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The Week In Russia: War, Peace, And A Presidential Back-Pat In Paris

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump as they attend a commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day in Paris on November 11.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump as they attend a commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day in Paris on November 11.

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Vladimir Putin made brief contact with U.S. President Donald Trump in Paris, where world leaders marked the centenary of the end of the "war to end all wars" -- while wars involving Russia continue in Syria and eastern Ukraine. As Putin moved on to Asia, the European Court of Human Rights handed him a defeat in his ongoing showdown with Aleksei Navalny. And following his travels abroad, Putin returned to a country struggling to protect itself against Western sanctions without strangling economic growth.

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

A Presidential 'Broment'

Putin can probably be pleased with his trip to Paris for the Armistice Day ceremonies on the centenary of the end of World War I: He hobnobbed with dozens of world leaders and made brief but visible contact with Trump -- not a summit or even a meeting, but enough for a positive portrayal on state TV at home and for the Western media -- amid tension between Trump and European leaders including the host, French President Emmanuel Macron -- to take notice.

Deep behind what might be described as enemy lines, given the adversarial flavor of relations between Moscow and the West in recent years and months, Putin also avoided direct vocal censure over his country's ample involvement in at least two wars causing death, destruction, and despair 100 years after the "war to end all wars." One of them -- in the coalfields of eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv's forces since 2014 and a cease-fire is routinely violated -- is the only war now being waged on the European continent.

But there is no sign of a big breakthrough for Putin on the international stage -- the easing of sanctions, for instance. And at this early stage in a six-year term that could be his last, there seems to be little happening at home that is cause for joy for the Russian president. The economy is troubled and his approval rating has fallen, thrusting up more clouds on the horizon and adding to questions about what awaits the country as 2024, when his time in the Kremlin is due to end, draws closer.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Singapore on November 14.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Singapore on November 14.

After White House national-security adviser John Bolton visited Moscow and met with Putin in the Kremlin, it looked like the World War I armistice ceremonies might be overshadowed by a big meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents. It soon became clear that that would not happen, with the Kremlin talking about a "stand-up" meeting on the sidelines and Trump saying he might not talk to Putin at all.

In the end, Putin may have gotten as much as he could realistically ask from the trip, or at least from his interaction with Trump. It boiled down mainly to a few seconds of contact when Putin, striding in late as usual, joined other leaders for a November 11 ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe: A brief moment -- or "broment" -- but one that attracted plenty of attention.

"The only leader [Trump] seemed to connect with at the Armistice ceremony was…Putin," Robin Wright wrote in The New Yorker.

Others -- albeit presumably jokingly -- read much more into the encounter, in which the two smiled and Putin gave Trump a thumbs-up and a soft clap on the arm in response to the U.S. president's pat on the back.

'Agent Donald'

Dmitry Smirnov, a Kremlin pool reporter whose tweets often operate as Russian propaganda, posted a photo of the encounter with the caption: "Never before has agent Donald been so close to failure."

A tweet from Michael Hayden, a former CIA and National Security Agency director and a vocal critic of Trump, seemed to be rooted in the same notion: "Brush pass with his handler?" the retired U.S. Air Force general asked.

Now Trump and Putin are expected to meet for substantive talks -- though just how substantive remains unclear -- on the sidelines of a G20 summit on November 30-December 1 in Buenos Aires.

In the meantime, Russian media outlets blamed Macron for the brevity of their encounters in Paris, suggesting he was hell-bent on keeping them apart. "Macron separated Putin and Trump," Smirnov tweeted with a photograph of the leaders seated at a long table for lunch on November 11. "At the last minute the French moved Trump's seat to the opposite [side of the table] from Putin."

Still, that didn't stop state-run news agency RIA Novosti from portraying the talk at a table of 20 or more as a more intimate conversation with Trump that, in Putin's words, went "well."

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later said the Trump and world leaders including Putin discussed issues including nuclear weapons, Syria, trade, the situation in Saudi Arabia, sanctions, Afghanistan, China, and North Korea."

There was little if any public criticism of Putin over Russia's role in Syria, where Moscow has given President Bashar al-Assad crucial support in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of his people.

'Sham 'Elections''

And there was apparently no discussion at lunch of the war in Ukraine or even the elections -- or "sham 'elections'," as the U.S. State Department put it -- being held that very day in the portions of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists.

Putin also got some good news from the United States, where key senators said Congress was not expected to pass legislation on new sanctions in 2018.

But while Putin may have had a good trip to France, some of the most prominent tycoons in the Russian elite may find themselves frozen out of one of their favorite events abroad come January: the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

And Putin -- who traveled to Southeast Asia after Paris for a regional summit that Trump skipped, and tried a shoulder-clap on Vice President Mike Pence in Singapore -- returned home with no sign of a respite from the Western sanctions that are already in place.

Minsk Matters

That's in part due to the balloting in the Donbas, which Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky cited as "further evidence the Kremlin plans to hang onto the territories" held by the Russia-backed separatists there.

The person elected to head the separatists in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, seemed to add weight to that interpretation when he declared that the "course toward the Russian Federation will be continued" and contended, "We have already learned to live without Ukraine."

A serviceman guards the entrance to a polling station in Donetsk during voting on November 11.
A serviceman guards the entrance to a polling station in Donetsk during voting on November 11.

And in another sign that there is little chance the Donbas conflict will end soon, Putin made clear he's hoping for change in Kyiv's stance after a presidential election in late March -- drawing an angry response from President Petro Poroshenko, who accused him of meddling in the contest before it has even begun.

In Paris, Poroshenko met with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who brokered the largely unimplemented February 2015 cease-fire and conflict-settlement deal known as Minsk II. But Putin said there was no point in another of the four-way meetings he has held with them to discuss the conflict, blaming Kyiv for the lack of progress toward peace.

Kyiv blames Russia, as does the United States and much of the West. "Russia incorrectly claims Ukraine has failed to implement the Minsk agreements. The reality is the opposite," the U.S. special envoy for the conflict, Paul Volker, tweeted on November 11.

"The so-called 'People's Republics' have no place in the Minsk agreements and are illegitimate tools supported by Russia's military might and created by Russia to administer Ukrainian territory it controls by force," Volker wrote in another tweet.

Sanctions Bite

In Singapore, Putin defiantly said that sanctions cannot stop Russia's cannot stop Russia's economic or "technological development" -- harking back to his calls, in both a March 1 state-of-the-nation speech and his inauguration address in May, for a technological "breakthrough" that would bolster the economy and improve living standards.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 13th East Asian Summit Plenary on the sidelines of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore on November 15.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 13th East Asian Summit Plenary on the sidelines of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore on November 15.

Two reports from Bloomberg this past week suggest he could be wrong.

One of them said that while spending cuts, tight monetary policies, and prudent use of oil revenues are helping to "limit the fallout" from possible future U.S. sanctions, government statistics show "it's all coming at the expense of economic growth."

The other said that "sanctions may have knocked as much as 6 percent off Russia's economy over the past four years," and that the negative effect is likely to persist.

Surprisingly for some, at least, it said sanctions had been a heavier drag on the economy than oil-price fluctuations in the past half-decade -- "the bigger culprit" behind a finding that Russia's economy is 10 percent smaller than might have been predicted in 2013.

Apres Vous

By the way, Putin wasn't the only Russian politician in France this past week.

In a kind of postscript to Putin's visit, a man who would like to replace him – opposition firebrand Aleksei Navalny -- traveled to Strasbourg to hear the European Court of Human Rights ruling on his claim that the Russian state violated many of his fundamental rights by arresting and jailing him repeatedly in recent years.

It took Navalny two tries to get out of Russia , but he presumably believes it was worth the effort.

The court ruled that several of his arrests in 2012-14 were unlawful, arbitrary, and -- as Navalny noted in a celebratory tweet -- politically motivated.

Navalny's arrests, the court said, were not "necessary in a democratic society."

Editor's Note: The Week In Russia will not appear on November 23 but will return to its regular schedule on November 30.

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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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