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The Week In Russia: Fact-Check That Schadenfreude?

Images of Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attending mass on Orthodox Christmas morning seemed aimed at sending a message that contrasted this placid setting with the violence and chaos at the U.S. Capitol.

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Of all the irritants in the U.S.-Russian relationship, for Moscow one of the biggest seems to be U.S. criticism of its records on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the 21 years since President Vladimir Putin came to power -- as well as attendant actions such as the imposition of sanctions.

In documents ranging from foreign policy decrees to his congratulatory message to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, Putin has stressed that relations must be conducted on an "equal" basis. And at all levels of the power vertical -- from Putin to the powerless -- complaints about the United States sometimes take the form of a question: "What, are we worse?"

So, when footage of supporters of President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol, clashing with police, and entering congressional offices and auditoriums hit screens worldwide late on January 6, some of the responses from Russian diplomats and pro-Kremlin pundits and politicians seemed pretty predictable.

The first response from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was a Facebook repost of an American journalist's comment that the United States "will never again be able to tell the world" that it is "the paragon of democracy."

Konstantin Kosachyov, a lawmaker from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party who is chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper parliament house -- which, unlike the U.S. Senate, is not a popularly elected body -- voiced what may be a widespread view in Russian government circles.

"America no longer charts the course and therefore has lost all right to set it. Let alone impose it on others," he wrote on Facebook, describing U.S. democracy as "obviously limping on both legs."

Christmas Message?

Putin avoided direct comment on the momentous events in Washington -- but in doing so, in footage outside a church on a still-dark Orthodox Christmas morning, seemed to seek to send a message contrasting that placid setting with the violence and chaos at the U.S. Capitol.

That is a message that is sent assiduously by Russian officials and state media whenever there is unrest n the West and particularly in the United States, and the January 6 events -- like the protests over racial inequality and police violence in 2020 -- were no exception.

One thing is certainly true: Images of a crowd swarming toward a national legislature, breaching the building, clashing with police must have put millions of people or more in mind of upheaval in many former Soviet republics including Russia since 1991.

Kremlin-aligned commentators suggested that the United States was getting its own "color revolution" following this week's violence at the U.S. capitol.
Kremlin-aligned commentators suggested that the United States was getting its own "color revolution" following this week's violence at the U.S. capitol.

For millions or more, the fact that it was happening in Washington was a shock. And for the Kremlin, it fit well into that signaling and into a narrative that the United States is unstable and riven by potentially explosive political discord.

But Kosachyov, Zakharova, and others seemed to provide few convincing arguments linking the chaos at the U.S Capitol to their assertions that, as Kosachyov's counterpart in the lower chamber, Leonid Slutsky, put it, "The United States certainly cannot now impose its electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world's 'beacon of democracy.'"

Whether they commented while rioters were inside the U.S. legislature or after the area was cleared a few hours later -- and after five deaths or fatal injuries -- they tended to ignore or gloss over the fact that lawmakers had resumed the formal readout of Electoral College votes and soon reaffirmed Biden's victory over Trump in the November 3 election. He will be inaugurated on January 20.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Among those who did mention this fact was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose country is embroiled in a nearly seven-year war against Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of eastern Ukraine, while Russia continues to control the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it in March 2014.

"We strongly condemn the unprecedented violence against the US Congress. We are inspired by the resilience of this world's oldest & greatest democratic institution that within mere hours of this horrific attack held a historic session that affirmed the will of the American people," Zelenskiy tweeted on January 7.

Checks And Balances

Kremlin-aligned commentators suggested that the United States was getting its own "color revolution" – a reference to political change that has been brought on by massive crowds of people pressing for greater democracy by protesting on the streets of Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere in the past 20 years, rattling the Kremlin.

But whatever the individual motives of those in the crowd in Washington, a main goal there was to overturn an election result that stood up to multiple challenges in courts and other venues. In Belarus, demonstrators defying a harsh state crackdown in Belarus are protesting against the authoritarian ruler's claim of a landslide victory in an August election in a country where no election in more than 25 years has been deemed free, fair, or democratic by credible observers.

Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, suggested that it echoed Ukraine's Maidan demonstrations, which pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power -- and into self-imposed exile in Russia -- in 2014. But the massive, monthslong pro-European and anti-corruption protests in Kyiv were mainly peaceful, among many other differences.

And while Kremlin allies suggested that the mayhem in Washington showed that U.S. democracy was "limping on both legs," as Kosachyov put it, opponents of Putin challenged that idea, arguing instead that the system had showed resilience.

Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov contrasted the system of checks and balances in the United States with what he suggested was the lack of such safeguards in Russia, where parliament is dominated by United Russia and courts are widely seen as beholden to Putin's executive branch.

In the United States "there is a president, but there is also a parliament. And then there are the courts. And all these institutions…hold each other by the throats," Gudkov said in a post to Facebook. "And this is very good."

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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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