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Do Putin’s pardons represent public relations rather than real concessions?

December 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Was Russian President Vladimir Putin's amnesty announcement for some high-profile dissidents mostly a public relations tactic? To put Putin's move in perspective, Judy Woodruff talks to Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, to help us understand what’s behind Putin’s announcements, I’m joined by Dimitri Simes. He’s president of the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank. And Angela Stent, she is director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Her latest book is “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century.”

Welcome to you both.

Angela Stent, to you first. Why the Khodorkovsky pardon?

ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University: Well, I think it reveals two things.

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One of them is that Putin clearly doesn’t feel threatened anymore by Khodorkovsky, so he doesn’t have to keep him in jail. And I think there’s a lot of baggage to that. It’s been 10 years.

But I think, secondly, it has to do with all of the things that we heard about in your important, the upcoming Sochi Games, the criticism Russia for many of the things that Putin has done recently, but particularly the so-called homosexual propaganda law, which has people really riled up about what will happen at Sochi about the treatment of athletes.

And so I think this a gesture to show that Russia listens to some of the outside world’s concerns, that it isn’t just imprisoning people, it isn’t negative, and it’s supposed to symbolically show that Russia and that Putin himself has become more open to some of these issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dimitri Simes, how do you read what he said, what he has done for Khodorkovsky?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Well, first, Angela, in my view, is exactly right.

But to put things into perspective, Khodorkovsky was supposed to be released in August is, so now he will be…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This coming August.

DIMITRI SIMES: This coming August, after 10 years in jail.

So now he will be released a few months earlier. It’s very good in terms of public relations for Putin, but it doesn’t change much. The Pussy Riot, they will get the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pussy Riot, this is the punk rock women’s group, music group.

DIMITRI SIMES: Exactly, which had an interesting performance, very provocative in the main Russian Orthodox Church, and were arrested for that.

But, anyway, they’re now under amnesty, but they would be released anyway in March. So Putin got a lot of publicity, but he conceded very little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are saying that it’s not that big a deal, what he’s done with these pardons?

DIMITRI SIMES: That is not that big a deal.

Angela, I think, again is right, saying that Putin wants to look reasonable and demonstrate that Russia is a country of law. Sometimes, the level of Russian repression is overstated in the United States and the West in general, so Putin wants to look sensible and calibrated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Angela Stent, do you see the — what he did with regard to the members of the Pussy Riot band and the Greenpeace members, members of the Greenpeace group, as all as a part of the same effort to improve relations, public relations?

ANGELA STENT: It certainly is.

And I agree with Dimitri. Their sentence, their term was coming to an end in a couple of months. Let me just say about Khodorkovsky there were rumors last week that a new case was going to be brought against him and that he wouldn’t be released in August, as he’s supposed to be.

So one of the things that Putin has done is to push that back and say, no, no, there won’t be another trial, and, by the way, I’m magnanimous and I’m releasing him now. Yes, the Pussy Riot is the same thing. These young women have been in jail, under really pretty bad conditions, particularly one of them, who is in a very nasty labor camp and has blogged about it.

Again, he looks magnanimous. It’s a P.R. gesture, but as Dimitri says, they would have been released anyway, those two women, in a couple of months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dimitri Simes, this was a four-hour-long news conference. He covered a lot of territory during that time. He also talked, as we said, about Edward Snowden, about what the NSA, the U.S. National Security Agency, is doing.

He basically seemed to be defending whatever they’re doing. At the same time, it’s something that is dealing with a lot of controversy here in this country.

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, he is defending their existing practices. And he also is engaged in a delicate balancing act.

He is very tough in defending Russia national interests as he understands them. He would, frankly, be fully prepared to challenge the United States on Syria, as he had done before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Syria.

DIMITRI SIMES: Certainly on Iran, when he said that he is opposed to sanctions, particularly unilateral American sanctions.

But, at the same time, he wants to appear reasonable. And he particularly wanted to make clear that he can work with President Obama. Angela and I were at an event with Putin several months ago. And Putin went out of his way to be magnanimous toward Obama. That was after Obama was not able to attack Syria.

He wanted to say, no, Obama had choices, he made courageous choice, principled choice. He doesn’t want to create an impression that the Russian leader cannot work with the president of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Angela Stent, why is that?

ANGELA STENT: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

ANGELA STENT: Well, I would say that is after making a decision to give Snowden temporary political asylum, which made sense, a wonderful propaganda coup for him, saying that the United States has no right to criticize Russia for listening to its own citizens’ phone calls, since the United States does that itself.

He could have not given him asylum. He did. After that, obviously, President Obama decided that he was not going to go and have a summit with President Putin. And, in fact, since Snowden has been in Russia, tremendous damage has been done to the United States’ relations with its European allies, I mean, the worst for a very, very long time.

And these are all revelations that come from Snowden. So, yes, I would take with some skepticism the claim that they — the Russian government has not been working with Mr. Snowden. But, to put that aside, the damage has been done. All the documents — documents are still being leaked.

And so it’s quite easy for President Putin to say, well, he wants to work with President Obama. I don’t think he’s going to find much of a response there, because it’s quite clear that the White House has taken — made its own conclusions from what happened earlier this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple more things I want to ask you both about, but before I do, Dimitri Simes, was there any — did you get any new sense today of whether Russia is going to be willing to work more with the U.S. or Iran, on the nuclear — trying to get rid of their nuclear program, and on Syria?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, Putin clearly didn’t yield anything of substance on either of these two issues.

But, in my view, if you want to understand Putin’s new flexibility, to the extent there is flexibility, you have to look at one figure, 1.4 percent. That is the level of Russian GNP growth, new, lower figure than anyone expected in 2013. Putin’s foreign policy ambitions are great. His economic development imposes a straitjacket on what he has to accomplish.

So, reluctantly, he has to display some common ground with the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Angela Stent, what…

ANGELA STENT: I…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

ANGELA STENT: Well, I was just going to say, and, yet, with that very low growth rate, he has just now promised $15 billion from the national welfare fund to President Yanukovych, who may or may not spend it wisely.

So, one understands the political reasons behind this, but this is going to be some economic burden on a Russia whose economic outlook for the next decade is not good, as Russian economists themselves have said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Angela Stent, we know, as we reported just a few days ago, Putin closed down one of the state-run media organizations. How free today, finally, is Russian society under Vladimir Putin?

ANGELA STENT: Well, in some ways, there are still freedoms, clearly. People have personal freedoms.

They can travel. And they can, by the way, leave Russia and go and live somewhere else, which, of course, they couldn’t do before. The Internet is still pretty free in Russia. Print media, there are very critical print media. There’s one radio station that is very critical. Electronic media are controlled by the government, and are going to be even more so since the abolition of the RIA Novosti news agency.

So there are some freedoms, but they have clearly been curtailed in the last couple of years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and, Dimitri Simes, so are we to understand that it is going in the direction against freedom under Putin?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think it is quite contradictory.

Even the Russian electronic media, there are several different stories. If you are talking about cable channels, they are almost completely free. And you have — some of them, they have owners which are very critical of Putin. They call Putin a crook, a tyrant. TV channels, which belong to the government, they are much more constrained, but, even there, you hear a lot of critical opinions.

I would say Putin is making two steps forward, and one-and-a-half steps back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we hear you. That is a measurement we can all understand.

Dimitri Simes and Angela Stent, we thank you.