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The Week In Russia: Insecurity, Insincerity, And Distrust

At a solo press conference after the Geneva summit with Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin said he thought he saw "glimmers" of trust emerging in their talks.
At a solo press conference after the Geneva summit with Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin said he thought he saw "glimmers" of trust emerging in their talks.

President Vladimir Putin issued Moscow's latest plea for "cooperation and security from the Atlantic to the Pacific," but provocative pronouncements about Ukraine may undermine the message. Meanwhile, a COVID surge slammed Russia and the Kremlin's crackdown spread deeper into the educational sector.

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

Security For Some

For years, Moscow has been calling for a new security architecture in Europe and beyond, or at least closer cooperation toward an arrangement in which no country's security would come at the expense of any other. It's been a mantra of sorts since even before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

In part, at least, it's a euphemism for "NATO should be disbanded," something that President Vladimir Putin, in an article for the German newspaper Die Zeit marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, suggested he believes should have happened long ago.

He repeated the mantra about what his Foreign Ministry often calls "indivisible security," stating, "Our common and indisputable goal is to ensure security on the continent without dividing lines, a common space for equitable cooperation and inclusive development for the prosperity of Europe and the world as a whole.

Critics of the Kremlin might say that there are many reasons to doubt the sincerity of such calls: They come from a country that, particularly under Putin's long watch, has been repeatedly accused of undermining European security with a wide range of words and actions, from election interference to poisonings.

Protesters hold banners with the names of missing Crimean activists during a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv on May 26.
Protesters hold banners with the names of missing Crimean activists during a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv on May 26.

But it is Russia's approach to Ukraine that may stand out most prominently as evidence that in Putin's eyes, when it comes to security, some countries are more equal than others.

The most obvious example, or course, is what happened in 2014. Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine after sending in troops, securing key facilities, and staging a referendum deemed illegitimate by the UN General Assembly. It also fomented separatism across much of the country and backed anti-Kyiv forces in a war that still simmers in the region known as the Donbas after killing more than 13,000 combatants and civilians.

Against that backdrop, words also may cast doubt on the sincerity of what Putin told Die Zeit were Russia's "calls to create common space of cooperation and security from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean."

Less than two weeks earlier, Putin had said in comments on state TV that Ukraine as a state was a "spawn of the Soviet period."

Insecurity For Others

Despite the fact that until the seizure of Crimea, Russia had formally recognized Ukraine and its borders, it was far from the first time Putin has sought to cast doubt on the neighboring country's legitimacy as a nation and an independent state.

In 2008, he reportedly told U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine was "not even a country."

Putin has also said, as recently as last year, that Ukrainians and Russians are "one people," an assertion that seems meant to sound like a positive statement -- but to some is an affront that goes deeper than his remarks about Ukraine's statehood.

Meanwhile, Putin's provocative comments about the neighboring country may sound mild compared to those of Vladislav Surkov, a longtime former aide who was his top adviser on Ukraine policy -- what an interviewer from the Financial Times described as the stage manager of the seizure of Crimea and Donbas war.

In February 2020, in his first interview since his departure from the Kremlin, Surkov stated bluntly and falsely that "there is no Ukraine."

And in the Financial Times interview published on June 18, he repeated that Ukraine "does not really exist" and that its borders "should be the subject for an international discussion."

Vladislav Surkov (left) talks with Vladimir Putin at a meeting in 2012.
Vladislav Surkov (left) talks with Vladimir Putin at a meeting in 2012.

Surkov also said that he was proud to have been "part of the reconquest," a reference to the takeover of Crimea and seizure by the Kremlin-backed separatists of parts of the Donbas, and that a 2015 cease-fire deal "legitimized the first division of Ukraine," suggesting he hopes for more.

Surkov no longer has a job in Putin's administration, so at least formally, he is not influencing policy.

Summit Talk

But as a backdrop to Putin's remarks and a window into the Kremlin's actions up until recently, the seemingly deliberately provocative tone and content of his statements seem to clash powerfully and unmistakably with Moscow's calls for cooperation, stability, and security across Europe.

The most recent remarks from Putin and Surkov come amid discord within the EU about how to handle Russia, with two core members calling for a meeting with Putin -- following the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva on June 16 -- and others warning against.

As EU officials debated the idea on June 24, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at Kings College London, observed that the "timing is odd."

"In just the last week, the Kremlin has doubled down on its hounding of the opposition, declared an American university to be an 'undesirable organization,' lobbed projectiles in the general vicinity of a British naval ship, and mounted a valiant crusade against the forces of reality in the ongoing MH17 trial in The Hague -- none of which would seem to suggest 'c'mon, let's do business,'" Greene wrote in a newsletter.

Angela Merkel (left to right), Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin speak at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a summit on Ukraine in December 2019.
Angela Merkel (left to right), Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin speak at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a summit on Ukraine in December 2019.

While opponents of an EU-Russian summit proposal prevailed at least for now, Putin was certain to welcome the calls by France and Germany for European leaders to meet with him -- in fact, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly made clear that he had.

The warnings against -- from Kyiv and EU members including Lithuania, whose president said that engaging Moscow "without any positive changes in Russia's behavior" would "send a very bad signal to our partners," including Ukraine -- reflected, among other concerns, a lack of trust in the Kremlin's stated motives.

Not that Western leaders who have met with Putin, or are advocating an EU-Russia summit, have said anything about trusting him. Macron said that dialogue with Russia "is necessary for the stability of the European continent, but it will be demanding because we will not give up any of our values."

Trust Me

At a solo press conference after the Geneva summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, Putin said he thought he saw "glimmers" of trust emerging in their talks -- a remark that seemed to indicate that he cares about whether Western leaders trust him, or at least whether the Russian people, who will vote in September parliamentary elections that will test one of his main levers of power, the United Russia party, think they do.

Biden, at his own solo press conference a little later, countered by saying: "This is not about trust. This is about self-interest."

Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Joe Biden prior to the summit in Geneva on June 16.
Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Joe Biden prior to the summit in Geneva on June 16.

Trust has been a problem for Putin at home, too. The lack of it, more precisely, has contributed to a new COVID wave driven in part by hesitancy among tens of millions of Russians to get vaccinated.

Russians' trust in Putin is far from its highest levels. When asked to name several Russian politicians they trust, about 33 percent named Putin in a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in May, before the spike in coronavirus cases was evident. The number was well above the 23 percent recorded on July 2020, but far below the 59 percent registered late in 2017.

Like Macron a week later, Biden said in Geneva that in seeking what U.S. officials have called a "stable and predictable relationship" with Russia, the United States would "speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view."

They and other Western leaders will have their work cut out for them, by all indications: The Russian state's crackdown on opponents of the Kremlin -- real, perceived, and in some cases, according to government critics, conjured out of thin air -- has continued apace.

One of the victims this week: Bard College, a small U.S. liberal-arts institution whose respected program with a university in St. Petersburg has awarded degrees to more than 2,000 students, most of them from Russia and other former Soviet republics in what Bard called an "exemplary model for Russian-American relations."

Fear And Disfavor

On June 21, authorities moved to list Bard as an "undesirable foreign organization," saying it "represents a threat to the constitutional order and security" of the country -- an allegation one Russian professor said was the product of "self-defeating state paranoia."

Government opponents also see paranoia, or plain old fear, in the state's efforts to bar millions of people from running in elections.

Three months before the elections, the independent vote-monitoring group Golos said that legal restrictions enacted by the government had deprived at least 9 million otherwise eligible Russians -- and probably many more -- of their right to run for public office.

Now-imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was barred from challenging Putin for the presidency in 2018. Today, the swelling ranks of those who have been deprived of the right to be elected include, or will soon include, thousands of people who have worked for or backed organizations founded by Navalny.

Those groups, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of offices nationwide, were deemed "extremist" by a Moscow court on June 9. Five days earlier, Putin had signed a bill barring members and supporters of "extremist "organizations from running in elections at any level.

In the long run, experts say Putin's government may be shooting itself in the foot with the extremism designation -- in part because the designation is inaccurate.

"The popular movement Navalny has come to represent is the most ideologically committed to peaceful, nonviolent political change that Russia has ever seen," Greg Afinogenov, an assistant professor of Imperial Russian history at Georgetown University, wrote in an opinion article in The Guardian on June 21. "It has made millions of people, many of them young, into civic activists working to repair -- rather than overthrow -- the post-Soviet state."

"In closing a vital safety valve for what is otherwise a closed system," he wrote, Putin's government "is endangering its own future."

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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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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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