Crimea.

The maneuver left Russia with a stranglehold on Crimea that seems unlikely to be broken for decades, if ever, and with a measure of influence on Ukraine through the armed separatists it backs in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

But that is far short of what Putin seemed at one point to covet -- control over Ukraine, or at least a huge southern swath that he took for a while to calling Novorossia: New Russia.

Putin’s moves also brought successive rounds of Western sanctions on Russia, turned Moscow into a common enemy for many citizens and political factions in Ukraine, and helped start a war that -- now in its fifth year -- has killed more than 10,300 people.

A fresh bid for elusive progress in winding down that war is scheduled for June 11 in Berlin, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to meet with his counterparts from Ukraine, France, and Germany -- the mediators of a 2015 Minsk peace deal that decreased fighting but failed to end it and set out a political-settlement plan that has gone largely unfulfilled.

There have been few signs pointing to a breakthrough, however, and despite his promise that Russia "will do everything we can to resolve [the conflict] within the framework of the Minsk process," Putin's remarks on Ukraine during the Direct Line show seem unlikely to increase the chances of progress.

He accused the Ukrainian governnent of "robbing its people" and warned that -- answering a question from a Russian writer who is an adviser to the separatists' leader in Donetsk -- warned that if Kyiv's forces mount an offensive in eastern Ukraine while Russia is hosting the June 14-July 15 soccer World Cup, "it will have very serious consequences for Ukrainian statehood."

Hosting the World Cup will thrust Russia into the global spotlight and seems certain to improve Putin's standing -- at least temporarily -- if it goes well.

Worries About Kim-Trump Summit

Meanwhile, though, Russia is scrambling to stay onstage amid preparations for an event that has greater geopolitical ramifications -- a June 12 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that would be the first such meeting since the Korean War.

Lavrov met with Kim in North Korea on May 31 and passed along an invitation for him to visit Russia, but no date has been set and it is not clear whether Kim has agreed to make the trip.

Sergei Lavrov rushed to North Korea after the Kim-Trump summit seemed set -- his first visit to Pyongyang in nearly a decade.
Sergei Lavrov rushed to North Korea after the Kim-Trump summit seemed set -- his first visit to Pyongyang in nearly a decade.

In an interview with a Chinese state broadcaster aired on June 6, Putin welcomed plans for the talks and praised Trump for the "courageous and mature" decision to meet with Kim.

But beneath the show of support, Russia may have mixed feelings about the meeting -- at best.

The Kremlin fears "the prospect of a solution of the North Korea missile and nuclear issue in a strictly bilateral format" between the United States and North Korea, or the two together with South Korea, Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in an article for

"This would threaten not only to clearly devalue...the narrative of the international role of Russia as a global great power, which is very important to the Kremlin, but also to create new and not very Russia-friendly...formats for the provision of security in East Asia, in which the United States and American security guarantees would play the key role," he wrote.

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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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