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The Week In Russia: Old Allies, New 'Best Friends'

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meetings with members of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and representatives of the international investment community on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 6.

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President Vladimir Putin misses out on the D-Day commemorations in Britain and France but takes center stage at the annual economic conference in his hometown. He also gets pandas and a pat on the back from Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but clouds loom over the St. Petersburg forum as U.S. diplomats stay away to protest the prosecution of American investor Michael Calvey.

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

With Allies Like This

If the wounded relationship between Moscow and the West ever heals, here’s something that might be a sign of its recovery: A Russian president getting through a Victory Day speech before the Red Square parade without hinting that the United States today, like Hitler’s Germany, is bent on world domination.

Or, say, a Russian official talking about D-Day without suggesting that the West is overstating its significance and understating – deliberately -- the Soviet role in the Allied victory.

Judging by the commentary coming from Russia amid the celebrations this year, those days may be far off – if they ever come.

In comments on June 5, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stopped short of saying something I have heard often in Russia, even/including from people who are far from jingoistic and who also say the war was won not thanks to Stalin but despite him: that the United States “waited to see who would win” before getting into the war in 1944.

But not very far short.

Russia pays tribute to the memory of the soldiers who died on the “second front” and their contribution to Germany’s defeat is “understood” but “certainly should not be exaggerated,” she said, adding that the D-Day landings in Normandy “did not play a fundamental role in the outcome” of the war.

The Nazi defeat “had already been predetermined as a result of Red Army victories” in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, among others, she said.

Who Won The War?

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the criticism a few steps further in a screed accusing the United States of pursuing “coercive diplomacy,” “American exceptionalism,” and “the law of the jungle.”

Accusing the West of making accusations it has not necessarily made, or that may have been made by individuals but not governments – a distinction often lost, sometimes seemingly deliberately, on the Russian state – he said that the Soviet Union is being cast as an aggressor in the war.

“The Nazi occupation that claimed tens of millions of lives is equated with the crimes of collaborators and with the liberating mission of the Red Army,” he wrote in an article in the Russian magazine International Affairs.

Lavrov did not cite examples of such accusations. In the past, Russian officials have sometimes done their own equating, conflating criticism of the Soviet Union’s postwar actions in Eastern Europe – and the continued repression of its own citizens – with criticism of its role in the war.

As for aggression: Outside Russia, the war is widely considered to have started in September 1939, when Germany and then the Soviet Union invaded Poland – later occupying the Baltic States -- after Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up a big chunk of Europe in a secret annex to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

In Russia, that episode is separated out and relegated to a historical no-man’s-land ahead of the Great Patriotic War, which is considered to have begun with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and ended with the Nazi surrender in May 1945.

Contrasting the contributions of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies to Hitler’s defeat has always been a thing in Russia, as has accusing the West of understating the former. Coincidentally or not, the comments came at the time of D-Day 75th anniversary ceremonies to which President Vladimir Putin – unlike in 2004 and 2014 – was not invited.

'Normandy Format'

Putin used his most recent appearance at the D-Day commemorations, in 2014, to beneficial effect for himself, at least. That outcome might have seemed unlikely going into gatherings with Western leaders weeks after Russia seized control of Crimea and supported militants who took – and still hold – parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A meeting with his French, German, and Ukrainian counterparts on the sidelines of the 70th anniversary ceremonies gave rise to the so-called Normandy Format for talks aimed at ending the war in the Donbas, which had not yet seen its bloodiest battles or the deaths of 298 airline passengers and crew when Flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile that July.

The conflict, which has killed some 13,000 people, has not ended – but the creation of the Normandy Format may have played into Moscow’s efforts to cast itself as a potential peacemaker in eastern Ukraine and part of the solution rather than what Kyiv calls it: the aggressor and part of the problem -- or all of it.

This time, instead of being on the sidelines of a distinctly Western get-together, Putin was at center stage at his own party and training his gaze in part to the east – first meeting with Xi Jinping in Moscow on June 5 and then hosting the Chinese president and other leaders at an annual economic summit in his hometown.

The intended message to the Allies, apparently: Fine, you focus on past glories – exaggerated ones, at that – while I look to the future and look after my country.

'Nyet Problem'

“I have plenty of things to do here,” Putin said when asked whether he was offended by the lack of an invitation to the D-Day ceremonies in Britain. “It’s no problem at all."

Putin’s motives for signaling “we’re just fine without you” may have been deepened by the fact that U.S. diplomats stayed away from St. Petersburg, citing the arrest and prosecution of Michael Calvey – an American who should be a poster boy for foreign investment and U.S.-Russian commercial ties.

Instead, Calvey – who founded the Moscow-based equity fund Baring Vostok Capital Partners a quarter-century ago -- is a poster boy for the pitfalls of doing business in Putin’s homeland.

U.S. investor Michael Calvey attends a court hearing in Moscow on April 12.
U.S. investor Michael Calvey attends a court hearing in Moscow on April 12.

​A spotlight was thrown on the St. Petersburg forum in the preceding weeks, when it emerged that Calvey was seeking to attend the St. Petersburg gathering – as he had many times in the past.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov added to speculation about the chances of that surreal development taking place – truly an “only-in-Russia” moment, but in the end a “not-even-in-Russia” one – by saying three days before its start that the Kremlin “would like to see Michael as one of the participants.”

Speaking English to state-funded RT television, Peskov called Calvey a “very trustful businessman” and the case “very unfortunate” – but added, as the Kremlin always does, that it was being pursued in “strict accordance with the law” and that that in Russia one “must follow the law.”

Calvey was a no-show on the first day of the forum. On the second day – shortly before a speech in which Putin lashed out at the United States and said that Russia is “continuing to work on improving the business climate” in order to ensure that “investors, including Chinese ones, feel the greatest comfort” – Calvey’s lawyer said he would not make it at all “for reasons beyond his control.”

Putin was not at the D-Day commemorations and the 75th anniversary Victory Day event is almost a year away. No matter, though: He tailored his “Washington-seeks-world-dominance” theme to his audience at the economic forum, accusing the United States of seeking to extend its “jurisdiction” across the globe and of fostering a trade system as dangerous as a “fight without rules.”

The U.S. dollar, he said, has “turned into an instrument of pressure…on the rest of the world.”

A little earlier, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika echoed the Kremlin by saying that the case against Calvey has been entirely legal but that a new “independent examination” would take place – a possible hint that the authorities could heed calls to end the criminal prosecution, which could end in a long prison term, and send the matter into arbitration as a commercial dispute.

But at least for now, the Kremlin’s message on Calvey was less “we’d like to see him” than “we can do without him -- and his country -- if necessary.”

START And Stop?

And Putin sent a similar signal in what emerged as the headline from his meeting at the forum with leaders of news agencies from several countries, including the United States, on June 6: If the United States does not want to extend New START, the only treaty limiting the former Cold War foes’ arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons, so be it.

“We don't have to extend it. The latest systems we have can guarantee Russia's security for quite a long period of time," Putin said.

“I’ll say unequivocally that we have surpassed our rivals in terms of hypersonic weapons," he added, reprising a series of saber-rattling remarks he has made in the past couple years but sparing his audience the details.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on June 6.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on June 6.

Putin’s message got a boost, if a superficial one, from Xi, who called him “my best friend” and presented a pair of pandas – Ru Yi and Ding Ding – that China is loaning Russia for 15 years for what was described as a joint research project.

In what seems like some sort of metaphor for Russia’s lopsided relationship with China, whose economy is nearly 10 times the size of Russia’s, state news agency TASS reported that the pandas will remain the property of the Chinese government “and their offspring, if any, will also belong to China.”

And Putin’s message at the forum was undermined by a warning from longtime former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who suggested that Calvey’s arrest in February was behind a doubling of capital flight from Russia, which he said reached $40 billion so far this year.

Shocked, Shocked

The arrests of Calvey and four colleagues – all of whom are still in jail, while Calvey was moved to house arrest in April – were “a shock for the economy.”

The economy is hardly in need of shocks. Two days before the forum, the World Bank cut its forecast for Russian GDP growth this year to 1.2 percent, which would be the slowest in three years.

More bad news for Putin came in the form of a Bloomberg article that said his “own government doesn’t believe” the pledges he made during his campaign for reelection last year can be fulfilled.

“Officials have analyzed the $400 billion spending program, dubbed the National Projects, and found that the majority of targets will be impossible to achieve before the end of Putin’s term in 2024, according to four people with knowledge of the matter,” Bloomberg reported.

Putin won more than 76 percent of the vote in the March 2018 election, according to the official results, but his poll ratings have declined since then amid concerns about the economy.

The most dramatic example so far is a May survey by state-funded pollster VTsIOM that found that public trust in Putin – the proportion of people naming Putin as a politician they would trust to address important matters of state – was 31.7 percent, its lowest level since 2006.

Magic Numbers

VTsIOM found a way to fix that, though. A few days after Peskov questioned the figures and said the Kremlin was “expecting an analysis” to clarify what they meant and how they could be accurate when Putin’s approval rating remains relatively high, at nearly 66 percent, VTsIOM released what it said were results from a poll in which the question was framed more directly: Do you trust Putin?

The answer: yes, in 72.3 percent of the cases.

Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission from 2007-16, was known to Kremlin opponents as the “the Magician” – a wry reference to the sometimes seemingly inexplicable vote-count numbers the state agency put out following elections that were marred by evidence of fraud benefiting allies of Putin.

Maybe it’s time for VTsIOM chief Valery Fyodorov to assume that moniker. Or maybe not, given the flip side of the higher trust rating: In the older poll, just 6.6 percent named Putin as a politician they do not trust, while the newer survey suggested that nearly one-quarter of the Russian population -- 23.7 percent – does not trust him.

Meanwhile, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, says the figure that should really cause concern in the Kremlin is not how many Russians tell pollsters whether they trust or do not trust Putin but the growing number who refuse to answer the question.

While the number refusing to say whether they approve of Putin is low and has changed little, Greene explains, the number who decline to respond on the more “emotional” matter of trust “has never been higher -- and the chasm between Russians’ hearts and minds is growing ever deeper.”

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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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