The veil of secrecy around Russian President Vladimir Putin's Yalta speech has many wondering about a potential change in course in Russia’s Ukraine policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting with members of State Duma parliamentary parties in Yalta. Photo: RIA Novosti
A few days before Vladimir Putin’s meeting with members of the State Duma of the Russian Federation in Yalta, the event was already becoming enveloped in an aura of mystique and unpredictability.
The words of press secretary Dmitry Peskov about the president’s forthcoming “weighty speech,” the conjectures of political scientists regarding the likelihood of another “political feint” by Putin that would change the whole equation of the Ukrainian crisis in a single blow, and reports about a humanitarian aid convoy of 280 KamAZ trucks heading towards the Ukrainian border had combined to create a highly charged atmosphere in which all attention was focused on the news from Yalta.
When the meeting finally kicked off, TV viewers were dumbfounded to learn the president’s speech would not be broadcast live. Moreover, Russian TV stations were not even hurrying to convey all the latest tidbits from Yalta. The meeting between Putin and his deputies was reported only in the 26th minute of Channel One’s news roundup, and without a single direct statement from the lips of the president at that, merely a reporter’s paraphrased version.
It all looked very odd, and clearly contradicted the prevailing tradition in recent years of TV stations’ near obsession with covering Putin’s every move.
The transcript of the meeting posted on the Kremlin’s website the following day initially contained only Vladimir Putin’s and State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin’s opening remarks, and instead of MPs’ comments and a Q&A session with the president, which earlier TV reports had suggested would be something of a sensation, the website displayed an enigmatic Hollywood-style “To be continued...”
What lies hidden behind this strange concurrence of circumstances that surrounds the Russian media’s coverage of the presidential address?
Like Kremlinologists during the “first” Cold War, modern scholars of Russian politics often have to resort to guesswork and a sophisticated analysis of numerous covert signs and events — incomprehensible at first glance — from which some kind of explication of what is happening needs to be extracted.
However, unlike in the days of Brezhnev's Politburo, today’s hush-hush Kremlin increasingly looks less like an unwelcome result of the Iron Curtain (which concealed anything and everything from interested observers), and more like a carefully engineered political project aimed at portraying the Russian government, and President Putin personally, in a very particular light.
Putin’s unpredictability is often presented as a key weakness of the Russian political system. However, it seems that the Russian president himself, backed up by his team of political strategists, considers this unpredictability to be a core asset.
Indeed, all the foreign policy achievements that have brought Putin worldwide recognition (both positive and negative) were the result of various “unexpected political feints,” which, to everyone’s astonishment, ruptured the established matrix. In this regard, he has few political peers, if any.
The overall conciliatory tone of Putin's Yalta address and the rejection of in-depth detailed media coverage are precisely what no one expected. Amid the raging war of sanctions, the stark crisis in Donetsk and Lugansk, and the wave of apocalyptic predictions in social networks, Putin pondered the development of Crimea, including new bridges and hospitals, and gently reproved the West for imposing sanctions, while affirming his willingness to continue cooperation.
It is striking that the harshest statements delivered by Putin — regarding Russia’s possible withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and refusal to observe the “unacceptable” terms of various contracts — came in response to other, far more radical outpourings by Russian MPs, desperate to demonstrate their anti-Western position.
The rejection of a live broadcast seems to have been due to the desire not to overly agitate the public with revelations from Russian politicians with the power to “eloquently ignite” the Yalta conference (that is how the president described the speech of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in which he proposed to scrap all elections and revive the Russian empire with Putin as its supreme ruler).
Another explanation for why the president's speech was not broadcast on TV (it would have been possible to show the speech without the “incendiary” remarks of the preceding session) comes to mind on reading the transcript posted on the Kremlin’s website.
For all the patriotic delight in Russia’s remote regions over the annexation of Crimea, it is unlikely that the proposed allocation of billions of rubles to develop the peninsula and the government’s special focus on the needs of its population (which was, after all, the key message of Putin's speech) would have provoked nationwide joy and approval.
Of course, the unexpectedly understated tone of Putin’s public statements was not merely political artifice. The Ukrainian crisis has long since reached such epic proportions that counting on its being resolved by a few new phrases spoken by one of the main protagonists would be naive, to say the least.
Putin, however, clearly refrained from doing what was quite within his power, namely to further aggravate the standoff between Russia and the West through pointed rhetoric. Moreover, the lid was kept deliberately and firmly closed on any possible negative impact that could have resulted from media coverage of the radical statements ready and waiting to be voiced by Russian MPs.
From this we can conclude that the Kremlin intends to rely, as before, on a restrained policy in respect of Ukraine, extracting all possible benefit from the alarmist sentiments prevalent in Western public opinion by pursuing the following line: “You expect us to go to war, but we will take every opportunity to extend an olive branch.”
This approach is working very nicely inside Russia, but for many people in the U.S. and Europe, the Russian president is judged less in word than in deed. And with no real political steps to calm the situation in southeastern Ukraine, few will find comfort in the restraint of Putin's remarks.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.