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Feud with the West bolsters Putin’s image, as tragic Siberian fire shows limits of his control

American diplomats packed up at the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg on Friday, another escalation in the current diplomatic crisis making Russia-U.S. relations more cloudy and dangerous than any point since the Cold War. But while international tensions may strengthen President Vladimir Putin, Russia is also facing an internal crisis after a fire engulfed a shopping center. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The diplomatic showdown between Russia and the United States and its Western allies intensified this week, following the poisoning earlier this month in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter.

    The expulsions of alleged Russian spies by more than 20 nations, and the retaliation by Moscow, came amid a national tragedy there, last Sunday's deadly fire in Siberia.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, relations between Russia and the West have reached yet another new low.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile it claims can elude U.S. missile defense.

    But can't Russia can't elude the current crisis that's made Russia-U.S. relations more dangerous than at any point since the Cold War. Today, American diplomats packed their things outside the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia ordered the consulate closed and expelled 60 U.S. officials in response to the U.S. ordering Russia's Seattle consulate closed and expelling 60 Russian officials.

    These are the most significant expulsions since 1986.

  • President Ronald Reagan:

    I have just returned from meetings in Iceland.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But unlike 1986, when President Reagan expelled Soviet diplomats and held talks with the Soviet Union, today, the world isn't bipolar and the two sides have less interest in cooperation.

    And that makes things more difficult to solve, says Carnegie Moscow director Dmitri Trenin.

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    For the United States, it's the fundamental Russian behavior that needs to change. For the Russians, however, the goal is a compromise achieved through the normal give-and-take process. And those two views are totally incompatible.

  • President Donald Trump:

    President Putin and I have been discussing various things.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump expresses a desire to improve the relationship. But under the Trump administration, tension has increased. Over the Baltics, NATO jets have shadowed Russian ministers' planes and Russian jets have rocked their wings to demonstrate they're armed.

    In Ukraine, the U.S. is sending offensive weapons to soldiers fighting against Russian-backed separatists. And, in Syria, U.S. troops have fired on pro-Russian forces who had attacked them.

    This week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the two sides to reduce the risk of escalation.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    It's time for precautions of these sorts guaranteeing effective communication, guaranteeing capacity to prevent escalation. I do believe that mechanisms of the sort are necessary again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Putin, the tension is an opportunity. He's portrayed himself as the only leader strong enough to stand up to a powerful external enemy. But that doesn't mean he can ignore internal crises.

    Earlier this week, a fire engulfed a shopping center in the Siberian town Kemerovo. This has been a week of funerals and national mourning. Sixty people died.

    At memorial, a father remembered talking to his daughter on the phone as she tried to escape.

  • Man (through translator):

    I was crying to my daughter. She said, "Dad, I love you. I'm suffocating. I'm losing consciousness."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The tragedy sparked mourning, but also protests. Residents blame local officials because the mall's exists were blocked and the fire alarm disabled.

    So, Putin visited Kemerovo to pay his respects and present himself as a benevolent leader launching an investigation. He met with victims' families, letting them interrupt and question him. He portrayed himself as authentic and local officials as corrupt.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    One hundred investigators are working on this case. They will inspect the whole chain of command.

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    Putin is an accomplished politician who's been very successful over the past 18 years. But a lot of people under him, the bureaucracy, feel that they are only responsible to the czar, that they are totally irresponsible, and can be totally irresponsible, to the population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Putin's critics accuse him of facilitating the kind of low-level corruption and ineffectual local governance that led to the fire. The fire also shows the limits of Putin's control.

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    Russia is a combination of top-down control and anarchy. Much of the issue around Russia is not the poor management which exists on behalf of the authorities. It's also lawlessness and lack of responsibility among ordinary people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those ordinary people direct their ire at the local government, as Putin portrays himself as confronting local corruption and simultaneously an aggressive West.

    The U.S. is considering further escalation. Russia maintains blanket denials. Neither side wants war. But it's not clear how they get out of the cycle of confrontation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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