BERLIN – President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference last Thursday lasted three hours and 11 minutes and didn’t produce much in the way of news, with the possible exception of his praise for Donald Trump and his semi-admission that Russian servicemen are involved in the war in eastern Ukraine. Something else made the spectacle worth watching: Putin gave the clearest display in years of how he splits the world into friends and loyal allies on one side, and enemies and those who only deserve to be manipulated on the other.
Early in the press conference, Putin was asked if he planned any changes to the government. His reply, basically: “No, you know, in the rather long time that I’ve been working one could probably notice that I am very protective of people.”
That’s true. He often has favored and rarely moved to replace bureaucrats who have worked with him for a long time. He’s also been good to businesspeople he’s known since his Leningrad childhood. That’s an important part of his code — he is loyal to those who are loyal to him. In the 2000 book of interviews “First Person,” Putin said that people “express themselves through friends.” He recalled that as a senior official he kept up a correspondence with his friends in the former East German secret police, Stasi, even after they were disgraced in Germany. Asked if he’d ever been betrayed, Putin was silent, then said, “No. Friends haven’t betrayed me.”
Before the news conference, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s staunchest opponents, pressed journalists to ask the president about corruption accusations against Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and the possible link between the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The questions were asked, but Putin’s answers were vague. He said it remains to be determined whether the prosecutor had a conflict of interest, making clear that Chaika wasn’t in immediate danger. Putin also promised that Nemtsov’s murder would be investigated, but he shrugged off any connection to Kadyrov.
Asked about a new system of tolls for heavy trucks that is administered by a company that is partly owned by the son of his childhood friend Arkady Rotenberg, Putin joked: “You mentioned young Rotenberg, but his father doesn’t have a job in the government, as far as I know. Perhaps he’s infiltrated it somehow, but I don’t think so.”
Chaika, Kadyrov, Rotenberg have been unfailingly loyal to Putin, and he’s not about to betray them. The same goes for Joseph Blatter. The disgraced chief of soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, earned this accolade: “He has done a lot for the development of world soccer. Do you understand, his global humanitarian contribution is colossal. He always tried to use soccer not just as a sport but as an element of cooperation between nations and people. Here’s who should get the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Even as he defends his friends and loyalists, Putin is always willing to believe the worst of his enemies. An innocuous question from a Georgian reporter set off a tirade against Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s former president who is now governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine. Putin called Saakashvili’s appointment “a spit in the face of the Ukrainian people” and went on: “By the way, I think Saakashvili failed to get a work visa in the U.S., but they sent him to Ukraine, let him play boss there.”
Saakashvili has denied seeking a U.S. work permit, and there is no evidence he has. Russia’s propaganda media spread the rumor for a while, then desisted. Putin, however, is willing to repeat it. Enemies are fair game. That goes for the United States, which Putin missed no chance to criticize even when the question was unrelated. Then there’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Putin said he saw no chance of a reconciliation after the downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border last month.
As for those who are neither friends nor enemies, Putin has little feeling for them one way or another. That may explain the liberties he often takes with the truth to put a positive gloss on his actions — and the ease with which he abandons the subterfuge. For months, he denied the involvement of Russian troops in seizing Crimea from Ukraine last year — then he proudly admitted that he had planned the entire operation himself and that he ordered Russian airborne units to Crimea.
He continued to deny that Russian troops were involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but when a journalist asked him about two Russian intelligence officers captured there, the president replied: “We have never said that there aren’t people there who are involved in resolving certain matters, including those in the military sphere, but that doesn’t mean regular Russian troops are present there. Feel the difference.”
The subtlety was lost on some: President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine treated Putin’s comments as an admission of Russian military involvement, and that’s what they were. It wasn’t a slip, though: The words are included in the official transcript of the news conference. Putin simply has no qualms about misinforming people who matter little to him, or about admitting that he did so when it suited him.
That’s why Trump, if he really hopes to win the U.S. presidential election, shouldn’t read too much into Putin’s praise: “He’s a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt. It’s not our job to judge his qualities, that’s a job for American voters, but he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race. He says he wants to move on to a new, more substantial relationship, a deeper relationship with Russia, how can we not welcome that?”
Could it be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Could Putin and Trump really “get along,” as the latter suggested on numerous occasions? Not likely.
Everything is personal to Putin, and that may be his biggest weakness. His loyalty forces him to perpetuate a corrupt system that can only keep Russians in check by force now that oil money is drying up. These ties will make him step up pressure on Russia’s economically weakened citizens next year instead of liberalizing the system and letting business and civil society breathe more freely.
His undiluted hatred for his enemies will continue causing economic pain and make it difficult to achieve international goals such as maintaining an influence on Ukraine and reaching a settlement in Syria.
Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.