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The Week In Russia: Something Old, Something New, Something Not So Fluffy

Putin has finally congratulated President-elect Joe Biden more than five weeks after the U.S. vote.
Putin has finally congratulated President-elect Joe Biden more than five weeks after the U.S. vote.

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As he does, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned to a Soviet-era pop culture reference to get his message across at one point in his 4 1/2-hour annual press conference on December 17, when responding to the only reporter from a Western country that is not Iceland who got to ask a question.

“Let’s get along,” he said, quoting a remark from the cartoon cat named Leopold that is probably known to many millions of people from the former Soviet Union and almost nobody else.

The tomcat quote, which can also be translated as “Let’s be friends or “Let’s live in peace,” came at the end of an answer that echoed past diatribes in which Putin has put the lion’s share of the blame for badly frayed relations on Washington and the West and presented Russia as a constructive partner that is ready to improve ties once the other side comes to its senses.

It’s a message Putin has delivered many times before, with varying degrees of implied anger in the tone of his criticism of the West.

The more pleasant part of it was aired on December 15, when Putin finally congratulated President-elect Joe Biden more than five weeks after the U.S. vote, saying that Moscow was prepared to build relations based on “mutual respect.”

'Greatest Hits'

Often, though, Putin implies that Russia deserves more respect than it gets from the West, and that the West gets more than it deserves from Russia. At the press conference, thanks to the phrasing of the question from a Western journalist with long years of experience in the former Soviet Union, this suggestion was framed in terms of whether Moscow bears its own big share of responsibility for what some call a new Cold War or is innocent -- “white and fluffy,” as the Russian idiom goes.

Putin asserted that Russia is “white and fluffy compared to you” -- the West. As evidence, he listed arms pacts from which the United States has withdrawn, from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 -- without mentioning, in the latter case, that the United States says Russia had been deliberately violating that agreement for years.

As he has in the past, he also cited the fact that the United States has far more military bases abroad than Russia does, as well as the notion -- much debated over the decades but presented by Putin as gospel, just as he depicts its alleged breach as a kind of original sin -- that 30 years ago, the West promised the Soviet Union that NATO would never expand eastward.

These arguments came in a press conference that Mark Galeotti, an expert and author on Russia, said had begun to sound more and more “like a greatest hits mixtape” -- a repetition of assertions made in the past -- as it went on.

But on a practical level, at least for some audiences, they were undermined in advance by recent developments, leaving his long-standing suggestion that the United States and NATO are aggressive and Russia a peacemaker -- like Leopold, a cat who is repeatedly targeted by two pesky mice and not only outsmarts them but still wants to be friends -- on new ground even shakier than the soil they rested on after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

One of those developments was a new report from the online investigative outfit Bellingcat and partners pointing to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as the culprit in the poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, one of Putin’s most influential critics.

Do Not Name

The other was a major hacking attack that breached computer systems at several U.S. government agencies and has been blamed by cybersecurity experts on Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

The FSB and SVR are the main successors of the Soviet KGB.

At the press conference, Putin did not address the cyberattack in detail and did not appear to directly deny it, instead suggesting that the U.S. government and intelligence agencies were bent on falsely blaming the Russian state for both that continuing incident and the poisoning of Navalny.

His remarks on the dead-serious matter of Navalny’s poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent seemed to be cast in a surreal, less-than-serious light by Putin’s long-standing refusal to utter the anti-corruption crusader’s name -- a choice or habit that Sam Greene, a Russia analyst and director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, described as “bordering on the absurd.”

Instead, Putin referred to Navalny, who was barred from running against him in Russia’s 2018 presidential election due to convictions on financial-crimes charges the Kremlin foe contends were fabricated for pretty much that exact purpose, as “the patient in a Berlin clinic” and “our famous blogger.”

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear next week due to the Christmas holiday. The next edition will be issued on Thursday, December 31.

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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.

About This Newsletter

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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