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What did we learn from Putin’s year-end press conference?

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, is staking his future on a narrative of ‘Us’ – the Russian people – versus ‘Them’ – NATO and the West. Ryan Steele explains how Putin used his annual press conference to exploit support for an assertive response to Western sanctions.

Besides the oft-quoted rhetorical quips, such as comparing Russia to a bear which the West (read-NATO) wishes to ‘de-fang,’ or the fact that he now ‘is loved (after his split from Lyudmila);’ Vladimir Putin’s marathon press conference on 18 December was normal fare in that the President didn’t say anything we don’t know already. There was one quick aside where offered his regrets for not diversifying the economy, but it remains too early to tell whether this will mean even a minute restructuring of the economy.

The one salient point that we can take away from the press conference is that Putin is staking his future on an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ narrative. When Natalya Galimova of Gazeta.ru asked about the notion of a ‘fifth column’ Putin gave his standard response, that ‘they’ were often working “for the benefit of the interests of other states, and to political ends that are outside of the interest of the Russian state.”

Putin’s use of the politically loaded term ‘fifth column’ (пятая колонна – recognisable to any student of the Communist era) has special meaning to Russians today. As defined on the website of Russian weekly, Argumenti i Fakti, a ‘fifth column’ is a “political term where the citizens of one’s own nation seek to undermine the state power of their own country in the interest of a third nation.” Putin’s, and by extension, Russia’s enemies are no longer only abroad, but increasingly within. And when Putin discusses a fifth column, it is clear that he is largely referencing the former Moscow mayoral candidate, Aleksei Navalny, who is awaiting the verdict of a trial of dubious veracity for which he faces a possible 10-year sentence (as I write this a story on Facebook blocking a Navalny support page is breaking).

Navalny is the embodiment of the ‘fifth column’ to Putin. That is to say he represents the interests of ‘Them’: those who seek to undermine all the work that he has done turning Russia back into the ‘Great Power’ that she once was. Inherent in this return of status is that Russia must be respected on the international stage; however, this is not to play to an international audience. Rather, this is an attempt to appeal to the narod, or ‘people’. This is an easy sentiment to play on; the Russian people have felt for centuries that they have not been respected for their achievements.

Putin’s assertion in his press conference that external forces were intervening in domestic and near-abroad issues was made clearer the next day (19 December), when he met with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. He praised the military for what it had done in Crimea and spoke very openly about the need to expand Russia’s capacity in the Arctic and Belarus.

What is worrying about this narrative is the grain of truth that lies at its heart. Some NATO members do want what is tantamount to the containment of Russia. This grain of truth is then taken and spun by the largely state-controlled Russian media in a form that is believable to the Russian people, whose support of Putin appears not to have wavered in the face of difficult conditions at home.

On the streets of Moscow today there is an uneasy energy in the air, a decided increase in ‘F**k Obama’ window stickers and t-shirts that read ‘our rockets don’t fall under your sanctions’ around the city. Putin is both stoking this rhetoric and following its lead. His year-end press conference was a clear indication that going forward he will be fomenting this narrative; the real question then becomes, is he in control of this narrative? Next year could see the opening of a Pandora’s box of Pan-Slavic nationalism, and Putin with rapidly dwindling alternatives.

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