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The Week In Russia: Putin's Long (Blame) Game And The Moscow Protests

Putin's time: He was tapped to be prime minister by Boris Yeltsin 20 years ago and has been in power ever since.
Putin's time: He was tapped to be prime minister by Boris Yeltsin 20 years ago and has been in power ever since.

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Blaming the West has long been a go-to strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was tapped to be prime minister by Boris Yeltsin 20 years ago and has been in power ever since. Amid a tense summer showdown with opponents and ordinary citizens over elections in Moscow, he has not publicly pointed the finger at foreign forces -- but his government has.

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

Who Is To Blame?

As persistent protests and a startling state clampdown put the streets of Moscow in news around the world, with images of police beating demonstrators and bystanders as they detained more than 1,000 people on two straight Saturdays, President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment publicly on an issue that could shape Russian politics for years to come.

When and if he does, the record suggests he will find someone to blame outside the country, or at least outside the Kremlin. It’s a go-to strategy for Putin, who has now held power as president or prime minister for 20 years.

While he did not mark the anniversary publicly, August 9, 1999, was the day Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, picked Putin as premier and as his chosen successor -- the man he said would lead “those who are to renew Great Russia in the new 21st century.”

Putin’s aides, allies, and backers give him a big chunk of the credit for what’s gone right on his long watch: the oil-fueled economic boom of his first two terms, in 2000-08, for instance, and a partial reversal of the post-Soviet shrinkage of Russia’s role on the world stage -- thanks in part to a military campaign in Syria that has, like many other actions abroad since he came to power, both raised Moscow’s profile and opened it up for criticism.

Vyacheslav Volodin, long Putin’s chief domestic-policy adviser and now State Duma speaker, said in 2014 that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”

And Patriarch Kirill, chief of the Russian Orthodox Church – an institution whose post-Soviet resurgence has been both bolstered and undermined by its alliance with the state – said during Putin’s 2012 election campaign that the years of his rule were a “miracle of God.”

For the bad things, though, Putin’s default is to deflect blame, it seems.

Washington and the West are often the target, repeatedly accused by Putin of seeking to encircle Russia, restrain it, and hold it back, confounding its recovery from the deep damage done during the Soviet era.

'A Classic Tirade'

It’s a theme Putin has returned to many times -- such as when he treated U.S. President Barack Obama, at their first meeting -- in Moscow in 2009 -- to what The New York Times later described as “a classic tirade…about all the ways that the United States had mistreated Moscow.”

Putin had lashed out before a broader audience in 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, denouncing the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflict” and accusing it of ignoring borders and violating international law – things Russia would later be charged with over its seizure of Crimea and role in the war in eastern Ukraine.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin denounced the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflict.”
At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin denounced the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflict.”

Putin reprised some of what he has seemed to suggest was a mix of reason and barely contained rage in his annual address to the nation in 2018, accusing the United States of fueling an “arms race” by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and then ignoring his warnings that Russia would have to respond.

“So listen to us now,” he said, before listing a number of weapons he said Russia was developing or deploying. He did not mention the missile that the United States and NATO say Moscow has developed and deployed in violation of another major arms-control pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, prompting Washington to abandon the agreement.

Putin has also laid blame at the West’s door for occurrences inside Russia that have threatened to undermine his authority: from terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus to protests against him in the heart of Moscow.

Early in the surge of protests in 2011-12, which were stoked by evidence of election fraud and dismay at his decision to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving a “signal” to Kremlin opponents to hit the streets.

And while he has not weighed in on the new wave of protests, held mostly in Moscow by citizens who are angry because the authorities have barred several independent candidates from the ballot in a September 8 election of the city’s legislative assembly, his government has taken several steps to blame the West.

After the U.S. Embassy posted an ordinary warning to Americans about the August 3 protest in Moscow, noting that a “heavy police presence” was expected an including a map apparently copied from a Facebook page of the organizers, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the embassy of meddling in Russia’s affairs.

Map Flap

On August 9, the Foreign Ministry said it had summoned a U.S. diplomat and told him that Russia considers publication of the protest route “a call for action that constitutes interference in the internal affairs of our country.”

One day earlier, Andrei Klimov, head of the Committee for the Defense of State Sovereignty in Russia’s upper parliament house, the Federation Council, said that predictions that “the United States and its supporters would try to use the next Moscow City Duma election to organize provocations and attempts to exert influence” have come true.

And the Russian daily Vedomosti reported, citing unidentified sources, that the lower house – the State Duma – will interrupt its summer break to hold a session to discuss “the issue of foreign interference in Russian elections.”

All this, of course, comes amid persistent concern in the United States over what U.S. intelligence agencies said was a concerted campaign, ordered by Putin, to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and amid predictions that Moscow will seek to meddle again in 2020.

Police forcibly detain a protester during a rally in the center of Moscow on August 3.
Police forcibly detain a protester during a rally in the center of Moscow on August 3.

Putin has presumably remained aloof from the potentially far-reaching political drama playing out in Moscow this summer because it is technically a local dispute. But analysts argue that in cracking down harder than in 2011-12, he and his government are trying to nip the problem in the bud – to prevent it from spreading across Russia and affecting State Duma elections due in 2021, the last before Putin must leave the presidency in 2024.

For a time, the risk that public frustration with corruption and other problems could allow Kremlin foes such as Aleksei Navalny to “mobilize [opposition] across class, region, [and] ethnic divides…didn’t seem worth the flak/hassle of a serious crackdown,” Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter.

“Now, an already-jumpy elite seem to be adopting a different calculus: better be ahead of the curve, even at the cost of looking ugly + repressive,” he wrote.

When Yeltsin nominated Putin as prime minister on August 9, 1999, setting him up to become president less than five months later, he told the nation he chose “a man who in my opinion is capable of uniting society, based on the broadest political forces.”

But while the protests and crackdown in Moscow are not taking place in the Kremlin itself, critics of Putin say that for an explanation of who and what is behind them he should look no further than the mirror – or look back at what opponents say is a 20-year history of curtailing political plurality.

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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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