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The underlying message of a talkative Putin: I’m still in charge


On Friday night, continuing to answer questions at a press conference after his spokesman tried to shut it down, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin advanced a blunt thesis about the nature of truth.

“You can’t trust anyone,” he told a Russian state media reporter. “You can only trust me.”

It was a fitting coda to a week that has seen Mr Putin particularly busy constructing his version of reality at a time when a Russian victory in Ukraine seems further away than ever. During a marathon of public appearances that began with a televised ride across the damaged bridge from Russia to Crimea on Monday, Mr Putin denounced nuclear doctrine, prisoner swaps with the United States, alleged revanchism Polish and even the “very harsh” practices of Europeans. zoos.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin released nearly three hours of footage of Mr Putin’s meeting with his “human rights council”. On Thursday, she released a video showing Mr Putin pledging to continue his attacks on Ukraine while appearing so jovial, flute of champagne in hand, that some observers thought he was drunk.

And at Friday’s press conference on the sidelines of a regional summit in Kyrgyzstan, the president dismissed the idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might face headwinds.

“The special military operation is running its course, everything is stable for us there,” Putin said, using the Kremlin term for his war in Ukraine. “There are no issues or problems there today.”

Most of what Mr. Putin said repeated his past positions, and much of what he said was wrong. On Ukraine, he said that “in the end, we will have to come to an agreement” to end the war, although he gave no indication of being prepared to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. And referring to the release on Thursday of American basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, Mr Putin said Russia “will not refuse to do more of this work in the future. “.

Yet his string of appearances was also a message in itself: that of a president who, despite an economy collapsing under Russia’s sanctions and huge military losses, tries to present himself as healthy, alert and always the controls.

The burst of activity was a departure from November, when it held just one extended public event from November 10-20 – an absence from the spotlight that went unexplained by the Kremlin.

“He is just showing, mainly to Russian ruling circles, that he continues to control the situation,” said Grigorii Golosov, a professor of political science at the European University of Saint Petersburg. “When Putin talks so much, what he says is not that important.”

Indeed, some of Mr Putin’s comments this week have primarily served to expose his fixation on his own government’s propaganda. In his Wednesday videoconference with a hand-picked group of human rights experts, he answered a question about the treatment of Russians in Europe by saying that “nationalist elements in Poland” were “dreaming” of s seize parts of western Ukraine – repeating an unsubstantiated claim one of its top intelligence officials had made the previous week.

He then took a tangent on zoos: “In some Western countries, animals in zoos are killed in front of children, slaughtered, etc. This absolutely does not correspond to our culture, the culture of the peoples of the Russian Federation.

This was a reference, pro-Kremlin media reported, to Copenhagen Zoo’s 2014 decision to kill a giraffe due to the risk of inbreeding. And it was an example of how Mr. Putin is trying to use every argument he can to boost anti-Western sentiment among the Russian public.

But in Mr. Putin’s autocracy, his own words offer the best guide to Russian politics. On that point, he offered no trace of doubt this week, echoing the comparison he made last June of his own conquests to those of Peter the Great, the pivotal 18th-century czar.

“The fact that there are new territories – it’s a significant result for Russia, it’s serious,” Putin said, wearing a satisfied smile, during his videoconference Wednesday with his human rights council. man, despite the increasingly tenuous hold of his army over these regions.

“Peter the Great was already fighting for access to the Sea of ​​Azov,” Putin added, referring to Ukraine’s southeast coast which Russian troops now control.

The next day, Mr Putin awarded Russia’s Gold Star to military officers in the Kremlin. As well as releasing footage of his speech, Mr Putin’s office released a four-minute clip of the president having a little military conversation with the winners, each holding a champagne flute.

“Attack aircraft simply fight very well, as do ‘sushki,'” Putin said, referring to the army’s Sukhoi fighter jets with a diminutive. “Awesome, just excellent. »

He went on to justify Russia’s assaults on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with a “Who started it?” rhetorical question, claiming that Ukraine was to blame because it attacked the Kerch Strait bridge to Crimea, which Russia uses to supply its frontline troops.

On social media, some expressed surprise that the Kremlin released the footage, given that Mr Putin – whose sobriety and self-control are at the heart of his carefully crafted image in Russia – looked getting tipsy as he rocked back and forth. But Mr Golosov said the broadcast of Mr Putin appearing happy and relaxed as he discussed his country’s deadly war was effective for Kremlin spin-docs.

“Putin has to show the public that everything is fine,” Mr. Golosov said, “that he is able to talk about what is happening with fun.”

Yet Mr. Putin also has a global audience in mind. On Friday, he elaborated on what he said could be a change in Russia’s nuclear doctrine, warning that Russia could alter its philosophy to allow for a preemptive strike. US policy, he said, might call for a more aggressive stance – even if he left his options open, as he usually does.

“We’re just thinking about it,” Putin said.

nytimes Gt

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