On March 18, Russia will go to the polls to elect a new president and it is almost certain that Vladimir Putin will secure another six-year term in office. But this is not the reason Russia is currently is making headlines around the world.
The March 4 assassination attempt on former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal on British soil has triggered an escalating diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West. Although it is still unknown who was behind the attack, the finger of blame points strongly towards the Russian authorities.
In response, British Prime Minister Theresa May recently announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, and, on March 16, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also stated that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin himself was behind the attack.
However, this does seem to have hindered President Putin’s chances of reelection. According to anchor at Russian independent media TV Rain Mikhail Fishman, Vladimir Putin is already a “total winner,” having spent the last 18 years cementing his position at the top of Russia’s power structures.
The Russian state media has played an important role in preserving Putin’s strong leader image in light of the recent dispute with the West.
“All Russian propaganda, all Russian official media, immediately engaged in this issue and, of course, presented it as [though] Russia is under attack, with no evidence, no real reason, the British are just looking for a new pretext to start a new campaign against Russia,” Fishman told Hromadske.
Looking beyond the elections, however, it is still unclear how the Kremlin will react to the crisis. According to Fishman, Russia has never engaged in a crisis of this kind before.
“Up until now, sanctions – yes, expulsion from G8 – whatever. It was still, kind of, more rhetorical than real. Well now it is turning into something real and that's when we will see how far the Kremlin really is ready to go,” Fishman says.
Hromadske sat down with Russian journalist and TV Rain anchor in Moscow to discuss the upcoming Russian presidential elections, the escalating diplomatic crisis between Russia and the UK and how this is affecting Putin’s chances of reelection.
What can we expect from these elections? What should the western audience probably understand?
I think that this upcoming election is specific from the point of view that it's the first election when Vladimir Putin doesn't have to fight. He has no one to struggle with anymore. He is already a total winner. The question of power was the most important question for Vladimir Putin during his entire stay at the helm, starting from 2000. But, at every single moment. his power, his authority was not absolute. There were still opposition, there were still oppositional elites around him, he had to constrain media, he had constrained governors, oligarchs. He was always fighting for his future on the top of Russian power structure. And now this fight is over. It's over for already, I would say, at least a couple of years. I'd say that he achieved this new status, that he doesn't see any threat to his own ambition and to his own status after Trump won the election in America because he was really scared – that's my strong belief – that, Hillary Clinton, if she had won the election, would build this united western front and he would still have to fight this joint and very powerful enemy. With Trump, it's not the case, and, since then, he relaxed. This battle is over. So this election is about nothing, since then, because it will only confirm this status quo, in which Vladimir Putin is the one and only authority absolutely unaccountable to any kind of force and absolutely unpredictable with any kind of decision-making existing only in his head, and nothing else. And that's this kind of new situation that we've had for some time already, which will be confirmed this Sunday, during the election with its predictable outcome.
At the moment we are looking at what's happening between London and Moscow because of the assassination attempt on former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and we've seen a very tough response from London. What could all of this mean? How is the situation perceived here? Is it having any impact on the campaign here and how do you read it?
It has basically replaced the campaign during these last weeks, since it started totally unexpectedly for us, and we don't know to what extent it was unexpected to the Kremlin. All Russian propaganda, all Russian official media, immediately engaged in this issue and, of course, presented it as [though] Russia is under attack, with no evidence, no real reason, the British are just looking for a new pretext to start a new campaign against Russia, and this is how the world is now, and this new global situation that we are in, and this is the situation when Vladimir Putin has to lead us in these new circumstances.
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Can you explain this further? It looks like London could indeed act in some way that would be harmful to Russia – tougher sanctions or freezing the assets of Russian businessmen in London – but, what you're saying suggests something opposite that, in that regard, no one is really scared here, nobody is really concerned about what the West could do.
No...Well, the thing is that the situation is changing while we are speaking, and this is important because it is escalating before our eyes, right now. But, up to now, no. I think the Kremlin presumed that the action that London would take would be harmless, which it was up to this moment. Moscow is used to these kinds of diplomacy wars and expulsion of embassy staff, it's not the first time, not a big deal anymore. The Royal Family is not coming to Moscow for the World Cup: who cares here in Moscow? No one would. We still don't know what kind of sanctions they will impose on Russian business connected to the state, so it remains to be seen. But, I think in Moscow, the Moscow authorities assumed that nothing serious could happen. What just happened, with Boris Johnson directly accusing Vladimir Putin of standing behind this attack, is changing the situation and makes it different. It requires a response, a very strong retaliation, and turns it into a crisis that I don't even remember Russia engaging in before. So it's some kind of new level of this struggle and that's the moment when we will see what is or could the Kremlin really be afraid of. Are there any limits? Because, up until now, sanctions – yes, expulsion from G8 –whatever. It was still, kind of, more rhetorical than real. Well now it is turning into something real and that's when we will see how far the Kremlin really is ready to go.
Briefly, what are the main issues for the Kremlin today? Still bearing in mind the elections. As a Ukrainian, I would ask to what extent the war in Donbas, Crimea or even Syria are discussed and considered. What are the issues at the core of the campaign?
You are talking what is the campaign's agenda?
I'd say it's most up to.. until this crisis with London, it's most important, visible and impressive point was this presentation during the so-called "State of the Union" address of Vladimir Putin, when he presented this new nuclear weaponry and arsenal. That's when we got finally what this sort of election – if it can be called an election – is about. The war in Syria was triumphantly ended again by Vladimir Putin in December, so it's over, and it's perceived in Russia as a great success, for sure. Ukraine is not really something is part of this campaign, some part of the political agenda. It's not a campaign, it's a political agenda that is being built before our eyes, but it's not, I believe, totally connected to the election. Well, of course, yes, there are these goals and tasks of turnout and votes delivered for Vladimir Putin, but, Vladimir Putin himself and his aids, they think about something else, they think about what they're going to do and it's not connected to this election whatsoever.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko