Russian President Vladimir Putin is inching closer to seizing president-for-life status in Moscow, despite a lowered approval rating in recent months and a range of coronavirus-connected challenges to his carefully crafted image as a 21st century czar.
Mr. Putin, who has worked behind-the-scenes since early this year to engender sweeping constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power for another 16 years, went public Sunday with his intention to remain in office after his current term ends.
Russian news agencies quoted him as saying in an interview that he’s considering running for a new term if voters approve the constitutional changes he has been pushing since January. Reuters noted that Russia will hold a nationwide vote from June 25 to July 1 on the proposed changes, including an amendment that would allow Mr. Putin to seek two more six-year terms as president when his current mandate ends in 2024.
Mr. Putin is 67 and has held power in Moscow since 1999. Should the changes he’s pushing be adopted, the road may be paved for him to remain in office until 2036, well into his 80s.
Critics claim the upcoming vote on the changes could be rigged and assert the situation amounts to an authoritarian power grab.
In a sign a pre-orchestrated restructuring was in the works last January, several top Russian officials — including Mr. Putin’s number two, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — submitted resignations abruptly after Mr. Putin proposed the constitutional changes in his state of the nation address.
He called for shifting authority to Russia’s parliament in a manner that would give it the authority to create a future leadership position for him.
During more recent months, it had appeared that momentum behind Mr. Putin’s push for the changes was waning. The Russian president had suddenly taken on an uncharacteristically low profile during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus had forced the Russian leader to postpone what had originally been scheduled to be an April vote on the constitutional changes. He also had to delay a massive, patriotic May 9 Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of the country’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Then there were indications last month that Mr. Putin’s approval ratings were down. Polling by Moscow’s independent Levada Center had the ratings at roughly 60%, a two-decade low in contrast to the astounding 84% they were at back in 2014 after Moscow had annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russia separatist forces in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin appears bent on weathering the current storm.
“I do not rule out the possibility of running for office, if this [option] comes up in the constitution we’ll see,” he was quoted as saying Sunday in an interview with state TV that was shown in Russia’s far east before airing in western Russia, according to Reuters.
“I have not decided anything for myself yet,” he said.
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Putin proposes that U.S., Russia sign pact to stop election meddling
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday suggested that Russia and the U.S. sign a pact promising to not interfere in each other’s elections. The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2017 that Russia conducted covert operations designed to put President Trump in the White House. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year also confirmed that Russia…
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday suggested that Russia and the U.S. sign a pact promising to not interfere in each other’s elections.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2017 that Russia conducted covert operations designed to put President Trump in the White House.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year also confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the goal of electing Mr. Trump and has warned that Moscow will likely seek to interfere in the upcoming election.
In a statement, Mr. Putin proposed “exchanging guarantees of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and electoral processes, including using information and communication technologies and high-tech methods.”
“We would like to once again appeal to the United States with a proposal to approve a comprehensive program of practical measures to reset our relations in the use of information and communication technologies,” he said.
The Russian president proposed that Washington and Moscow sign an agreement to prevent “large-scale confrontation in the digital sphere.” He suggested it could look similar to a 1972 treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union anti-ballistic missile treaty that was agreed to at the height of the Cold War.
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Vladimir Putin denies Alexei Navalny poisoning
The Kremlin may be brushing off allegations that it poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but U.S. sources say the case fits a pattern of targeted killings and assassination attempts against figures who challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule — and may be a sign of unease in the Kremlin. While Mr. Putin may appear…
The Kremlin may be brushing off allegations that it poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but U.S. sources say the case fits a pattern of targeted killings and assassination attempts against figures who challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule — and may be a sign of unease in the Kremlin.
While Mr. Putin may appear to have unassailable power — having recently pushed through constitutional changes that could keep him in the presidency for at least another decade — analysts say he is showing new levels of concern about critics and challenges to his authority.
Moscow has been caught off guard by the pro-democracy protests shaking the nearby former Soviet republic of Belarus, determined not to let such protests be emulated soon in Russia.
Protests in Russia’s far eastern lands after the sacking of a popular governor have also shown surprising staying power this summer, and demonstrators have taken up the cause of Belarus in recent days.
Enter the case of Mr. Navalny, a Russian politician and anti-corruption activist who had a central organizing role the last time demonstrations rocked Moscow in 2012 and who today is viewed to be among Mr. Putin’s fiercest domestic critics.
A week ago, the otherwise healthy Mr. Navalny fell mysteriously into a coma while traveling on a flight form Siberia to Moscow. His supporters have since claimed someone slipped him poisoned tea, and his family has scrambled to get his comatose body transferred out of Russia to Germany, where doctors have determined that the coma was likely brought on by a weaponized nerve agent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called for an investigation into the apparent assassination attempt against a prominent Putin critic.
“The question is who did it, and the answer is we just don’t know,” said Donald Jensen, head of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.
“The majority of my friends in Moscow say they do not think Putin ordered this, but the regime is responsible for condoning this type of behavior and closing ranks to protect whoever did it,” Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime specialist on Russian domestic politics, told The Washington Times.
Other analysts say what matters is that Mr. Navalny was targeted, period.
“One thing is clear: He has risen in recent years as the strongest voice of opposition against Putin and his regime, and the pattern we’ve seen is whenever anyone rises to such a position they eventually get hurt or killed,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a Washington Institute fellow focused on Russia.
Ms. Borshchevskaya pointed to a host of other cases from recent years, including those of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician shot to death by an unknown assailant in Moscow in 2015; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Mr. Nemtsov’s protege who survived a suspected poisoning that year and again in 2017; and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote critically of Mr. Putin and the Russian intelligence services and was shot in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006.
She also noted the cases of Alexander Litvinenko, a British-naturalized Russian defector and Russian FSB secret service officer who died in 2006 from poisoning in London; and Sergei Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for British intelligence who survived a 2018 poisoning attempt in Britain.
With the Navalny case now garnering global attention, the Putin government says there is no proof that the 44-year-old opposition leader was the victim of a deliberate poisoning. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that accusations of government involvement “absolutely cannot be true and are rather an empty noise.”
Mr. Pompeo said the Trump administration is “deeply concerned” about the case. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, on an unrelated visit to Moscow aimed improving strained U.S.-Russian ties, was meeting Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in a statement after the meeting that Mr. Biegun warned that the Trump administration could take aggressive retributive action if Mr. Navalny is found to have been targeted.
A question of timing
Pinning blame on Russian operatives for the Navalny poisoning will be easier than proving Kremlin culpability, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer and Moscow station chief who writes an occasional column for The Washington Times.
“There may not be proof 100% they did it, but they did do it,” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview Wednesday. He said the more vital question may be why the alleged poisoning occurred when it did.
“The timing matters,” he said, asserting that Mr. Putin is “nervous” about a range of things, including his sinking popularity amid the country’s struggling economy and messy COVID-19 response, which have coincided with the protests in Belarus.
“The No. 1 thing here is Belarus,” said Mr. Hoffman, referring to large-scale demonstrations demanding the ouster of longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko over allegations that he rigged that country’s Aug. 9 election.
“The last thing Putin wants is a popular uprising on his border. The protests in Minsk may not necessarily be anti-Russian, but they are anti-dictator, and that makes Putin nervous,” said Mr. Hoffman. He added that the Kremlin was already on edge with the unrest this summer in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets there to protest Moscow’s arrest of the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, on charges of involvement in several killings of businessmen in 2004 and 2005. Mr. Furgal has denied the charges, and his supporters say the case is an example of Putin-backed authoritarian overreach.
Ms. Borshchevskaya said the Khabarovsk and Belarus protests have “unnerved Putin,” who may have moved to silence Mr. Navalny out of fear that the opposition leader is one of very few in Russia capable of leading similar demonstrations there.
“Above all, Putin fears domestic protest, and a genuine opposition could inspire the Russian citizens to such a protest,” she said.
“Navalny’s voice had helped spark the largest protests in post-Soviet history, in late 2011-early 2012,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “Back then, even the organizers of the protests didn’t expect them to turn out so massive, and many Russia watchers thought there was a good chance Putin might fall.”
Intrigue in Moscow
Determining who ordered and carried out the Navalny poisoning may be impossible. Some analysts caution against lumping past cases involving the alleged targeting of Russian opposition figures with incidents that have involved former Russian military or intelligence operatives.
Mr. Jensen said the various incidents that have created global headlines in the Putin era have had nuanced differences that matter when trying to figure out who carried out a given poisoning or assassination attempt.
The Litvinenko and Skripal poisonings stand apart from other cases because they involved poisoning that “fit with the Russian intelligence service modus operandi,” he said.
“It’s generally the case where the regime seems to poison traitors, not opponents, and no one would call Navalny a ‘traitor.’ He is a patriot who just doesn’t like the Kremlin,” Mr. Jensen said. The Kremlin typically steers clear of so obviously targeting domestic political opponents out of concern over potential blowback.
He said Mr. Navalny may well have been targeted without Kremlin involvement by people within the Russian intelligence community and that such people could have had various motivations. On one hand, they may have sought to win recognition from the Kremlin. On another, they may have acted on the feeling that the Putin government itself wasn’t doing enough to silence a key opposition player at a sensitive moment.
Ms. Borshchevskaya said there are times when the Kremlin will take action against internal opponents, even when such action might trigger sharp domestic or international condemnation.
“Some might ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be worse in the current situation to attempt to murder a critic?’ But that’s a Western question. It shows a misunderstanding of what type of regime operates in the Kremlin,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “To them, silencing opposition matters more.”
Mr. Hoffman said he believes it is conceivable that Mr. Putin had a personal role in ordering the Navalny poisoning, with one eye on the fate of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
“What he may be doing, at this sensitive moment of protests and economic struggle, is showing that: ‘I am in charge, and if you mess with me, this is what’s going to happen,’” Mr. Hoffman said. “He may be saying to his own inner circle: ‘There will be no internal opposition that rises up. There will be no Boris Yeltsin here. Things are bad, but do not speak out against me or I’ll kill you.’”
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Vladimir Putin: U.S. coronavirus response hurt by politics
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said Russia has seen minimal losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and has handled the situation better than the U.S. — which he says has been distracted by political priorities. Russia, with a population of 144.5 million, has reported one of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world…
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said Russia has seen minimal losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and has handled the situation better than the U.S. — which he says has been distracted by political priorities.
Russia, with a population of 144.5 million, has reported one of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world at 528,267, third behind the U.S. and Brazil. Despite the high number of cases, Russia has reported 6,938 deaths from the virus and 279,536 recoveries.
But experts have questioned the legitimacy of the official tallies.
“We are working rather smoothly and emerging from this situation with the coronavirus confidently and, with minimal losses,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with state television. “But in the [United] States that is not happening.”
“It seems to me that the problem [in the United States] is that group, in this case party interests, are put above those of society’s as a whole, above the interests of the people,” he continued.
With a population of 328,2 million, the U.S. has reported over 2 million cases of COVID-19, 115,436 deaths and 556,606 recoveries.
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