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The Week In Russia: Let Me Tell You About Ukraine, Mr. President

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly cooled U.S. President Donald Trump's view of Ukraine with his "disparaging depictions" of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly cooled U.S. President Donald Trump's view of Ukraine with his "disparaging depictions" of the country.

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First Bush, then Trump: Vladimir Putin has badmouthed Ukraine to a U.S. leader for at least the second time in his long rule, reports say, poisoning the well in a phone call with President Donald Trump back in May.

At home, Putin purged critical voices from his own Human Rights Council, one of the entities he uses to send signals and shape -- or manage -- public opinion.

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

Russia And Ukraine

U.S. intelligence agencies and Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller have provided ample evidence indicating that the Russian state meddled in the 2016 presidential election, with indictments from Mueller comprising what The New Yorker called "perhaps the most detailed chronicle ever published of foreign interference in a U.S. political campaign."

But President Vladimir Putin, who denies it -- sometimes with a wink -- has had cause for cheer at least a couple of times in the still-unfolding story when the spotlight has been shone instead on Ukraine.

It's hard to imagine Putin failing to be pleased by the fact that one of the main targets of Mueller's probe, Paul Manafort, while he worked for Moscow-friendly forces in Kyiv, was more closely linked to Ukraine than Russia.

Now, Putin -- who has been said by multiple headlines to be smiling or "laughing out loud" about recent developments in the West and in the Middle East -- presumably has cause for happiness again. Ukraine, not Russia, is at the center of a political firestorm that is raging just one year before the next U.S. presidential election, in 2020.

Russia does, of course, loom large in the background of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, because Ukraine's desire for U.S. backing in general -- and the nearly $400 million in military assistance that the United States was withholding last summer -- is fueled in large part by the need to resist Moscow's pressure and destabilization efforts.

But in terms of talk about the motives and maneuvering behind the main developments playing into the latest stages of the U.S political turmoil, Russia was largely left out of the picture -- until it wasn't.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in May.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in May.

Turns out that "disparaging depictions of Ukraine" by Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban "reinforced Trump's perceptions of the country," according to The Washington Post, which cited unnamed U.S. officials with knowledge of closed-door testimony by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent before U.S. lawmakers involved in the impeachment investigation.

"Kent cited the influence of those leaders as a factor that helped sour Trump" on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the months ahead of the July 25 phone call that is at the heart of the inquiry and a whistle-blower complaint.

In his own phone call with Trump, on May 3, Putin "'did what he always does' in seeking to undercut the United States' relationship with Ukraine," the Post reported, quoting a former U.S. official familiar with the conversation who added: "He has always said Ukraine is just a den of corruption."

'Salt The Earth'

It's not the first time Putin has been said to have disparaged, dismissed, or otherwise dissed Ukraine in a conversation with a U.S. president. As one journalist put it on Twitter, "Putin's bid to salt the earth ahead of Trump's call with [Zelenskiy] comes as little surprise."

According to The New York Times, the "fiercely negative outlook on Ukraine" that Orban provided Trump in an Oval Office meeting on May 13 "fortified opinions he had heard…repeatedly over the months and years" from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and from Putin.

And Trump is not the first U.S. president to hear what Putin has to say on the subject of Ukraine. In April 2008, six years before Russia sought to re-carve borders by seizing Crimea and fomenting separatism in eastern Ukraine, he told President George W. Bush that Ukraine was "not even a country."

Former U.S. President George W. Bush with Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
Former U.S. President George W. Bush with Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

Putin made the remark in talks with Bush on the sidelines of a NATO summit that was notable for the alliance's decision to deny Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans that would have brought them closer to joining but to state -- with clarity about the end result but zero information about when it might happen -- that "these countries will become members of NATO."

More than 11 years later, neither of them is -- and Putin's determination to keep it that way has been a contributing cause of the only two wars fought in Europe in that same time period: The five-day war between Russia and Georgia four months after the summit and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, whose future course and outcome -- which will shape Ukraine for decades or more -- will depend partly on whether ties between Washington and Kyiv can weather the current storm.

The war and other Russia-related developments in Ukraine will also shape the future of countries far beyond Kyiv and Moscow, according to William Taylor, the U.S. charge -d'affaires in Ukraine, who testified at a closed session of the impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 22.

High Stakes

Ukraine is of "profound importance" to U.S. and European security, Taylor said in a prepared opening statement, in part because "if Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of a Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace."

But "if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people, and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world," he said.

More narrowly, Zelenskiy's political fortunes will also hinge partly on the future course of the conflict in the Donbas, which he vowed to end while campaigning for the five-year term he won easily in April -- 12 days before the phone call in which, according to the Post, Trump asked Putin about his impressions of Zelenskiy and Putin "derided him as a comedian with ties to an oligarch despised by the Kremlin."

For Putin, the stakes might not seem quite as high. While the longevity of Western sanctions on Russia -- and by extension, its economic health -- will depend in part on when and whether the war is ended, the average Russian voter may be both less likely to care about the future of the Donbas and more likely to have his or her vote cancelled out by fraud than the average voter in Ukraine.

Both Putin and Zelenskiy are in the early stages of presidential terms that are due to end around the same time, in May 2024. But while Zelenskiy will be eligible to seek a second term, Putin will not --unless he scraps the constitutional limit of two straight terms, which he seems unlikely to do.

Amid persistent speculation that Putin will seek to remain in power past 2024 by some other means, the post-presidential career of long-ruling Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev has provided some possible hints.

In March, Nazarbaev stepped down as president after nearly three decades in the post but stayed on as chairman of the ruling party and the Security Council and retained his lifetime status of Elbasy, or Leader of the Nation, while steering a seemingly loyal successor into position as head of state.

It now seems that in Nazarbaev's estimation, that much power -- plus the prestige of having the country's capital renamed in his honor -- was not quite enough.

In a decree published on October 21, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev handed his predecessor more power, stating that he -- the president -- should consult Nazarbaev before appointing chiefs of state institutions, most of the cabinet ministers, and provincial governors, among others.

There are several reasons why such a move might not work for Putin -- or, in fact, for Nazarbaev, whose country has seen an increasing number of protests by citizens who, like many who demonstrate in Russia, believe that self-interested leaders are ignoring their plight and denying them their rights.

Countdown To 2024

But while his potential path to remaining in power should he seek to do so has not yet been revealed, there are strong signs that Putin is casting around for ways to keep dissent in check and power close at hand as 2024 draws closer and persistent economic troubles threaten to undermine his mandate and stoke dissatisfaction.

The latest edition of a periodical Global Wealth Report from investment bank Credit Suisse shows that with the richest 1 percent of its citizens owning over 58 percent of the country's wealth -- compared to 35 percent in the United States and 30 percent in Germany -- Russia has the highest wealth inequality of any major country.

"This is a reality that can hardly be glossed over with upbeat statistical reports," Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in an October 22 article questioning a state statistics agency report of a 3 percent year-on-year rise in real disposable incomes in the third quarter of 2019.

He also pointed out that while recent statistics indicating that more than 14 percent of Russian households report struggling to afford anything beyond food and more than 49 percent say the same about food and clothing mark a slight improvement, they mean that "almost two-thirds of Russians are barely making ends meet and have no way to save."

"Putin's chances of holding on to power beyond the end of his current term in 2024 or passing it to a chosen successor increasingly depend on his ability to suppress protest, as the Kremlin did last summer in the run up to the Moscow city council election in which opposition candidates weren't allowed to run," Bershidsky wrote. "A tangible improvement in living standards is proving more difficult to deliver than nicer statistics."

Some More Equal Than Others

Amid the economic uncertainty, Putin appears to be seeking to ensure the loyalty of the institutions he uses to maintain power, manage opposition, and shape opinion. Reports indicate the Kremlin is considering engineering legislative changes and employing other levers to ensure firm control over the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, following elections due in 2021.

In the meantime, Putin took steps this week that analysts and activists say are meant to hush up critical voices, sending the chairman of his Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights packing in a partial purge of the advisory body.

The council members who were dismissed had shed light on alleged abuses by security forces and courts against demonstrators and bystanders in a series of summertime protests over decisions barring several independent and opposition candidates from the ballot in the Moscow election on September 8.

They were replaced by figures seen as more loyal, and Human Rights Council chief Mikhail Fedotov was traded for a new chief, Valery Fadeyev, who stressed the need to protect the "social rights" of Russians in addition to their "political rights."

Valery Fadeyev (file photo)
Valery Fadeyev (file photo)

Fadeyev said that "social rights" include the right to "a decent wage," housing, and health care -- the kind of thing that the Kremlin has, in the past, suggested is up to regional and local authorities to take care of.

Russian officials have also stressed what they have indicated is the right of citizens to, say, go to the grocery store without being inconvenienced by demonstrations, seemingly seeking to stress their concern for the welfare of the majority rather than a minority who take to the streets to protest.

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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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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