Russia Update: In Belligerent Valdai Speech, Putin Antagonizes Even Supporters

October 23, 2015
President Vladimir Putin speaking at the annual Valdai Conference, October 22, 2015. Photo by

President Vladimir Putin gave a belligerent keynote speech at the prestigious annual Valdai Conference, ringing all the chimes of Kremlin propaganda even more vigorously than usual.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Russian Twitter Rep Apologizes for Anti-Government Tweet

A Twitter representative in Russia made a critical tweet about the
Russian government today, then apologized after deleting his tweet when Roskomnadzor, the government censorship agency, demanded an explanation from Twitter managers.

Alexey Shelestenko, the manager of media partnerships for Twitter, tweeted a critical remark after learning that opposition leader Alexey Navalny would have to pay 11 million rubles in damages from the Kirovoles lumber case — widely believed to be fabricated in retaliation for his anti-corruption work.

While the tweet was deleted, numerous Twitter uses had taken screenshots:

2015-10-23 23:13:30

Translation: Some day that nasty thieve’s government, together with all those Markins, Bastrykins and — yes, yes, Putin — will go behind bars. Soon or later.

His reference was to the phrase of “thieves-in-law,” a Russian term meaning criminals who live under their own laws of the underworld, and also echoed Navalny’s tag line of “government of thieves and crooks.” Aleksandr Bastrykin is the head of the Investigative Committee, the figure associated with the trumped-up criminal cases against the opposition, and Vladimir Markin is spokesman of the Investigative Committee.

According to, Vadim Ampelovsky, press secretary of Roskomnadzor, a request for an explanation was sent to Twitter’s management.  Twitter managers who had visited Russia had indicated Shelestenko was the contact person for authorities to reach regarding concerns.

Shelestenko then wrote an explanation:

Translation: 1. Regarding my deleted tweet: I admit that I got overheated upon the news about Kirovles. I shouldn’t have been so harsh — I beg forgiveness.

Translation: 2. I’ll explain my position: I don’t agree with the decision on Kirovles and speak up wholeheartedly for justice. That’s my personal position, not the company of Twitter.

Prominent Russian blogger Oleg Kashin was dismayed about the incident.

Translation: Shelestenko apologized to Putin (((

Others wondered what there was to explain.

Translation: I wonder which of the words “nasty,” “thieves’ or “government” was not understandable?

Translation: Only “when” is not understandable. deleted its own first tweet about the news, sparking some concern, but then explained that it was merely reissuing the tweet with quotation marks around the phrase “thieves’ government.”

Navalny retweeted all the tweets involved, including Shelestenko’s apology, and commented on the first version of RBC’s tweet:

Translation:  So what’s to explain? Here’s a tweet that couldn’t be more clear.

He published a blog today about the fee for damages, illustrating it with the famous painting by 15th century Dutch painter Gerard David about a flaying, The Judgement of Cambyses.

Translation: 16,165,826 ruble fine levied.

The amount is currently equivalent to $261,576

This past week, court bailiffs arrived at Navalny’s home late at night to confiscate his property in payment of the remainder of the damages in another case related to the French company Yves Rocher, for which Navalny and his brother Oleg had done some mail-order work.

Navalny was handed a suspended sentence of 2.5 years in the case, and Oleg sent to serve 2.5 years in a labor colony. Recently, as Oleg wrote in a statement published on Alexey’s blog, he was transferred to a punishment cell after wardens claimed to find a cell phone in his possession. The measure was taken after a recording of an appeal by Oleg regarding poor conditions in prison and his need for an operation on his jaw was played at a rally September 20.

Then today, a court held a hearing regarding the appeal of the Kirovles sentence, but without the defendant and plaintiffs, and wound up issuing the ruling of even greater damages.

The case hinged on the accusation against Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny’s business partner, for purchasing lumber for 14.5 million rubles and then selling it for 16 million. The court is then fining Navalny for the entire amount of the transaction. Navalny pointed out that even in the contrived Yves Rocher case, the fine involved only the profit, not the whole amount. Navalny’s lawyer Vadim Kobzev noted that Kirovles already  had received 14.7 million and had not returned the funds, so it was absurd to charge Navalny for this amount.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Putin Recites Anti-Western Propaganda Staples, Positioning Himself as Leader of Global Anti-Terrorism Coalition

Yesterday, the Valdai Discussion Club, a prestigious group of Russian elite and and Western experts on on Russia, opened up its annual conference.

President Vladimir Putin gave a belligerent keynote speech, ringing all the chimes of Kremlin propaganda even more vigorously than usual. He was particularly aggressive in the question and answer period where even Amb. Jack Matlock, he makes a point to deal with the Kremlin constructively, came in for a vigorous scolding.  We have summarized the speech, which is available in English, and answers to questions from the Russian original, which has not yet been translated officially yet.

Last year, The Interpreter obtained a list of invitees. This year, the list has not been available, but we haven’t seen as many of those who attended in the past evident at the conference. Participation in the event might have been once seen as a legitimate East-West debate. But particularly since last year’s moderation of the forum by British journalist Seumas Milne, known for his minimization of the crimes of Stalin, and what became an infamous tag-line, “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia,” quipped by Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy head of the presidential administration, the event has been perceived as a gathering of sycophants and fellow-travelers.

Some Russian experts no doubt believe they still must attend to keep their access to the Kremlin — without which their scholarship is believed to be doomed.  This year Putin was more militant and politicized than ever, however, begging the question of when access becomes cooptation. The Russian autocrat made a point of keeping the participants waiting.

The Lada is a Russian-made car and Putin was promoting “import substitution,” a program to replace with domestic goods those items once imported from Western countries that now have sanctions against Russia.

Putin began by quoting Lev Tolstoy to the effect that war was counter
to human reason and all of human nature and peace was good for people.
But peace is based on a balance of powers, said Putin, citing Yalta as
such a triumph, recalling it as a time when the great powers decided to
form the United Nations, rather than recognizing it as the watershed
when the West ceded Eastern Europe to Soviet tyranny and spent the next
50 years overcoming this legacy. Putin also invoked “guaranteed mutual
destruction,” the great sobering phrase of the 1970s detente era which
Putin said made “great war unthinkable.”

The Cold War brought an
end to “ideological opposition” but not “the grounds for disputes and
geopolitical contradictions” because countries have interests
contradictory to one another, he said. Competition among powers and
their unions “is absolutely natural,” says Putin, as long as it is built
“on certain political, legal moral norms and rules”; otherwise there
are “crises and dramatic outbursts.” Putin yet again condemns “the model
of one-sided domination” — although it is he who has added territory
to his country in recent years.

Putin sees the nuclear threat
from Iran as only a “pretext” that “destroyed the foundation of modern
international security” and accused the US of exiting from the AMB
treaty “unilaterally.”

“Today, by the way, the Iranian nuclear
problem is resolved, there was never any threat from Iran, just as we
said.” Though the reason for building anti-missile defense has
“disappeared,” the US has not halted development of such defense,
running the first test in Europe recently.

The problem isn’t “the
hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat,” says Putin but by implication the
US attempts to undermine the strategic balance so as to “dictate its
will to everyone.” This, as in fact the US and EU scramble to react to
Putin’s moves on Ukraine and Syria, not to mention the Caucasus.

thinks now the usefulness of nuclear weapons to prevent war has become
“devalued” and there is now the temptation “for some” to use nuclear
superiority to dictate terms, despite the irreversible consequences.
Here, he didn’t have in mind his own generals and TV hosts who have
brandished the nuclear threat in anti-Western propaganda.

The “anti-war” vaccines people acquired from two world wars has
worn off, says Putin, especially as people see war as a “media
spectacle” and don’t realize real people die “and even entire cities and
states.” Of course, the war propaganda of Putin’s own state television
has been notorious, whether “crucified toddlers” or “phosphorus bombs.”

painted this distorted picture, Putin invokes the US fining of foreign
companies — French and German Banks and Toyota — for breaking Western
sanctions against Russia and asks “is this how allies behave?”

On the eve of the Valdai talks, Russian media reported the vague news
that a new national security policy was being developed, evidently by
Kremlin staff, and that it was going to be presented for Putin’s
approval soon. This new notion would involve greater openness to
cooperation with other countries. What the Kremlin has in mind isn’t the
West, but efforts like the recently coalition with Iran, Iraq,
Hezbollah and Syria to ostensibly fight ISIS.

Putin also styles
himself as the lone organizer of the crusade against ISIS — if
terrorists could take over Damascus or Baghdad they would have a
platform for global expansion. “Is anybody thinking about this, or not?”
he raged. “You shouldn’t play with words, dividing terrorists into
moderate and non-moderate. I’d like to know the difference.”

US, giving arms to moderate rebels yielded “unclear results” but how
could this be explained, if the US possesses the greatest military might
in the world? Only because the West is playing “a double game,” says
Putin, “trying to exploit some of them to arrange figures on the Middle
Eastern board in their interests or what seems in their interests.” Of
course, an obvious reason is that Russia is arming Bashar al-Assad and
providing political cover for him and met with him just the day before

Putin invokes Russia’s vast experience fighting
terrorism at home, which some would argue it has helped instigate by its
ruthless policies. Putin envisions himself as the leader of a worldwide
coalition against terrorism, proposing that terrorism can be defeated
only by uniting the regular armies of Iraq and Syria (supported by
Russia, of course), along with the Kurd militia and various opposition
groups suitable to Moscow. This will ostensibly create the conditions
for “the Syrian people” to decide their own fate “without pressure.”

such cooperation which the US ostensibly is invited to join, Putin will
help the world return to the days of the early 2000s, when Moscow and
Washington cooperated after the terrorist attack on the US on September
11, 2001.

In the question and answer period, Columbia
University’s Robert Legvold pointed out that Putin’s notion that the
West seeks regime change in Russia is an incorrect interpretation of US
foreign policy and cited other “distortions” in Putin’s outline which
amount to a failure to realize that it is Russian behavior that has
engendered the world’s attitude toward Russia “especially in the context
of the Ukrainian crisis.” Legvold added and that this is seen by many
as “a function of the essence, the nature of the Russian political
system and regime.” As Legvold explains, in this perspective:

“Russian behavior is defined not by cooperation with
the outside world but by inalienable elements of the Russian system.
External enemies are needed so that democracy doesn’t reach Russian
borders and also as a justification of the economic difficulties in the

Legvold says that this view is “fundamentally incorrect” but
widespread. Putin reiterated his contention that the break-up of the
USSR “was a tragedy of the 20th century” which was “primarily
humanitarian in nature” because 25 million people found themselves in
foreign countries over night.

Amb. Jack Matlock then took the
opportunity to say that he didn’t support US anti-missile defense on the
whole, and believed it was just a program “to provide jobs” in the
military-industrial complex. Putin chided Matlock saying his arguments
“weren’t convincing” and that he had “embellished” his answer.

“Jobs shouldn’t be created which as a result of their activity are a
threat to all of humankind,” Putin retorted — as if the vast Russian
military-industrial complex didn’t provide numerous jobs for Russians —
including the supplying of arms to Assad.

Putin returned to Ukraine
in this reply, making the misleading claim that in the 2004 election
contest between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko there was an
“illegal third round.” “What kind of democracy is this? It’s simply an
uproar,” he fumed, calling it a “total violation of the Constitution”
supported by the West. He was less fastidious about the reasons the
second round was re-run was challenged: media bias, voter intimidation
and Yushchenko’s own poisoning with dioxin. International observers
claimed the voting had been rigged and later declared the repeat of the
second round to be fair. Putin made this point to set the stage for his
claim that the West backed the toppling of Yanukovych, who fled with
Russian assistance after he was discredited for ordering force to be
used on demonstrators leading to the killing of a number of Maidan

Once again Putin said he “sees no difference
between Russians and Ukrainians” and calls them “a fraternal people,”
and pointed out that while Yushchenko and Yuliya Timoshenko were
pro-Western politicians, Russia cooperated with them.

Putin once again involved the “$5 billion dollars” supposedly spent by
the US government on “support of the opposition.” This is a staple of
state media propaganda that evidently Putin believes himself (he
recently spouted it in an interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes),
although it has been authoritatively debunked numerous times, notably by Politfact,
which explains that “$5 billion” is the total amount of all US aid to
Ukraine in 20 years, including to the Yanukovych regime and the US
didn’t bankroll the Maidan protests.

Putin turned to another
propaganda staple — finding fault with American democracy so that he
could upbraid Washington’s notions of “democratizing” other countries
with aid. Putin said that “twice” in American history, the president was
elected by less than the 50% of the population, but actually there have been 15 presidential candidates so elected, three of them twice.

As for whether Assad should go, Putin once again weighed in saying
this was “impolite” as outsiders should not decide the issue of when a
head of state should leave; “the Syrian people itself” should decide.
Putin ignores the issue of how a people can choose freely when their
leader is bombing them, and only concedes that there should be
“transparent democratic procedures” and “international oversight” of the
elections. He reiterated the Kremlin position that the Syrian
government should have “dialogue with those opposition forces prepared
for dialogue.”

“As far as I understood from the conversation with
President Assad the day before yesterday, he is prepared for such a
dialogue,” said Putin.

Ali Larijani, current speaker of the
Iranian parliament, raised the issue of ISIS’ sale of oil and asked why
the West was not seeing this or stopping this. He also spoke in
opposition to the division of Syria, which he said would be a “prize for

Putin did not directly answer his question about the sale
of oil — at least in the transcript available, which breaks off in the
next paragraph with the note “to be continued.”

Rather, Putin
pointed out that he had watched videos of the air strikes of his
military’s planes on Syrian territory and said he was impressed at the

“They are detonating such a quantity of ammunition
stocks that they fly up almost to the plane itself. There’s the
impression that the ammunition stocks and armaments have been collected
from all over the Middle East, there’s a colossal might accumulated
there. And really, the question arises: where’s the money coming from!
It’s a collossal might! Of course it’s less now. And really, the Syrian
army is demonstrating its successes with our support. They are modest
for now but they do exist. And I am confident there will be more.”

As for “democracy approaching Russia’s borders,” Putin said he was
more concerned about “military infrastructure approaching our borders”
— this was the eternal Kremlin claim that NATO is “expanding” and thus
undermining Russia’s security. Russia itself has expanded by essentially
annexing Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, and outright annexing and
occupying the Crimea, and controlling significant territory in the
Donbass. East European members of NATO such as Estonia voluntarily
joined due to valid concerns about their security living next to Russia.

Putin promised to release an “very intriguing” document
involving a conversation between German politicians and the Soviet
leadership on the eve of German reunification – which reads “just like a
detective story,” he enthused. He quoted an unnamed leader of the
Social Democrats from memory:

If we do not agree on the principles of the unification
of German and the future of Europe, the crises will not end after the
unification of Germany, but will grow, and we will not rid ourselves of
them, we will only meet them in a new form.” When Soviet leaders began
debating him, he was surprised, and said: “There’s the impression that I
am now now defending the interests of the Soviet Union” — he was
reproaching them for nearsightedness. “But I’m thinking of the future of
Europe,” he said.

But at that time, he said, addressing Amb. Matlock, the parties
did not agree on issues such as whether Germany would become a member
of NATO, how its military infrastructure would develop, how questions of
security in Europe should be coordinated.

At that time
everything was said verbally, nothing was put on paper, nothing was
recorded, everything just went its way. But verbally then — everyone
remembers my speech in Munich, I said so at the time — verbally then
the NATO general secretary said that the Soviet Union at any rate could
be certain — and I quote — that NATO will not be expanded beyond the
borders of then-East Germany. But nothing of the sort, two waves of
expansion followed immediately and now we have an anti-missile defense
system at our borders.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev
has recalled that no such pledge was in fact intended. And Putin is
myopic about Russia’s ongoing behavior in the decades since the fall of
the Berlin wall that prompt countries to see NATO protection. In 2008,
at the NATO summit in Bucharest, at Germany’s behest, the members
rejected the idea of having Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. This
unilateral forebearance had no effect, as Russia proceded to grab their
territories years later.

Putin styles himself as the cooperative
party here, saying that he offered to have the US, Russia and Europe
would have joint equal access to managing these systems and decide what
directions they would be aimed at — but was rebuffed. It’s as if he has
no comprehension of of the consequences of Russia’s annexation of
Crimea and invasion of the Donbass.

On Syria, as we have reported
in our blog “Putin in Syria,” Russian air strikes since September 30
have been striking rather anti-government rebel groups rather than the
ISIS terrorists that Moscow ostensibly claims to target. Putin here,
too, blames the West, claiming that when the Russian military asked to
provide maps of what areas should be targeted and which shouldn’t, they
were refused. Naturally, Western countries could not be party to the
Kremlin’s disingenous claims. Yet Putin triumphs again, noting, “Thank
God, now apparently at the military level, as I’ve already said, we’re
beginning to come to an agreement. Life itself forces it.”

In reply to Nick Buckley of the Financial Times asking
for more clarity on Russia’s plans in Syria, Putin said he was
confident of the Russian approach and was already seeing results,
although to really defeat terrorism more would be needed. “We don’t want
to throw rocks in any one else’s garden,” said Putin smugly, but the
Western coalition, after 500 air strikes on various targets “had no
results, that’s the obvious fact” — ISIS has grown its presence in both
Syria and Iraq. Here, again, Putin feigns to be oblivious of the fact
that his own arming of Assad and Assad’s brutal attacks on civilians are
a factor in ISIS’ spread.

Putin said he was prepared to send a
high-level delegation and to unite forces with the West to fight ISIS,
but he was rebuffed — although he said American colleagues “at the
ministerial level had clarified” that there was a misunderstanding and
“the road was open.” The foreign ministries of the US, Russia, Saudi
Arabia and Turkey will be meeting and here Putin pointed out “we are in
the closest contact with our Iranian partners” and that Iran “will make
its substantial contribution in settlement” of the crisis. Putin said he
opposed the division of Syria as he saw it as a recipe for endless

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick