Is Vladimir Putin trying to moderate his confrontational stance against the West? There are two recent data points to consider: Putin’s speech at the annual Kremlin-organized Valdai Political Forum, and a leak from a high-profile Russian official attending the same forum.
When asked by the Economist‘s Arkady Ostrovsky about Russia’s reckless rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons, Putin appeared to backtrack:
With regard to nuclear weapons, brandishing nuclear weapons is the last thing to do. This is harmful rhetoric, and I do not welcome it. But we must proceed from reality and from the fact that nuclear weapons are a deterrent and a factor of ensuring peace and security worldwide. It is impossible to consider them as a factor in any potential aggression, because it is impossible, and it would probably mean the end of our civilisation.
However, it is abundantly clear that nuclear weapons are a deterrent and many experts believe that the possession of nuclear arms by leading countries was one of the reasons why the world has not experienced a major armed conflict in the more than 70 years since the end of World War II. But it is important to observe non-proliferation of both nuclear arms and their delivery vehicles. Also, all nuclear powers must assume a highly responsible attitude toward their nuclear status. This is exactly what Russia intends to do despite any statements that are likely to be made in the heat of the debate. Let me repeat that at the government level Russia will approach its nuclear status very responsibly.
Putin’s new cool tone stands in stark relief to the kind of heated language used by apparatchiks and officials alike in the past few years. It all started with Dmitry Kiselev, the face of Russian propaganda, the mendacious host of the Vesti Nedeli show on the Rossiya TV Channel. In March 2014, right after the Crimea annexation, Kiselev called Russia “the only country that is able to reduce the United States to nuclear dust”.
This memorable statement seemed to open the floodgates: all kinds of Russian officials went public with their own deranged, dark fantasies of nuclear armageddon. And while some merely hinted at possible nuclear weapon use by Russia (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would fully implement its military doctrine to defend Crimea’s territorial integrity), others spoke more plainly on the topic. Russia’s Ambassador to Denmark Michael Vanin, in his column for Jyllands Posten in March of 2015 said that if “Denmark joins NATO’s missile defense system, Danish military ships will become targets for Russian nuclear missiles.” Lower-level officials weren’t far behind with their own bluster.
A more intriguing set of comments, attributed to Putin, were leaked to Bloomberg on the sidelines of the Valdai conference:
One senior official told of a Cabinet meeting where President Vladimir Putin reported on a “high risk” incident in which his military jets buzzed the U.S. Navy in the Black Sea. When some at the table cheered with phrases like, “they deserve it,’’ Putin shut them down, saying, “are you crazy?” according to the official, who spoke on Valdai’s traditional condition of anonymity.
(The incident in question is probably the one that took place on September 7, 2016, when a Russian Su-27 fighter intercepted an American Navy surveillance plane over the Black Sea, coming within 10 feet of it.)
So there are several questions that Vladimir Putin has left open after Valdai.
First, was he in any way being honest when he spoke about nuclear weapons or was he blowing smoke again? And second, was the leak from an official a well-timed disclosure meant to make Putin’s speech sound even more reasonable, or was it a real account?
On the one hand, the Kremlin is well-known for using the media for its own purposes when it needs to. And Putin himself is not uncomfortable contradicting himself. Remember, for example his statements on Crimea: First, he claimed there wasn’t a single Russian soldier on the peninsula, and a half a year later he was bragging that Russian troops had helped Crimea hold a referendum. As for the incident in the Black Sea—the most recent one—happened one and a half months ago. Why would the story leak just now, if not to influence coverage of Valdai?
But if the leak happened to be real, then a more important question comes to mind: Is Vladimir Putin fully in charge of the country? Since Crimea, most Russian Kremlin-watchers have agreed that Vladimir Putin had completely lost interest in domestic policy, and had focused entirely on foreign affairs. The agenda of his colleagues in charge of military affairs got top priority, while the financial and social service bureaucracies received little attention.
As Ivan Krastev wrote in the New York Times last year, citing former Kremlin “political technologist” Gleb Pavlovsky:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, […] after Mr. Putin took personal responsibility for the annexation of Crimea and won the support of more than 80 percent of the population, he lost interest in day-to-day decision making. He wants to be informed about everything, but is reluctant to play national housekeeper. Ministers […] spend endless hours waiting by Mr. Putin’s office to take orders, but in the end he doesn’t order, he only listens. What runs the Kremlin today is not Mr. Putin’s will but his ambiguity. Wars among different power factions, as a result, have escalated.
Perhaps Vladimir Putin’s indifference went too far. Rumors abound in Moscow these days that it might have. Russia’s President is said to be in bad health, which some speculate might have forced him to delegate some of his decision-making to a particular person or a group of persons.
And as unbelievable as it might sound, recent mysterious events in Serbia give this theory some credence. Briefly: several Russian nationals were said to have been expelled from Serbia on allegations of having been involved in preparing a terror attack against authorities in Montenegro. The head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, was urgently dispatched to Belgrade to smooth over this unprecedented scandal. If Putin had approved the mess in Montenegro, would he have reacted like this? Most probably, not.
So has someone else been pulling the strings behind Vladimir Putin’s back? Or is this just the classic Russian “good tsar, bad boyars” argument being unleashed on Western observers? It’s impossible to tell at this point what’s really going on. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying close attention.