‘Putin Is Forever’
Vladimir Putin is celebrating his diplomatic triumph in New York. But not all Russians are thrilled.
Olga Romanova sounded depressed. A harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, she'd just been watching TV news footage from New York City that showed Putin and Barack Obama clinking champagne glasses like a pair of old friends. Russia’s state-dominated media trumpeted the meeting between the two leaders, which came soon after Putin’s triumphant appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, as evidence that Moscow’s recent diplomatic isolation had come to an end. “He managed to make a deal with the West and get out of the dog house,” Romanova told me. She wasn’t exactly happy about the news. “One thing is absolutely clear -- Putin is forever. I will be 75 when he goes away, if I even live to see that day.”
Olga Romanova sounded depressed. A harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, she’d just been watching TV news footage from New York City that showed Putin and Barack Obama clinking champagne glasses like a pair of old friends. Russia’s state-dominated media trumpeted the meeting between the two leaders, which came soon after Putin’s triumphant appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, as evidence that Moscow’s recent diplomatic isolation had come to an end. “He managed to make a deal with the West and get out of the dog house,” Romanova told me. She wasn’t exactly happy about the news. “One thing is absolutely clear — Putin is forever. I will be 75 when he goes away, if I even live to see that day.”
Putin’s admirers — who are, of course, plentiful in Russia — greeted their president’s seeming rehabilitation with enthusiasm. They share his belief that Moscow deserves the West’s respect for its principled stand in Syria, where Putin has vowed to do anything he can to prop up the regime of Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad. But the happiness of Putin’s nationalist base was mirrored by the despair of Russia’s urban intelligentsia, the same people who participated in huge public demonstrations against Putin’s government in 2011 and 2013. They’re also the people who make up the core audience of radio station Ekho Moskvy. When the station polled its listeners right after Putin’s trip to the United States, 62 percent of them concluded that the president, buoyed up by his latest foreign policy successes, would now be able to stay in office as long as he liked.
These days Romanova and her colleagues spend much of their time wondering which of the country’s few remaining liberal politicians will be the next to face an attack from the government. One name currently bruited about is that of Anatoly Chubais, the head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation, a state-owned company. In the 1990s, Chubais had been President Yeltsin’s chief of staff and his first deputy prime minister, posts he used to focus on economic reforms and privatization. After Putin’s rise to power, Chubais was one of the few Yeltsin confidantes to retain a high position in the new political establishment. But some Russian liberals fear that even such a formerly powerful man might now be vulnerable.
“Anybody — from a rich Moscow businessman to a Syrian refugee without any paperwork — can fall victim to injustice and go to jail today,” said human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina. “The state institutions don’t function. The court system fails to implement laws.” And her worries aren’t just about human rights. As she sees it, Russia’s government is no longer capable of safeguarding the national interest. For her, the news that Russian warplanes had begun bombing rebel targets in Syria — apparently killing civilians along the way — presaged endless disaster, a new, Afghanistan-like Middle Eastern quagmire. “Today’s leadership is doing everything to break Russia into pieces,” she said.
Between 2002 and 2012, Gannushkina, the leader and co-founder of a civic organization that provides aid to refugees, was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights — first under Putin, and then under his (temporary) successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Recently Gannushkina’s organization, which has provided legal support to thousands of refugees from Ukraine and the Middle East, was declared to be a “foreign agent” under a harsh new 2012 law aimed at restricting western assistance to Russian organizations that work in sensitive areas. That classification deprived her group, the Civic Assistance Committee, of most of its vital grants from foreign organizations. Since then, Gannushkina and her colleagues have struggled to help their charges, at times even contributing their own money.
The Civic Assistance Committee is just one of 94 organizations that have been declared “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice over the past three years. On Thursday, the oldest member of Putin’s human rights council, 88-year-old activist and historian Lyudmila Alekseyeva, asked the jet-lagged Putin to explain to the council why businesses are appreciated for bringing investments to Russia, while non-profits who use Western money to help Russian citizens are deemed worthy of persecution. Putin did not respond.
The liberals’ despair is plain. But Putin’s triumph in New York also left some other Russians confused.
Commenting on the Russian leader’s image at the U.N., the independent Russian TV channel Dozhd took a sarcastic tone, describing Putin’s charm offensive as a well-rehearsed ballet staged by the Kremlin. In the first act, Putin opened a newly restored mosque in Moscow — the city’s biggest — together with his allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Kaszakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The second act took place in New York, where “Putin is trying to say [that he is] the new, peaceful leader of a new anti-Hitler coalition — ‘I am legitimate and Assad is legitimate,’” as Rain’s editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar put it sarcastically.
Duma deputy Robert Schlegel, a member of the ruling United Russia party, admitted feeling a bit bewildered about Putin’s meeting with Obama and its Syrian aftermath. “I cannot describe one feeling; it was a wide range of mixed emotions. The negotiations gave us a weak hope that the tension in the situation [Russia’s isolation] would be released, but right after that we hear the U.S. blaming Russia for shelling peaceful cities on territory where there are no peaceful cities,” he said in an interview on Thursday. Schlegel added that he was “deeply disgusted” to see how the countries he blamed for making a mess in the Middle East are treating Russia.
Among those taken aback by the images of a new Russian-American rapprochement were members of the separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. Until he saw the pictures of Putin and Obama acting friendly, people like Sergei, a member of a rebel militia in Sloviansk, saw the U.S. as an enemy, along with Ukraine. “My worst expectations became a reality,” he told me on the phone. “I always thought that they’d flush us down the toilet, but I couldn’t imagine that Putin and Obama would become friends after our war, after all that slaughter, after we’ve all lost so many friends.”
As for Putin’s most hardcore Russian supporters? Some preferred to ignore the Putin-Obama courtship, under the assumption that it won’t last very long. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin did not deign to tweet any of the Kremlin’s images of the two leaders shaking hands. Yuri Krupnov, an adviser for Putin’s security hawks, expressed ambivalence, saying that the “astonishing” images from New York could mean anything. One thing he was sure of, though: that the attention to international crises will distract the public from their domestic concerns: “All the domestic issues and contradictions that fuel the protest movement will be pushed down on the list of priorities,” he said. And that, perhaps, was Putin’s goal all along.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.