Putin’s Mastery of Words Should be Noted

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s four-hour end-of-year press conference told us a lot more about Russia and its leader than just his widely reported view that the U.S. and NATO are threatening Moscow’s security.

Putin’s description of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea for me, represented Putin’s likely plan for the takeover of Ukraine, much better than a direct military invasion by Russian troops now on its border.

As Putin described the Crimean takeover, “How could we turn down the request of Sevastopol and Crimea, the people who lived there, to take them under our protection, under our wing? It was not possible. We were simply put in a situation where we could not have acted differently.”

Of course, Putin didn’t mention Russia’s pre-planned intervention, its own stirring up of the pro-Russian Crimeans, the sending of unmarked Russian special forces soldiers and equipment who seized Crimea’s airports and ports at the start of the incursion, or the widely criticized referendum organized by Russia after the takeover of the Crimean Parliament.

That’s the more likely scenario for Russia trying to regain control of Ukraine than an open invasion by Moscow’s military.

Putin’s press conference gave another hint as to why the Russian leader would want to avoid taking on a costly war – problems with his country’s economy and its health care situation.

He admitted, “Inflation is high in Russia…8 percent, while the target was 4 percent. Our inflation rate has grown twofold.” He added, “8 percent is too high, and we certainly need to attain the target rate of 4 percent.”

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Putin showed another trait in his press conference, his obvious envy of the United States, but he had to balance that with the need to make it appear that Russia was doing better than the U.S.

For example, having introduced Russia’s inflation rate, he compared it to what he described as “the world’s leading economy, the United States.” Putin then pointed out that the U.S. inflation rate “is 6.1–6.2 percent, if memory serves, whereas the target figure was 2 percent. In other words, the inflation rate is three times above the target figure.”

Then, Putin did what he often has done, compared what was happening in the U.S. to what was going on in Russia.

“Inflation is high in Russia as well, 8 percent, while the target was 4 percent,” he said. Putin then explained, “Our inflation rate has grown twofold, whereas it has tripled in the United States. This is serious.”

Like a verbal juggler, he had turned the lower U.S. inflation rate into an apparently more serious problem than the higher Russian rate.

Putin introduced life expectancy in Russia as an issue “that cannot but cause concern.” He said it had “slightly decreased from 71.5 to 70.1 years,” attributing some of the reduction to “one of the negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.”

However, he went on to describe “an increase in mortality in our country” as “one of the most important problems, one of the most important challenges that we face [and] getting more acute – I am referring to demographics…I mean the country’s population – 146 million for such a vast territory is definitely not enough; economically too, we have a workforce shortage.”

“As far as I know,” Putin said, “the working age population is now just above 81 million. We must drastically increase this figure by 2024, by 2030. This is one of the factors of economic growth, let alone – I would like to emphasize this once again – the geopolitical and humanitarian components of this most important matter.”

Given that situation, Putin was quite frank about the need for additional COVID vaccinations in Russia.

“Why is the death rate so high? Vaccination coverage, herd immunity is quite low in the country, only 59.4 percent,” he said. That figure included “both those who have recovered from the coronavirus infection, as well as those who have received the jab. Some 70 million people have received the first dose, and a little over 70 have had both,” he said.

“We need about 80 percent of our population to be immune to achieve herd immunity. I hope that next year, at least by the end of the first quarter or in the second quarter, we will have reached this level,” Putin added.

When asked whether people should be forced by law to get vaccinated, Putin said, “No, I don’t think so. The point at issue is not political will. The fact is everything has an equal and opposite reaction. When you apply pressure, our people, who are very ingenious, immediately devise methods to evade it, and they will do so in this case as well.”

On the other hand, Putin was quite open that he would be tough on black market vaccination rings that have popped up in Moscow and other cities where proof of vaccination was required among city and other governmental employees.

“We must fight crime rather than law-abiding people. For example, there are falsified vaccination certificates,” Putin said. “Over 200 such cases have been initiated, most of them under two articles: forgery and malfeasance. I believe that over 270 such cases have been opened. This is what we must fight. But on a more fundamental scale, we must explain and persuade,” he added.

However, the Russian president was not above using the vaccination issue to criticize his opponents.

“Back in the Soviet era, nobody asked your permission for vaccination. They just gave you the shot, and that was it,” Putin said, adding, “Those who stood at the helm of our big country in the Soviet period and contributed to its dissolution are now among the leaders of the anti-vaccination campaign.” He went on, “They are doing this to increase their popularity among the part of our people who are questioning the necessity of vaccination. This is a dishonest position.”

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Having criticized former Soviet officials whom he sees as currently anti-vax, Putin easily shifted to other topics during the four-hour press conference and defended his government’s foreign agent registration law and the use of it in last month’s shutting down of Memorial International, a 32-year-old Russian human rights organization whose stated purpose has been “studying political repressions in the USSR [the former Soviet Union] and in present-day Russia and promoting moral and legal rehabilitation of persons subjected to political repressions.”

The background of this foreign agent case and Putin’s handling of it, are worth recording in detail as they summarize the distortion and cleverness he brings to such complex situations.

During this December 23 press conference, Putin told reporters, “We do not prohibit the work of these organizations,” meaning groups designated as foreign agents under Russian law. But just five days later, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of Memorial International.

Russia’s Justice Ministry in 2016, had forced Memorial, a non-profit organization, to register under its foreign agent law. That law also required any groups that engaged in “political activity” to label themselves as “foreign agents” and attach that to all of their publicly circulated materials.  Memorial is a highly decentralized operation and includes more than 60 branches across Russia’s 85 regions.

The organization, on its English-language website said it “reveals, publishes and critically interprets information on crimes and mass human rights violations committed by totalitarian regimes in the past and carrying direct or indirect consequences in the present.”  In addition,  the organization said it participated “in restoring historical truth about the crimes of totalitarian regimes against humanity, illegal and terrorist governance methods, studies its reasons and consequences; promotes open access to sources of information (libraries, archives, museums, etc.),” according to its website.

Memorial also helped set up OVD-Info, a Moscow-based service that provides legal assistance to those who are arrested at protest rallies.

The Russian Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Memorial failed to tag all of its materials with a foreign agent label, and that the organization and all of its regional and structural units would be abolished.

The Russian News Agency Tass reported last Tuesday that International Memorial planned to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, citing its lawyer, Maria Eismont. “We consider the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation that satisfied the lawsuit of the Prosecutor-General’s office illegitimate and unfounded and will appeal it,” she said.

Then, last Wednesday, Moscow’s City Court shut down Memorial’s Human Rights Center, which has compiled lists of 435 current political prisoners in Russia, “twice as many as the government acknowledged in the late Soviet period,” according to The New York Times. Russian prosecutors claimed the Center was “justifying terrorist activities” by including members of banned political and religious groups such as Alexei A. Navalny and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

State prosecutors had argued that the Memorial Human Rights Center’s support for the Jehovah’s Witnesses — a Christian religious group that is banned in Russia as “extremist” — placed them in breach of the country’s laws governing “extremist” groups.

At his December 23 press conference, Putin shrewdly reminded reporters that a law governing foreign agents was first passed in the 1930’s in the United States, which he described as “a state everyone considers to be the beacon of democracy.” He did not mention the 1938 Foreign Agent Registration Act was passed by Congress to require registration of pro-Nazi German groups, who in the pre-World War II period were active in the U.S., supported clandestinely by funds from the Hitler government.

Putin’s aim, in citing the U.S. law, was an obvious attempt to divert attention from his use of the law to shut down legitimate human rights and other groups that were criticizing his regime.

Putin then claimed to reporters, incorrectly, “In the United States, if you have not shut down, you face criminal liability, up to five years in prison. Even if you stop any activity and close the organization it does not exempt you from criminal liability – five years.”

That was Putin’s attempt to compare what he was doing in Russia to the U.S. indictments of several Trump-related individuals for violating the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Putin went further, claiming that in the U.S., “about 0.034 [percent] organizations have been labeled foreign agents…We have the same share of foreign agents, 0.034, the same number.”

Of course, in the U.S., the bulk of those registered agents are law firms, lobbyists, and public relations firms, not non-profit, human rights organizations and religious groups, as in Russia.

In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch listed 70 non-profit, human rights, environmental and social issue groups that had been forced to register as foreign agents under the Russian law.

At his December 23 press conference, Putin claimed, “We just want organizations that are engaged in internal political activity in Russia to clearly explain and disclose the sources of funding for their operations. That is all, they can continue doing what they are doing. Our law is much more liberal,” implying more liberal than the U.S. Foreign Agent law.

Again, Putin repeated his false analogy to the press, “Why don’t we introduce criminal liability for foreign agents’ operations if the organization fails to close, like in the U.S.? But we do not even demand termination of their operations – we just want them to be honest about their sources of funding.”

Remember, five days later after Putin said that, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of Memorial International.

Putin’s words should be studied, but that does not mean they are true.

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