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The Week In Russia: The 'Daring' GRU, Cesspit Deaths, And Elections Across The Ocean

President Vladimir Putin and then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov cast sidelong glances at the traditional GRU logo. (file photo)

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President Vladimir Putin doubles down amid laughter and concern over the missions and missteps of the GRU, hailing its officers as examples to emulate, while accidents on land and at sea point up deep-seated problems in Russia and Kremlin-watchers try to puzzle out what the U.S. midterm election results mean for Moscow.

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

не GRUсти​

Q: What do you do when your military intelligence agency is facing ridicule and rumors of a purge over what some see as unpardonable and embarrassing mistakes?

A: Double down.

At least, that's what Russian President Vladimir Putin did in an address to staff of the GRU, as it is known despite dropping the "R" in 2010, on what the spy outfit -- once secretive but now in the spotlight because of accusations that it meddled in a U.S. presidential election, poisoned a former double-agent in England, and tried to hack the global chemical-weapons watchdog in The Hague, among other things -- celebrates as its 100th anniversary.

"I am confident of your professionalism, of your personal daring and decisiveness, and that each of you will do all that is required by Russia and our people," Putin said of the GRU, which has been skewered for a series of perceived blunders both large (an alleged assassination attempt that failed to take the target's life but ended up killing a bystander) and small (taxi receipts that helped cybersleuths track down its operatives.)

Putin thanked the agency for playing a "huge role" in Russia's military campaign in Syria and said its operatives -- ready to make the ultimate sacrifice "for the motherland" -- set an example for a future generation of military spies.

The remarks seemed to put paid to speculation that Putin would send the opposite message by sending heads rolling in the GRU.

In addition to wondering whether the GRU would ditch its dime-a-dozen double-headed eagle, dragon-slaying St. George insignia and "regain its cool bat logo," analyst and author Mark Galeotti said Putin's speech – which was certainly not kept secret -- seemed to confirm that "the GRU has not, as some claim, angered Putin."

Galeotti raised and more or less dismissed the possibility that Putin's public praise was "part of the maskirovka, deception, keeping any recriminations behind closed doors," concluding: "Sure, Putin may feel an obligation to demonstrate his loyalty to his spooks -- but that is primarily because they are doing what he wants them to do."

Yulia Latynina, a journalist and analyst who skewers the Kremlin in a weekly show on Ekho Moskvy radio, hears a different message in Putin's words. It's that of a president whose response to mistakes by people who are part his system of rule -- "he always supports his own when they have screwed up," she said, and this "leads to the total incompetence and total incapacity of the system."

'News From A Superpower'

A glaring example of this incompetence, according to Latynina, was the collapse of a massive floating dry dock being used to repair Russia's only aircraft carrier, on October 30. The structure sank and a crane crashed down on the Admiral Kuznetsov, puncturing the deck and raising questions about how -- and when -- it will be lifted and removed. One worker is missing and presumed dead.

Authorities said the accident occurred when the ship was leaving the dry dock. But the aircraft carrier had been slated for many months of repairs and Latynina, without citing specific sources, said it was setting out on a mission to "answer" NATO's biggest military exercise since the Cold War -- centered in Norway and off its coast -- by making a show of Russian force.

A file photo of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier at the PD-50 dry dock in the village of Roslyakovo.
A file photo of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier at the PD-50 dry dock in the village of Roslyakovo.

The Russian military has not confirmed that, and Moscow has said little or nothing about what NATO and Norwegian officials said was a Russian Navy plan to test missiles off Norway's coast on November 1-3, in the middle of the "live-field" phase of the Western alliance's two-week Trident Juncture drills.

Putin and the Kremlin often portray the 1990s as a chaotic time of troubles that has faded into a bad memory since he became president in 2000. But critics like Latynina say that his failure to hold officials to account means corruption and corner-cutting have in fact flourished, leading to deadly accidents and errors of judgment.

Likening the Russian state to worm-eaten wood that is crumbling into dust, she said: "I'm not even talking about protecting one's citizens -- that's what democratic states do. But just being a strong, capable structure -- this state is not that."

The sinking dry dock was not the only recent example. A bridge being built in the Khanty-Mansiisk region of Siberia collapsed on November 5, killing two workers. It was at least the fourth bridge to fall in Russia since the beginning of October.

Meanwhile, in a post describing "news from a superpower," a Facebook user put together six headlines from recent years -- three from 2018 – about children drowning in cesspits.

And following reports that a gunman fired shots at multimillionaire businessman Oleg Burlakov's Cadillac Escalade as he sat in the vehicle, Galeotti -- an author and expert on crime in Russia -- tweeted that "the relatively peaceable status quo…does seem under increasing pressure these days."

Glory Days

When Putin turns to times past in hopes of instilling patriotism, he turns much further back than the 1990s.

On November 4, which he made National Unity Day in 2005 to replace the Revolution Day holiday three days later, Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill Patriarch Kirill met on Red Square and laid flowers at a monument celebrating the expulsion of Polish troops in 1612 -- the beginning of the end of the 15-year Time of Troubles that wracked Russia between two dynasties.

Russian Army soldiers dressed in historical uniforms take part in a rehearsal for a military parade to mark the anniversary of Soviet soldiers leaving for the front in 1941 during World War II.
Russian Army soldiers dressed in historical uniforms take part in a rehearsal for a military parade to mark the anniversary of Soviet soldiers leaving for the front in 1941 during World War II.

On November 7 -- the date of the former holiday celebrating the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 -- troops in World War II uniforms marched across the square outside the Kremlin in an elaborate homage to a 1941 parade whose participants marched straight to the front outside Moscow to fight the Nazis in World War II.

On November 11, attention will turn to a different war -- and Putin will be in a less isolated/domestic/Russia-centric setting, joining dozens of leaders in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

But amid the crowd, Putin may be more isolated than he would like to be: A meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, which two weeks ago seemed certain to happen, may not take place.

In Moscow on October 23, White House national-security adviser John Bolton said he told Putin that "President Trump would look forward to meeting with him in Paris."

We'll Always Have Argentina

At first it appeared that the two might hold substantive talks, but the Kremlin later said they would probably touch base briefly "on their feet" or at a luncheon -- and Trump said on November 7 that while they would both attend the lunch, they are not set to have a conversation.

"I don't think we have anything scheduled in Paris and I'm coming back very quickly," Trump said at a White House press conference a day after the midterm elections in the United States. "I don't think we have time set aside for that meeting."

Trump -- who faced criticism over his comments at a July 16 summit that was his only major meeting with Putin since he took office -- said he expects to sit down with the Russian president at a November 30-December 1 gathering of the Group of 20 (G20) in Buenos Aires.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at their meeting in Helsinki in July.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at their meeting in Helsinki in July.

One reason the optics of a meeting with Putin on Armistice Day would be ugly for some is that Russia-backed separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine are holding elections -- denounced as "fake" by Kyiv and as illegitimate by the United States and European Union -- on the same day.

That would expose Trump to accusations that, while solemnly marking the end of World War I, he was ignoring the only war being fought in Europe today – and one that is widely seen in the West as the result of a Russian attempt to grab land and carve new borders.

But the uncertainty over a meeting in Paris -- however brief -- also underscores the sensitive situation in Russian-U.S. relations following the latter's midterm elections, in which Trump's Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives but retained control of the Senate.

The day after the vote, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it would be hard for the relationship to get much worse -- but that the prospects for improvement don't look too great either.

For Peskov, that prognosis seems remarkably straightforward.

But Kremlin-watchers digging deeper have come up with some varying versions of what the results mean for Russia -- and what Putin really thinks about it.

'Rancor And Division'

On the one hand, Democratic control of the House could put more moxie into policies meant to pressure Russia, and certainly does not seem to bring the prospect of easing sanctions any closer.

Many Democrats in the lower legislative chamber want to dig deeper in a bid to determine whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election, which could potentially put Trump on the defensive when it comes to his stated desire to improve relations with Russia -- particularly given that many Republicans also favor a tough stance.

That's what Peskov may have been thinking about, primarily, when he said that "rosy prospects for the normalization of Russian-American relations are not visible on the horizon."

But, if one of the Kremlin's main goals since the 2016 campaign has been to create conflict and sow discord in U.S. society, the outcome of the vote looks pretty good.

"The split result of the U.S. midterms has divided Russian media outlets too," Coda Story said in an article on November 7. "While none are celebrating the Democrats winning back the House of Representatives, there are some commentators who see a potential upside for Russia -- if the United States sinks further into rancor and division."

That rancor was on display less than 24 hours after polls closed, when Trump's dismissal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- and his appointment of an acting chief prosecutor who has criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the alleged Russian meddling -- prompted dismay among Democrats and protests in several cities.

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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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