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.
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.
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