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The Week In Russia: The Most Dangerous (Blame) Game?

In some ways, it’s a very familiar situation: Ahead of an election, Vladimir Putin claims -- without evidence -- that Washington and the West are behind unprecedented protests against him and his government.
In some ways, it’s a very familiar situation: Ahead of an election, Vladimir Putin claims -- without evidence -- that Washington and the West are behind unprecedented protests against him and his government.

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President Vladimir Putin’s government stepped up its campaign to blame the West for protests and more as the Kremlin gears up for elections later this year, demonstratively expelling European diplomats during an ill-fated fence-mending visit from the EU foreign policy chief.

Meanwhile, good news about Russia’s coronavirus vaccine was followed by grim news about the damage already done by COVID-19. And jailed Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny was in court again, this time facing a slander charge.

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

Time And Again

In some ways, it’s a very familiar situation: Ahead of an election, Vladimir Putin claims -- without evidence -- that Washington and the West, bent on holding Russia back, are behind unprecedented protests against him and his government.

It happened in 2011, when Putin claimed -- without evidence -- that then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “set the tone” and sent “a signal” to Russian opposition activists, including Navalny.

And it happened this week, after a series of protests that followed Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany, where he was recuperating from a nearly fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin.

At a private meeting on February 11, Putin reportedly told Russian media editors that “you and I know that the unauthorized demonstrations are inspired by the West” and that Navalny -- whom he continued to avoid calling by his name, according to The Bell, which cited three unidentified sources -- “is being used by external actors” seeking to “contain” Russia.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny inside a glass cage during a hearing on charges of defamation in a Moscow court on February 12
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny inside a glass cage during a hearing on charges of defamation in a Moscow court on February 12

In 2011 and in 2021, Putin’s remarks were part of a series of statements and actions that observers have said were -- and are -- aimed at laying blame on the West for domestic challenges faced by the Kremlin and tightening control by hemming in civil society, suppressing dissent, and silencing real and perceived opponents at home.

In 2011, they came ahead of a March 2012 election that put Putin back in the presidency after four years as prime minister. His plan to return to the Kremlin, announced in September 2011, was a chief catalyst -- along with parliamentary elections marred by evidence of widespread fraud in favor of the ruling United Russia party -- for months of street protests that rattled the government.

The protests in the past few weeks -- and an unusual action planned for February 14 -- were sparked by the arrest of Navalny upon his return to Russia and a court ruling ordering his imprisonment for 2 years and 8 months due to what he and his supporters say is an absurd claim that he violated parole on one of his previous financial-crimes convictions.

But protesters across the country have come out for many reasons, driven by motives including anger over corruption, concerns about the economy and their own well-being, and -- as in 2011 – a desire for political change and an end to the rule of Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999.

Elections Ahead

And the rallies come before elections to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that are expected in September and which will test Putin and United Russia, his main lever of influence, across the country, ahead of a decision on whether he will run for another six-year term in 2024 -- an option he handed himself by pushing through constitutional amendments last year.

While Putin’s rhetoric is familiar, the accusations against the West seem more pronounced and more carefully planned this time, if no more grounded in fact.

The sense of curated confrontation was on display during a visit from European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who came to Russia to mix engagement with expressions of concern at the Kremlin’s conduct but who faced criticism in Brussels after being targeted in what seemed like a pointed piece of trolling by Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) attends a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Moscow on February 5.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) attends a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Moscow on February 5.

As he was holding a joint news conference with his host, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it emerged that Russia had ordered the expulsion of diplomats from EU member states Germany, Poland, and Sweden, accusing them of participating in the protests over Navalny’s jailing -- an unusual assertion because Western embassies often send employees to observe such events, not to take part.

The message appeared to be simple: that Russia’s resolve will not flag in the face of Western criticism.

Moscow briefly doubled down on this signaling on February 12, with Lavrov warning that Russia is ready for a “break” with the EU -- indicating it is prepared to sever ties -- if new sanctions are imposed. He spoke after a Reuters report cited three unidentified European diplomats as saying the EU is likely to impose travel bans and asset freezes on allies of Putin, possibly this month.

Lavrov’s remarks were clearly meant to display defiance, dissuade the EU from imposing new sanctions, and blame the West in advance for any further fraying of ties. But it may also have betrayed concern on Moscow’s part about the potential consequences of the standoff.

Lavrov’s words were a “clear and striking admission from Lavrov that sanctions harm Russia’s economy,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said in a tweet.

Charge And Retreat

In any case, Moscow seemed quick to climb down from the threat implied by Lavrov: After a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said his remarks were “really disconcerting and incomprehensible,” both the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry said that Russia is ready to sever ties if the EU does so first. That clarification suggested that sanctions would not necessarily trigger such a move.

Another message Moscow seemed to send with the diplomatic expulsions may have been that Moscow cares little about the credibility of its own claims -- at least in eyes of the West -- if they serve the purpose of framing Russia, for a domestic audience, as a victim of “Russophobia” and a target of destructive plotting by the United States and Europe.

“The Russophobia narrative is the air it breathes,” journalist and commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion article published on February 11, referring to what he called the “Russian propaganda apparatus.”

Some of the most dramatic anti-Western rhetoric since Navalny’s return has come, as in the past, from outside the government -- or at least from people who the Kremlin says are not speaking on its behalf.

On February 10, the editor in chief of state media outlets RT and Sputnik, Margarita Simonyan, a vocal critic of the United States and the European Union, called for the government to ban the use of foreign-based social networks in Russia.

In a Telegram post the following day, Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya pointed out that Putin has repeatedly said he opposes such a dramatic step -- but then pointed to developments that could potentially change that, including Kremlin concern about street protests and public discontent.

“Let’s see which way the scales tip, but time is against foreign IT companies,” Stanovaya wrote.

U.S.-based IT companies also came in for criticism in a sprawling but seemingly carefully calibrated screed against the West that was published in the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta on the same day Simonyan called for their closure.

Missing The Moment?

The article, filled with baseless, biased comments that seemed to veer close to hate speech and which was billed as the “manifesto” of Russian theater and film director Konstantin Bogomolov, took aim at an array of targets, including but by no means limited to U.S. President Joe Biden and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It also appeared to promote a number of Kremlin goals while echoing official criticism of targets such as communists, Europe, 1990s Russia, and revolution.

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Bershidsky’s remark about propaganda, however, came not in the context of Moscow’s relations with the West but of Sputnik V, the coronavirus vaccine that Russia registered in August.

The decision announced by Putin made Russia the first country to approve a vaccine for use -- but Moscow has had trouble selling the vaccine abroad and among its own citizens, at least before a study published on February 2 in the medical journal The Lancet that indicated it is largely safe and about 91 percent effective in preventing people from developing COVID-19.

The Russian government “funded the development of a highly effective, highly competitive vaccine by the first-class brains that… are not rare in Russian research institutions,” Bershidsky wrote, but “its heavy-handed politicized bungling of marketing and distribution has, in effect, held back its global success.”

The good tidings from The Lancet contrasted with grim news about the damage already done by the coronavirus in Russia, where critics say Putin lost precious time by initially underestimating the danger of the virus and then risked putting citizens in danger for the sake of a vote last summer on the constitutional amendments enabling him to potentially remain president until 2036.

Life And Death

Statistics published by the state agency Rosstat on February 8 indicated that the number of Russians who lost their lives as a result of COVID-19 was 162,429, nearly triple the figure -- about 57,600 -- initially reported by the country’s official coronavirus task force.

Separately, a researcher at Tubingen University in Germany estimated that excess mortality in Russia in 2020 was close to 380,000 -- another suggestion that Russian authorities may have dramatically underreported the toll from the coronavirus.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the figures reflect the “harsh reality” that “all countries of the world face in the era of the pandemic,” and that "excess mortality in 2020 appeared in nearly every country of the world and it’s at levels we wouldn’t like to see.”

However, the German study indicated that the difference between the estimated number of excess deaths and the number of officially recorded COVID-19 deaths was far higher in Russia than in many other countries.

'Refusing To Worship'

As Moscow sparred with the West over its treatment of Navalny, the jailed opposition leader was in court again on February 12 for a heated hearing in a defamation case that he contends the Kremlin has engineered to discredit him in the eyes of the people.

Navalny is accused of slandering a World War II veteran, now 94, who took part in a promotional video in support of the constitutional amendments that cleared the way for Putin to run for two more terms after his current six-year Kremlin stint ends in 2024, if he wants.

In a tweet, Bershidsky echoed Navalny’s criticism of the case, saying that “Navalny's latest trial is for refusing to worship in the Great Patriotic War cult” -- a reference to what critics say is Putin’s use of the issue of World War II as a tool for propaganda targeting both Russians and the rest of the world.

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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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