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The Week In Russia: Back In The U.S.S.R. And Putin's Peculiar Way With Words

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a large screen as he speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a large screen as he speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 19.

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His penchant for sometimes crude jokes and would-be zingers delivered with a smirk notwithstanding, Russian President Vladimir Putin hardly has the reputation of a wordsmith. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but most of Putin's power plays involve the use of force or the threat of it: Think military actions in Ukraine and Syria, and clampdowns of protesters across his own country.

But in a way, Putin does seem to have a way with words: a way of making them sound like they mean something they don't. Or of leaving the meaning unclear, seemingly deliberately. Or of saying one thing -- and also its opposite.

These tactics were on display during Putin's annual press conference, along with a tendency to find points of reference in the Soviet era, a time that for millions of Russians is at most just a fading childhood memory.

One example of Putin using quite a few words to say very little of substance was the point when he seemed to deny that there are Russians fighting in the war in eastern Ukraine -- but did not actually deny it.

"There are no foreign troops there," Putin said of the Donbas, where the war between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014 -- and where the withdrawal of foreign forces is a key step stipulated by the main blueprint for peace, the 2015 agreement known as Minsk 2. "Yes, there are the local police and local self-defense forces -- they consist of local residents."

While Kyiv and NATO say there is incontrovertible evidence that Russia has sent troops into Ukraine to fight in what the International Criminal Court (ICC) has ruled is "an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation," Putin's wording this year sounded closer to a denial than in 2015, when he indicated that there were Russians carrying out military "tasks" there.

Taunting The Mediators?

But it was still no denial. The word "troops" seems to allow for the presence of mercenaries or even armed members of units with Russian military intelligence or other state outfits. Plus, Putin acknowledged that there are mercenaries fighting in the Donbas -- though the only countries of origin he mentioned were France and Germany, the two nations that are mediating the peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Putin's patently false suggestion in that particularly blatant piece of trolling, in effect, was that the level of Russian military involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine is no greater than -- or perhaps even less than -- that of Germany or France.

Putin's press conference came just 10 days after holding talks with the leaders of those two countries, and his first meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at a summit that was aimed to advance a solution but produced little visible progress.

His remarks on the conflict seemed to signal, if nothing else, that he is prepared to hold Ukraine to its commitments under Minsk 2 -- at least as the Kremlin interprets them -- but to use false or dubious claims to avoid adhering to Russia's commitments.

If Putin's remarks on the war in the Donbas contained nothing substantially new, his lengthy answer to a state news agency reporter's lengthy question about the constitution, political plurality, and his future plans produced one of his clearest signals ever about whether he intends to retain power after 2024, when his fourth term as president is due to end -- and if so, how.

But saying one of the clearest signals yet is not saying much, and his remarks left much more unsaid than said.

2024 Problem

Putin's annual news conference is often noticeably devoid of news. And so, ears pricked up quickly, tweeters tweeted, and live blogs got livelier when he said that one way to change the constitution would be to remove the word "consecutive" from the clause that says no single person can serve more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2012.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2012.

At first, some startled reporters thought he was talking about removing the two-term limit altogether. Such a remark would be an unmistakable signal that -- after ceding the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-12 in order to remain in power without violating the constitution -- he would throw caution to the wind and serve a third straight term, a fifth overall, starting in 2024.

Entertaining the idea of stripping out the word "consecutive" sends a far different signal, dangling an assurance from Putin that he will not seek the presidency again, neither in 2024 nor in 2030, when he would be eligible under the current wording of the constitution.

While few Kremlin watchers expect he would take that road anyway, the statement seems like a pretty big deal. But there are several caveats.

For one thing, Putin only said the constitution could "probably" be changed in this way. While in some cases even such vague wording implies that it will be done, and fairly soon, there is certainly no guarantee in this case -- it might have been nothing more than a feint, or a trial balloon.

Then there were those who warned: "Wait, what if making the change would provide Putin with a clean slate, counting his current stint or a new one -- starting in 2024, perhaps -- as his first for the purposes of the altered two-term limit?"

That would potentially pave the way for Putin to remain in the Kremlin though 2036, though he would be well over 80, and such a trick -- finding a "way to extend his rule by shrouding it in a measure that at its face value makes the system more democratic," as one journalist put it -- might spark anger among those Russians still seething over the "castling" with Medvedev. (Fool me once, shame on you…)

Choices, Choices

Another possibility is that removing "consecutive" would be a way to limit the staying power of future presidents -- while Putin, meanwhile, could shift to a different role but continue to rule.

The Kremlin has shown signs that it is considering several possible ways to make that scenario happen, including taking the helm of a beefed-up union between Russia and Belarus and emulating longtime Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, who stepped down as president earlier in 2019 but holds other key positions as well as a title that translates as "leader of the nation."

Will Putin take a leaf out of the book of his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev?
Will Putin take a leaf out of the book of his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev?

Another option could be to weaken the Russian presidency and strengthen now less potent branches of power such as the parliament and the cabinet, enabling Putin to hold power as prime minister or head some other institution that would be handed increased authority.

While his remarks about presidential terms grabbed most of the attention, other parts of the same answer strongly suggested that Putin is leaving the door wide open to such changes in the constitution -- which he called a "living instrument," meaning one whose existing wording is far from set in stone.

Parliament's powers could be widened and the "prerogatives" of the president and prime minister altered, he said, as long as such a shift was done "very carefully" and preceded by "good preparations and a deep discussion in society."

There's plenty of time for that before 2024.

Balalaikas Ringing Out?

Putin left the future uncertain during his four-hour, 18-minute performance, which in some ways was not really a press conference. And he spent a lot of time talking about the past -- the Soviet era, in particular, which he evoked as better days, in some cases, but also for the sake of comparison, to show that things have improved.

Some observers questioned whether that was the best way to reach an audience that includes millions of people who have little memory of the Soviet era.

Others pointed out that since he has been in power as president or prime minister for 20 years, he's had some time to make improvements

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear next week. It will resume in the new year on January 3.

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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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