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The Week In Russia: Spies, 'Scumbags,' And Senior Citizens

"They Are Lying To Us": A protest against pension reform in Moscow with a placard featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin (left), Anton Siluanov, the first deputy prime minister, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
"They Are Lying To Us": A protest against pension reform in Moscow with a placard featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin (left), Anton Siluanov, the first deputy prime minister, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

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President Vladimir Putin branded former double agent Sergei Skripal a “scumbag” and signed a law that will raise the retirement age in Russia by five years.

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

Tough Talk

Scumbags, snotty noses, separatists who should be “wasted in the outhouse.”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin reaches for the saltier sections of his vocabulary, it’s meant to sound like it’s coming straight from the heart, or perhaps a more nether region – an emotional outburst from a man who cares so deeply for Russia that he cannot contain his anger at those who, in his estimation, would do it harm.

Could be.

But there may be a method to Putin’s madness – a calculus behind earthy remarks that seem to be uttered off the cuff but often come during organized events at which he knows he will be on stage and is well aware of the topics he may asked to comment on as state TV cameras roll and dozens of journalists, some foreign, stand with pens, pads, and recorders at the ready.

'Simply A Scumbag': Putin Calls Ex-Spy Skripal A 'Traitor'
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Take Putin’s rant regarding Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy Britain accuses his government of sending military-intelligence operatives to poison with a Soviet-designed nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March.

In front of an audience of buttoned-up executives at an international energy forum in Moscow on October 3, Putin called Skripal a traitor and added: "He's just a scumbag, that's all there is to it."

On one level, these remarks were unremarkable – a straightforward slap at a man with a similar background to that of the longtime Soviet-era KGB officer Putin, but with a career arc that landed him in prison, convicted of treason for passing information to Britain, and then sent him West in the 2010 spy swap that brought Russian sleeper agent Anna Chapman back to Moscow from New York.

But there are at least three reasons Putin might have wanted to make waves with an outburst that he certainly knew would be all over the news – despite not actually being newsworthy.

To find one of those reasons, just take a look at the rush of recent developments surrounding the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter Yulia, as well as Dawn Sturgess, who died after being exposed to Novichok from a fake perfume bottle found near Salisbury, and her boyfriend, who fell ill but survived.

Changing The Subject

Putin’s remarks came amid persistent scrutiny of the two suspects named by Britain and mounting evidence that they are, in fact, officers of the Russian military intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Russia continues to deny involvement. But after an awkward, hole-riddled RT interview in which the suspects claimed to be sports nutrition specialists who happened to be in Salisbury as tourists in the raw late winter when investigators say Novichok was slathered on Skripal’s front door, Moscow may have little hope of persuading people that Britain is pointing to the wrong two guys.

The two suspects -- Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Aleksandr Petrov, both of which may be aliases -- talk to RT.
The two suspects -- Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Aleksandr Petrov, both of which may be aliases -- talk to RT.

And the idea that the pair might be gay – which was hinted at by their interviewer, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, and promoted for a time by state media -- seems to have given way to the suggestion that they are good guys and Russian heroes: the boys next door who grew up to defend the interests of the fatherland.

That narrative fits better with the claim by Bellingcat, the British-based open-source investigation group that is doing much of the digging into their identities, that the suspect who carried a passport with the name Ruslan Boshirov is in fact Anatoly Chepiga – a GRU colonel decorated with a Hero of the Russian Federation medal in 2014, the year Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.

In any case, the Kremlin has clearly been tiring of the onslaught of allegations. Putin’s spokesman admitted as much on September 28 when he snapped to journalists on a conference call: “We don’t want to participate in a continuing discussion of this question, especially with the media.”

With the spotlight trained squarely on Russia, from Chepiga’s remote hometown near the Chinese border to the drab Moscow district where the GRU's headquarters is located, Putin may have been eager to change the subject a bit by putting the focus on Skripal – and on his own harsh words.

And his curt dismissal of the former double agent as a “traitor “and a “scumbag” contrasts with the suggestion that the two Russian suspects, regardless of whether they did it and whether they botched the job, are heroes – or at the very least, not traitors.

'GRU Culture'

Whether or not it had any effect on Russian public opinion, Putin’s outburst did nothing to staunch the flow of accusations against Russia and the GRU.

On October 4, the Netherlands said it had expelled four alleged Russian intelligence officers in April over a plot targeting the Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons and an international investigation into the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, and the United States, Canada, and Britain made related announcements.

It’s unclear whether all this might prompt Moscow to halt what U.S. officials call its “malign activities” around the globe – or, as Russia expert and author Mark Galeotti put in in July, “unleashing its spooks” and “empowering a GRU culture that is willing to take chances and break rules.”

There are plenty who don’t think it will.

While the blatant slipups that have embarrassed the GRU and helped Western investigators and journalists expose apparent espionage might prompt Putin to try to run a tighter ship, he seemed to hint strongly that Russian spying would continue undeterred.

Dismissing the accusations against Russia as an “information campaign,” Putin – possibly the world leader who most often talks about prostitution – said that espionage and prostitution are two of the world’s “most important professions” and won't be fading away anytime soon.

Gone Fishin'

He also alleged that Skripal “continued cooperating with some secret services” after he was sprung from prison and sent West in the 2010 swap. That may have been meant as a suggestion that Skripal was fair game despite having left Russia in an exchange rather than defecting -- and as a warning to Russian spies that they may be tracked down and killed if they betray their country.

That is a warning Putin has put out before. But it’s a message that has just been undermined by a BuzzFeed report that Aleksandr Poteyev, the former spymaster who exposed the undercover network that included Chapman and defected to the United States in 2010, was alive and well – and acquired a saltwater fishing license in Florida -- months after Russian state TV said he was dead.

Meanwhile, though, Putin has things to think about closer to home and far from the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage, including one that could potentially have given him cause to distract Russians with his “scumbag” quip.

About three hours after Putin laid into Skripal, the Kremlin announced without fanfare that he had signed a bill that will raise the retirement age for Russians by five years – perhaps the most unpopular piece of legislation that has left his desk since he first became president in 2000.

His signature capped a months-long march from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of plans for pension reform to its enactment as the law of the land, punctuated by protests in which some demonstrators have carried signs branding Putin an “enemy of the people.”

A Matter Of Trust

Economists have long warned that Russia could not afford not to raise the pension age, but Putin did just that until now. He distanced himself from the bill for many weeks after it was submitted, finally weighing in with an address to the nation on August 29. In it, he proposed raising the retirement age for women by five years rather than the eight years proposed in the original bill.

That adjustment was duly made, and the bill sailed through a final vote in parliament hours before Putin signed it.

The jury – that is, the people – is still out on the effects of the pension reform on the political scene in Russia, where Putin is just five months into a six-year Kremlin term that could be his last, leaving the future uncertain after what has now been 20 years in which he has been president or prime minister.

But it seems clear that the pension reform has dented Putin’s popularity in a way that will be hard to reverse.

In a poll conducted in September by the independent agency Levada, 58 percent of respondents said that Putin “fully deserved” their trust, down from 75 percent in 2017 and lower than the army, which scored 66 percent.

While still small, meanwhile, the proportion that said Putin does not deserve their trust at all rose sharply – from 4 percent in 2017 to 13 percent last month.

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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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