Putin targets Russian audience in handling of spy saga

MOSCOW Wed May 15, 2013 4:26pm EDT

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin listens during a cabinet meeting in Moscow March 1, 2012. REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin listens during a cabinet meeting in Moscow March 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool

Related Topics

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin has been unusually silent about the expulsion of a U.S. diplomat Russia says it caught red-handed trying to recruit an agent for the CIA. But Putin need not say anything - his pliant state media is doing the talking for him.

Television channels have been gleefully beaming pictures of the sting operation in which Moscow says the diplomat, wearing a blond wig, was snared almost non-stop since his detention was announced on Tuesday.

The strategy, reminiscent of Soviet times, is typical of Putin's tactics in the year since he returned to the presidency as he tried to rally support among conservative voters following protests by middle-class demonstrators that hit his ratings.

It is emblematic of a shift towards a more heavy-handed policy against opponents since Putin's long-serving "grey cardinal", Vladislav Surkov, was replaced in the Kremlin in late 2011 by the blunt and direct Vyacheslav Volodin.

Putin will have enjoyed embarrassing U.S. leaders over the spy affair, but its timing and the high profile given to it by state media show it is largely intended for a Russian audience.

"I was a little surprised at the media attention they gave it. It sounded like right out of the 1970s," U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said during the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington on Wednesday.

Suggesting some of the Russian publicity surrounding the case was intended to put Americans in a negative light, he said: "I think Putin longs for the Cold War. He's a KGB guy."

Critics say Putin, whose ratings recently sank to a 12-year low before rebounding, is increasingly resorting to tactics under Volodin that hark back to his Soviet and KGB past.

Volodin is even sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Vyacheslav Molotov, one of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's foreign ministers. Like Molotov, he is often called "Iron Arse" for spending long hours at his desk.

HALLMARK OF SHADOWY KREMLIN AIDE

This week's alleged spying incident was one of the more bizarre in the history of Russian-U.S. and Soviet-U.S. relations, although other cases include the discovery in 2006 of a fake rock with a transmitter inside being used by British intelligence in Moscow.

Regardless of how deeply Volodin, 49, was involved in the release of the FSB footage showing U.S. Third Secretary Ryan Fogle being pinned down by an undercover Russian agent, the handling of the saga bears his hallmark.

Brought into the Kremlin in response to the biggest opposition protests of Putin's now more than 13-year rule, he is the man behind a campaign that portrays the former KGB spy as a man of the people and a guarantor of stability.

Since Volodin's appointment in December 2011, Russia has whipped up anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, Putin has accused the United States of backing the protests and his opponents say he has clamped down on dissent and civil society.

In that time, Putin has preached traditional conservative values and boosted the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church to try to solidify support among the blue-collar workers who have traditionally been his power base.

No longer seeing a need for the more cunning and complex strategies of a man like Surkov, Putin ousted him from his last official position as a deputy prime minister last week, 16 months after his initial demotion from the Kremlin.

Volodin, by contrast, was at Putin's side on Wednesday as the president met parliamentary leaders in a government residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

As usual, Volodin said little as he took notes. Also as usual, Putin denied tightening the screws on his opponents.

"What tightening of the screws? I don't understand what this is and we don't need this," he said.

LIMITING THE DAMAGE

Russian and U.S. officials have signaled that they do not want a spy incident with echoes of the Cold War to upset efforts to build trust or bring the warring sides in Syria together for an international peace conference.

However, relations with the United States are in fact secondary to Putin's overriding goal of tightening his grip on power sufficiently to serve out his term until 2018 and then possibly seek a new six-year term.

Under Volodin, a veteran political strategist who cut his teeth in the sometimes brutal election campaigns of the freewheeling 1990s as Russia emerged from seven decades of Soviet Communist rule, Putin has looked increasingly inwards.

"The video that the FSB filmed ... is obviously aimed at the general public," Russian commentator Eldar Murtazin wrote in a blog, likening the items which the FSB said it found on Fogle - including three pairs of glasses, a compass, wads of money and two wigs to "CIA gear" seen in Hollywood films.

Not everyone in Russia took it entirely seriously.

"The wigs and glasses made me laugh. Lipstick - where's the lipstick?" a blogger named Vladislav Klinkov wrote.

Herein lies a problem for Putin. While the Kremlin can manipulate state television, the main source for news for a large majority of Russians from the Baltic to the Pacific, it does not control the Internet and social media sites.

Not only have the Internet and such sites been used to spread word of anti-Putin protests by liberals and middle-class voters fearing political and economic stagnation under him, Volodin's ability to get to grips with new media is not clear.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Bell in Washington, Darya Korsunskaya in Sochi, Russia, and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; editing by Mark Heinrich)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (6)
paintcan wrote:
“economic stagnation” or stability?

Is the Russian elite political class any more “corrupt” than they are in the rest of the developed world?

At least under Putin, the current government isn’t holding fire sales of state collective wealth and leaving out a whole lot of discarded and out of date Russians who actually helped build it all. That is probably the well spring of Putin’s popularity.

“and his opponents say he has clamped down on dissent and civil society”.
Why not do some real reporting, Reuters, and provide a few examples? Let’s see if the opponents have a valid complaint?

Pussy Riot was a bunch of brats with attitudes and not much talent that became a full-fledged scandal for no real virtues of their own or even much articulation of their objections. You have to find better examples of Putin’s domineering ways than that nonsense. It shouldn’t be that hard to do if the charges are anything more than flack.

May 15, 2013 4:21pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
at least this guy was a real spook with diplomat credentials. Remember that Russian spy ring the FBI broke up a few years ago? The best that cell did was have one of its own working in middle-management at Microsoft. American espionage > Russian espionage

May 15, 2013 4:38pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
totherepublic wrote:
millcitymonitor

Care to take a guess who’s software ran most of our military technology at that time…no small thing.

May 15, 2013 5:04pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.