All the Wrong Moves: Putin Plots His Strategy Against the Protesters

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Alexsey Druginyn / Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, December 8, 2011.

On Thursday morning, while the Russian opposition was busy preparing another wave of demonstrations in Moscow and more than 70 other cities, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with his team of imagemakers to discuss their counterstrategy. They chose to envision their dilemma as a game of chess. "We need to look at the chessboard," Putin said, "where all the moves are clear, both the white and the black." The opponent in this game, as Putin went on to explain, is not so much local opposition leaders, who this week organized the largest protests ever against his rule, but the "American partners" moving them around like pawns.

He referred in particular to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed "serious concerns" this week about the fairness of Russia's parliamentary elections, held on Sunday, Dec. 4. The vote allowed Putin's United Russia party to hang on to a slim majority, but well-substantiated claims of voter fraud drove thousands of Russians to the streets of Moscow and other cities to protest on Monday and Tuesday. "She set the tone for certain actors inside the country; she gave the signal," Putin said of Clinton on Thursday. "They heard this signal and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, started actively doing their work."

The image of the U.S. as the covert instigator of the opposition movement has cropped up many times in this election cycle, even before unrest began. On election day in Moscow, for instance, the pro-Kremlin activists gathered near the headquarters of the FSB secret police were passing around decks of cards printed with caricatures of the opposition. The joker in the deck showed a disembodied hand moving a pawn on a chessboard. "The hand of the first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Russia," the caption on the joker read. "This unseen hand coordinates all the actions of the Russian opposition and writes the script of their show."

It was a crude rendition of classic but still effective political ploy. A generation after the end of the Cold War, 73% of respondents in a poll taken last year still felt that the U.S is "an aggressor trying to take control of all the countries of the world," according to the Levada Center polling agency. So linking political figures to Washington is a reliable way, although a fairly predictable one, to discredit them in the eyes of the Russian public. (This tactic has been used to fine effect against Alexei Navalny, the blogger-activist who helped inspire this week's demonstrations. As pro-Kremlin spin doctors love to point out, he took part in the World Fellows Program at Yale University in 2010 — enough reason for them to label him a traitor employed by the CIA.)

But Putin's decision to play this hackneyed card against Clinton during the worst crisis of legitimacy he has ever faced suggests that he simply can't come up with any new ideas, says Gennady Gudkov, a senior lawmaker with the Fair Russia political party, which got 13% of the vote in Sunday's elections. "This is an old pair of pants, and it doesn't quite fit anymore," says Gudkov. "But they've got nothing else to cover up their hides."

The remarks about Clinton followed a string of ham-handed measures taken this week by the government, which has shown a surprising lack of coordination. The state's mouthpiece newspaper, for instance, published a tone-deaf interview on Thursday with Russia's top cybercrime officer, Alexei Moshkov, who argued that bloggers should register their real names and addresses instead of writing anonymously. This outraged the Russian blogosphere — that is, the very people at the forefront of this week's demonstrations. (Some of them pointed out that such antiprivacy measures have already been taken in the neighboring dictatorship of Belarus, and led to mass arrests and interrogations of bloggers.) So the Russian Interior Minister was forced to backpedal, saying the idea was "silly" and would by no means be enforced.

"The state is making one mistake after another, as it is totally unaccustomed to acting in a condition of instability," noted political strategist Tatyana Stanova in an analysis published on Another shining example of this was the statement that accidentally made its way onto President Dmitri Medvedev's official Twitter account on Wednesday, saying that anyone who refers to United Russia as a "party of crooks and thieves" is "a stupid sheep getting [expletive] in the mouth." The Kremlin's press service then scrambled to explain the obscenity, saying that the person in charge of Medvedev's account had mistakenly retweeted the message from a young United Russia lawmaker, Konstantin Rykov. "The culprit will be punished," the Kremlin said.

So if the current political crisis is to be thought of as a game of chess, then Putin's side is losing pieces fast. His advisers admitted as much in their strategy meeting on Thursday, a transcript of which was published on the government's website. "Various rounds are played on the chessboard," said one of them, the union leader Mikhail Shmakov. "But the one played in the sphere of information and propaganda has been lost." They then began brainstorming on how to proceed, with some of the more common suggestions involving the introduction of new blood into the political elite. Putin seemed keen. "It would be very important to have these contacts with young people in every direction that interests the youth, to support them, to open lines of communication," Putin said according to the transcript.

But at the same meeting, he made the bizarre decision to nominate Stanislav Govorukhin, a 75-year-old Soviet film director with no experience in politics, to lead his campaign for the presidential elections in March. According to the transcript, Govorukhin accepted, and then made a rambling speech in which he admitted their position "on the chessboard" is "difficult in the extreme." He added: "It seems hard to even figure out, but if you look closely, if you think about it, you start to see the aim of the white pieces and black pieces and some kind of tactical threats."

The leaders of the opposition, meanwhile, have shown no such signs of fumbling. On the contrary, disparate political parties and movements have joined together in support of another mass demonstration, scheduled for Saturday at a square in the center of Moscow. By Thursday night, more than 30,000 people had said on Facebook that they will attend, while activists in dozens of cities throughout Russia are also organizing protests on the same day. Thanks to the activist Arsen Revazov, the demonstrations have also been given a symbol — a white ribbon — which reporters on the cable news channel Dozhd began wearing on air as of Thursday. "Citizens will start tying on the white ribbon," Revazov wrote on Facebook. "First 10 percent, then 30, then 50 and 70. And already after 30, no one will be afraid." As an endgame strategy, it was not a stroke of genius, but the grand masters over in the Kremlin don't seem to have any better ideas.