Letter From the Editors
Once in a while, you can’t help feeling sorry for Vladimir Putin. What should have been a triumphant week, in which he delivered his annual Message to the Federal Assembly, devolved into a debacle on several fronts. In his speech, of course, Vladimir Vladimirovich played the role of the benevolent statesman par excellence, focusing on lenient fiscal policy, pandemic recovery and aid to families with children. However, the domestic press was quick to find fault with his generosity. Rustem Vakhitov in Sovetskaya Rossia excoriated the president for doling out benefits to young people and ignoring pensioners. Tatyana Maleva, of the generally patriotic Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, took the Kremlin to task for passing over other needy groups: “Anything the government can do for children is fair. But, on the other hand, these families are definitely not the only ones living in poverty in Russia. We have poor people with disabilities. We have unemployed people. We have working people who don’t make enough money to put food on the table. . . . So, eventually these benefits should cover everybody.”
Furthermore, even though Putin seems to have deliberately avoided his usual provocative rhetoric about Western enemies, a Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial argues that his emphasis on the government looking after its people was in itself a political message, invoking a Soviet-style social contract: “If the government provides people with housing and jobs, protects them against criminals and terrorists, offers medical services and vaccines during a pandemic, why on earth would anyone be unhappy? The only explanation is an outside instigator.”
As if to confirm that implied point, news broke in neighboring Belarus that Russian intelligence had helped the Belarussian KGB uncover a conspiracy to eliminate President Lukashenko and his children. According to batka himself, foreign special services were involved in the plot, “most likely the CIA and FBI.” This should have been music to the ears of the Kremlin (not to mention the loyal Russian public), if it weren’t for some glaring inconsistencies in the story. For example, Anton Khodasevich writes that Russia’s FSB claimed that the plot targeted not just the Lukashenko family, but the entire upper echelon of the Minsk regime: “The coup was scheduled for May 9, when there was to be a Victory Parade in Minsk. In actuality, no Victory Parade is planned in the Belarussian capital this year.”
Such a flawed account is enough to make Russian intelligence seem, well, unintelligent at best. But its reputation really tanked when the Czech government announced that officers from Russia’s Chief Intelligence Administration (GRU) were responsible for an explosion at an arms depot in the town of Vrbetice in 2014. As Mark Galeotti comments wryly: “It can be disconcerting to discover you have been at war for seven years.” In the blink of an eye, one of the precious few European countries whose president could be considered a friend of Putin turned into an enemy. The Czech Foreign Ministry immediately expelled 18 Russian diplomats, and Rosatom (Russia’s atomic energy giant) was declared ineligible to bid on a contract to renovate the Czech Republic’s nuclear power station in Dukovany.
To add insult to injury, the Czech police’s organized crime squad announced that the two members of GRU who allegedly rigged the explosion were none other than Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, the same men accused by British officials of poisoning former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018.
Could things get any worse for the Kremlin’s standing in the eyes of the world? Yes, they could – and they did. Joe Biden (remember him – the guy who assented on US national TV that Putin could be called a killer?) announced on April 23 that Washington was expanding sanctions against Moscow for bullying Ukraine, interfering in the 2020 US election, and more. Don’t you feel sorry for Vladimir Putin? After this week of cringingly bad press, all he has left is the perpetual, undisputed leadership of the world’s largest country.