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The Week In Russia: The 'Make-Believe World' Of President Putin

For Putin, to skip the Direct Line again this year would have implied an admission of defeat in a battle that Russian officials had declared all but won.
For Putin, to skip the Direct Line again this year would have implied an admission of defeat in a battle that Russian officials had declared all but won.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly used high-profile appearances to call for a “breakthrough” in Russia. Observers said his remarks at a call-in show on June 30 won’t bring a breakthrough on Russia’s tough COVID-19 situation and its snail’s-pace vaccination drive.

And amid a persistent crackdown ahead of elections, Putin’s show and police actions against perceived opponents reveal two “perfectly separate universes,” as one political analyst put it.

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

'Increasingly Implausible'

Over nearly 22 years as president or prime minister, the main messages Vladimir Putin has sent to Russian citizens in his almost-annual Q&A show on national television have not changed much: Russia is good and getting better. The West is bad, but we’re ready for better ties whenever they are, and I’ll protect you in the meantime. And if you have a very specific problem, I can probably fix it -- by berating a regional official or demanding swift action.

Ahead of this year’s edition, on June 30, author and analyst Mark Galeotti predicted “the usual attempt to portray [Putin] as tsar of the Russias, defender of the nation, masterful chief exec with all the facts at his fingertips and stern and loving father of his people. Which is an increasingly implausible act.”

Putin speaks during the Direct Line program on June 30.
Putin speaks during the Direct Line program on June 30.

Implausible, perhaps, for at least two reasons.

For one thing, there’s the sheer number of problems that have not been fixed since he came to power more than two decades ago. There were plenty of examples of this in the three-hour, 42-minute program this time around: Crumbling schools, carrot prices, corrupt officials cheating citizens, polluted air, putrid piles of garbage, massive utility bills, towns waiting years for gas hookups.

Those problems are long-standing and persistent. Unrealized hopes for piped-in gas go back to the Soviet era, in some cases. But there was also an alarming backdrop that was more immediate: A major surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent weeks, driven in part by widespread hesitancy among Russians to be vaccinated -- a severe problem that, whatever his level of responsibility, Putin failed to avert.

Tried, Not Necessarily True

In 2020, as the pandemic took hold despite Putin’s apparent hope that it might bypass Russia, he refrained from holding the Direct Line program. To skip it again this year would have been to imply defeat in a battle that officials had suggested was all but won.

But despite the dire situation, Putin did not stray far from the formula.

While he spent plenty of time calling on Russians to get vaccinated, observers said he conveyed no real sense of urgency and undermined the message in several ways.

Perhaps the most meaningful of those ways was a quip about Western vaccines: “Thank god, we have not had such tragic situations as there have been after vaccination with AstraZeneca or Pfizer,” he said, referring to shots that are not available in Russia and giving no examples.

The comment fit in with Russian efforts to sow doubt about Western COVID vaccines, which in turn seem to fit in with a campaign of vaccine diplomacy that does not appear to have gone according to plan.

But in a country where Western goods have been sought after for decades because of the belief that they are, in many cases, of higher quality, the remark seems highly unlikely to bolster trust in Russian vaccines or speed up the inoculation campaign.

Home And Away

Putin spent the bulk of Direct Line discussing domestic Russian issues, in some cases hyperlocal as in the inexplicably steep water bills for residents of an apartment building in western Siberia, in some cases as pervasive as the bad roads in a dying Far East town.

But as in previous editions of the program, as well as at other annual events such as his press conference and state-of-the-nation speech, he took aim several times at the United States, at the West more broadly, and at Ukraine.

A leader who often extols the virtues of stability, he raised the prospect of nuclear war -- a frequent topic in some of his highest-profile appearances, presumably because he wants to remind the world that Russia is a nuclear power on par with the United States.

This time, he did it by baiting Britain and the United States, saying that a Third World War would not have ensued if Russia had decided to sink a British warship in the Black Sea late last month after it sailed close to Russian-held Crimea in what he called a "provocation," arguing that "those who did this know they could not win a war like that."

The British Royal Navy warship HMS Defender approaches the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26.
The British Royal Navy warship HMS Defender approaches the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26.

Putin reiterated Russia’s claim that one of its warships fired warning shots and that a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the British ship, HMS Defender, to force it from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters. Russia occupied and seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, but its claim to the peninsula has been recognized by only a handful of countries.

Britain asserts that Russian vessels did not even fire at the Defender but were instead conducting unrelated drills -- an assertion that implies Putin is simply using the incident to talk tough. And talk tough he did: The talk of sinking a British ship is an escalation of rhetoric, if nothing else. It comes ahead of expected U.S.-Russian talks on further arms control measures following Putin's summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on June 16.

Without citing evidence, Putin also claimed that the United States was involved in the incident that further increased tensions over Crimea.

As for Ukraine as a whole, Putin made his latest in what is becoming a long string of comments that have caused anger there by repeating his claim that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” -- an assertion that many see as implying that Ukraine is something less than a full-fledged sovereign state, or should be.

He also stated without evidence that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has “handed his country over completely to foreign management,” asserting that “the main questions are decided not in Kyiv but in Washington, and in some cases in Berlin and in Paris.”

In an article published in the Russian edition of Forbes magazine shortly after Putin’s appearance, political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov suggested that his remarks on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues were detached from reality.

“It’s a make-believe world that exists inside [Putin’s] head,” Kolesnikov wrote.

Parallel Universes

When it comes to Russia itself, there’s also a disconnect between what goes on in the Direct Line and what happens outside, Kolesnikov suggested: two “perfectly separate information universes,” like a Venn diagram in which the circles never intersect.

One of those universes, he wrote, is the one in which, a day before Putin’s program, police searched the homes of journalists from an investigative outlet hours after it published a report examining the sources of Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev’s wealth -- and that of his relatives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev in February 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev in February 2019.

It’s also the one, he added, in which a Moscow district lawmaker who recently announced plans to run for a State Duma seat in September was ordered jailed pending trial on fraud charges he denies, becoming the latest in a growing group of opposition politicians and activists to face probes or prosecution after revealing plans to contest the elections to fill Russia’s lower parliament house.

Some of them are associates or allies of Aleksei Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader who -- like all Kremlin opponents, and like human rights and civil society in general -- was not mentioned once during Putin’s televised marathon.

On the day of the Direct Line, the government crackdown on dissent ahead of the elections rolled on. The authorities labeled four groups linked to exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khordorkovsky “undesirable,” effectively banning their activity in Russia.

A day earlier, a Moscow election official from the opposition party Yabloko was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of hitting a policeman during a January protest in support of Navalny. His lawyer said he had been helping a demonstrator who was being attacked by police.

The other universe, Kolesnikov wrote, is one in which Putin thanks the Duma, the loyal ruling party, and his suburban Moscow dry cleaners for their "excellent work” and also “solves the problems of everyday repair work” -- a reference to the questions about dilapidated buildings, dripping pipes, and other such matters.

The impression is of “two completely different Russias,” Kolesnikov wrote -- one of which, while as undeniably real as police batons or prison bars, “doesn’t seem to exist because it’s not on the TV screen and it’s not in the stories of the head of state.”

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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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