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The Week In Russia: Novichok Charges, The Putin Show, And Final Farewells

A handout photo of the two men whom London accuses of being Russian intelligence officers who traveled to the English town of Salisbury to poison former spy Sergei Skripal.
A handout photo of the two men whom London accuses of being Russian intelligence officers who traveled to the English town of Salisbury to poison former spy Sergei Skripal.

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Britain named, charged, and published photographs of the two alleged Russian military intelligence officers it says traveled to England on a mission to kill an ex-spy with a Novichok nerve agent. Iconic crooner Iosif Kobzon and Russia-backed separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko were buried, and President Vladimir Putin was lionized in a lavish and fawning prime-time program on state TV.

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

Risky Business

For anyone familiar with the story of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko's agonizing death 12 years ago, the accusation had a familiar ring: On September 6, British authorities announced charges against two Russians they believe made their way from Moscow to the sleepy city of Salisbury and smeared a Soviet-designed nerve agent known as Novichok on the door of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal's home in March. With intent to kill.

Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament her government has concluded the men are officers of Russia's military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and that this was no rogue operation but a mission "almost certainly approved outside the GRU, at a senior level of the Russian state."

Russia's 'Obfuscation And Lies': May Accuses Kremlin After Novichok Charges
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May did not mention Vladimir Putin by name, but Security Minister Ben Wallace said on September 7 that Putin "ultimately" bears responsibility because "he is president of the Russian Federation and it is his government that controls, funds, and directs the military intelligence."

The charges led to a new showing of Western unity. But in some ways, putting names and faces to the British accusation will change nothing.

Russia will continue to deny involvement, as Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made clear by questioning the Gatwick Airport security-camera evidence and making the straight-faced remark that the names and the faces in the photographs "mean nothing to us."

Zakharova's comments echoed Russian statements about a host of allegations that are seen as airtight by Western officials, such as meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and playing a major role in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014 -- and even involvement in the war there.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats and state media kicked into gear with a plethora of remarks, reports and tweets mocking the British announcement and muddying the waters for the world audience.

Facing Western wrath at the UN Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya decried what he called "baseless allegations" and said that "the only winner in this theater of the absurd" is fashion company Nina Ricci – a reference to evidence that the attackers brought the deadly nerve agent into Britain in a fake perfume bottle.

But some commentators said Russia's mockery masked concern – or should, at least.

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote that May's public accusation was "the latest in a series of black eyes" for the GRU.

Putin "should be as concerned as Josef Stalin was in the 1930s about the service's excessive appetite for risk," Bershidsky wrote, adding: "If, like Stalin in 1934, Putin is interested in deniability, he's not getting it with the swashbuckling GRU."

However, he acknowledged that it may not be that simple, writing that, if Putin's "real interest is in enhancing his reputation as a fearsome enemy," then he "should be fine with the publicity the military intelligence service is getting -- but only up to a point."

'Can't Fake That'

If Putin wants to come across abroad as a fearsome enemy, he seems equally eager to be seen as an unflagging friend and protector of the Russian people – one who "loves children" and "loves people in general."

That's the word from his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and one of many messages of praise for Putin sent to the prime-time audience of a reverential hour-long show broadcast on state-run Rossia television on September 2.

Praising Putin: Russian TV Ramps Up Adulation
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"He has a very human, sincere attitude toward children," Vladimir Solovyov, the host of what was billed as a weekly show, said of Putin. "You can't fake that."

Talk of love for children harked back to another Vladimir -- Lenin -- who was sometimes called "grandpa." So did the phrase "humane human," which Peskov used to describe Putin and Solovyov said was associated with the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.

It was Russia's women who were the target of Putin's charm offensive four days earlier, when he made an unusual televised address to announce a proposed change in pension-reform legislation that has sparked protests.

"We have a special, caring attitude toward women in our country," said Putin, explaining why the retirement age for women should be increased by five years and not eight, as set out in the bill making its way through parliament to his desk.

Since Putin dominates Russian politics and the ruling United Russia party controls the legislature, his proposal is highly likely to be in the pension-reform bill when it reaches his desk.

Kremlin Jitters

But it has done little to quell public distaste for the pension reform that critics say means more Russians will die before they retire.

After all, a five-year increase is what the bill proposed for men from the start -- making the initial call for an eight-year hike for women look like what some analysts say is a typical move by Putin's Russia in its dealings with the West: Put a big rock in the road at the start, then shove it aside and claim you've made a big concession in the name of compromise.

Putin had remained distant from the pension-reform plan until the speech, letting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government take the heat all summer over an initiative that a July poll by the Levada Center found was opposed by nearly nine out of 10 Russians.

Not Impressed: Russians Respond To Putin's Pension Changes
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Putin's grip on power seems solid. But four months into a six-year term that could be his last, both the pension speech and the state TV show appear to reflect pangs of concern in the Kremlin about the popularity of the president, United Russia, and the rest of the ruling apparatus -- particularly ahead of local elections that are being held across the country on September 9.

Another July poll, also conducted by Levada, put Putin's approval rating at 67 percent -- the lowest in 4 ½ years.

Four Funerals

For all their disputes, Russia and the United States sometimes seem subject to a kind of eerie mirror effect, with events in both countries reflecting their similarities and differences.

That effect was in effect over the past week or so, with high-profile funerals held for prominent figures in both countries.

The United States said farewell to Senator John McCain -- a decorated veteran who endured torture in Vietnam and an influential lawmaker who was tough on Russia and was widely seen as upholding the country's honor -- and singer Aretha Franklin, the "queen of soul" who President Barack Obama once said transformed hardship and sorrow "into something full of beauty and vitality and hope."

In Russia, the iconic singer who was buried was crooner Iosif Kobzon, the toupée-topped "Soviet Sinatra" who was an indefatigable fixture of gala concerts for decades and was also known for his efforts to negotiate the release of hostages and prisoners of war in post-Soviet Russia.

Like a number of artists and cultural figures, he became a loyal part of Putin's political system by securing a seat in parliament with the ruling United Russia party.

As the Associated Press obituary put it: "His devotion to the Communist party and a repertoire of patriotic songs about the heroic achievements of the Soviet people helped him become one of the most successful performers of the Soviet era…. But to generations of Soviet dissidents and rock music fans, Kobzon symbolized the omnipresent Communist propaganda that contradicted the idea of artistic expression free from censorship and government control."

Plus, some found him just plain poshly -- Russian for tacky.

McCain was an advocate of sanctions against Russia, and Kobzon was a target. Dogged by accusations of involvement in the Russian underworld, he had a U.S. visa revoked in 1995 over alleged criminal ties. Twenty years later, after Russia's seizure of Crimea, he was hit with sanctions by the European Union, which accused him of "undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

At the funeral in Moscow on September 2, Putin sat beside the singer's widow.

Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who died in a bomb attack in Donetsk on August 31.
Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who died in a bomb attack in Donetsk on August 31.

On the same day, a funeral ceremony was held in Donetsk for Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of Russia-backed separatists who hold the eastern Ukrainian city and part of the surrounding province.

Zakharchenko was killed by a bomb at a café on August 31, in what Putin called a "vile murder."

His killing generated theories about a culprit and a potential motive, but there was no immediate sign of a shift in the situation in eastern Ukraine. Since Russia fomented separatism following the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, more than 10,300 people have been killed in the war between the Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv's forces.

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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About This Newsletter

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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