20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: over the last two weeks, two foreign policy stories made headlines in Russia, paradoxically reflecting the ongoing crumbling of the international order: Vladimir Putin’s annual foreign policy conference and the news that the U.S. will withdraw from the INF treaty. On the domestic front, last week Russia was shaken by its first-of-a-kind mass shooting in a Kerch college in Crimea. Finally, following months of deterioration in the bilateral relationship over the Ukrainian issue, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to sever ties with Constantinople.


October 19, 2018: Vladimir Putin at the Valdai Club conference in Sochi. Photo: Youtube.


  1. Putin’s Foreign Policy & Collapse of INF

Story One: Vladimir Putin gave his annual foreign policy speech at the Valdai Club on October 19. He fired up his usual anti-Western rhetoric, noting that in case of a nuclear conflict, Russians will go straight to heaven as martyrs (because they don’t have a preventive strike as part of their nuclear strategy), but the adversary will die as well—with no  time to repent.

  • Putin played his favorite “victim card” in addressing the issue of current tensions with the U.S. as he reiterated the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is not creating any problems in the world but is still being baselessly accused of “some interference.” [Kommersant]

Story Two: Following Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will unilaterally withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reacted by accusing the U.S. of making the world a “more dangerous place.” [Novaya Gazeta

What does it all mean?

  • Putin’s nuclear comments: Ivan Mikirtumov, philosopher: Putin told a joke that could be the punchline of an anecdote that hasn’t been created yet. Political anecdotes are a legacy of the Soviet regime when all things great and horrifying were ridiculed only to expose their absurdity. Putin’s words about “heaven” and “martyrs” can be juxtaposed with the realities in Russia, a “country where cynicism prevails” [Vedomosti]
  • On the collapse of INF:
  • Alexei Arbatov, Institute of World Economy and International Relations: In the wake of INF, other arms treaties could also collapse, e.g. New START (2010) and the next START, with the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to follow. The world will be thrown into a new arms race—not just between the U.S. and Russia. They will be joined by China, NATO, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Dmitry Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center: Trump’s decision is unlikely a part of his bargain strategy vis-a-vis Russia. It’s a practical decision that will give Trump more freedom in dealings with North Korea and China. The mere fact of the INF withdrawal is not an immediate problem for Russia—what matters is what steps the Trump administration will take next. What Moscow needs to do is to keep calm and control its emotions. [Carnegie.ru]


  1. Kerch Shooting 

The story: On October 18, an 18-year-old student named Vladislav Roslyakov opened gunfire and set off at least one bomb at the Kerch technical college in Crimea. It was the worst shooting-related incident at an educational institution in Russia’s history; at least 19 people were killed, including Roslyakov himself, and at least 73 sustained injuries. Several thousands of people attended the memorial service on Friday in honor of those who died. [Vedomosti, RBC, Novaya Gazeta].


  • The last mass shooting at a school in Russia occurred in 2014 in the Otradnoye district of Moscow. Though many were quick to make the connection, the state media was banned from mentioning the Columbine massacre in the context of Kerch. [Ekho Moskvy]
  • Society and authorities alike struggled on where to lay the blame. One woman in Kerch told TV reporters that “America came up with Columbine in order to attack [Russia].” Because the shooting occurred in Crimea—a peninsula that has taken on a renewed importance in the Russian national consciousness since Euromaidan and the 2014 annexation—emotions were heightened.
  • President Vladimir Putin labeled the tragedy a result of globalization and greater exposure to the internet. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is drafting a bill that would ban children’s access to violent media. In the past, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) has proposed weapon reform and the FSB has considered taking control over the internet. [Kommersant

What it means:

  • Mikhail Gurevich, editor at Kommersant: Restrictions and bans are in vogue in today’s Duma, and it’s possible that the deputies will pass draconian laws to control society and cyberspace. But the Kerch tragedy is one of many challenges in the 21st century, which none of the bills or laws being considered by the authorities will be able to solve.
  • For instance, if the authorities increase the minimum age for purchasing a weapon to 22, how will they explain enrollment in the army, which starts at 18? Even less likely are reforms to secondary education in Russia, which would require costly and lengthy implementation. [Kommersant]
  • Alexandra Arkhipova, social anthropologist: In the wake of a tragedy like Kerch, any rational explanation is often overshadowed by long-standing societal myths about its motives and consequences.
  • In Russia, there is a tendency to connect shootings to the U.S., and specifically to Columbine. But while the U.S. has lived through many shootings, it has not experienced them disproportionately to other countries. Moreover, the motivations for these actions are personal, even if aspects of Kerch mirror that of Columbine.
  • Though a typical response from the authorities after a tragedy like Kerch is to ban weapons or limit access to weapons, sociologists reiterate that each of these incidents is based in a variety of factors rather than a single reason. [RBC]


  1. Church Breakup

The story: Following the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly last week, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church—the largest Orthodox church in the world—voted to sever ties with Constantinople. Both decisions affect millions of believers—the schism is also the biggest in the Orthodox Church’s history since the division of Christianity into Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054

  • Alexander Zanemonets, Deacon of the Russian Exarchate of the Constantinople Patriarchate in Western Europe: While not much changes with the Russian Orthodox Church’s decision, it expresses strong resentment toward Constantinople, widely seen as the focal point of the Orthodox World, even if the ROC and the Church of Constantinople are not very similar.
  • However, the decision does deprive members of the ROC the opportunity to do work abroad. The new position of the ROC in the Orthodox World will emulate that of the Russian Federation’s positioning under the current sanctions—a form of self-inflicted isolation. [Carnegie.ru]

What went into the ROC’s decision:

  • Aleksey Makarkin, Center for Political Technologies: The Russian Orthodox Church’s push to sever ties with Constantinople isn’t as radical as it’s made out to be. While reactionaries see it as a chance to create the “Third Rome,” liberals aren’t interested in such a large-scale split.
  • Constantinople’s goal is to protect the rights of believers—it assumes that because Ukraine is pivoting toward Europe, the state won’t infringe on the rights of Christians. While reconciliation is possible, it will depend on the development of the Ukrainian conflict and the positioning of Russia vis-à-vis the West. [RBC]
  • Maksim Artemiev, historian: What happened in Ukraine could be repeated in Moldova and Belarus, which is why the ROC is playing a proactive role. A guiding precedent can be found in the Church of England, which built a system of churches in the former colonies and dominions of the British Empire.
  • In doing so, England maintained spiritual authority over former subjects. The Russian Federation could recreate this network in the countries of the former Soviet Union, wielding authority without formally subjugating these nations. [Carnegie.ru]


Other stories that mattered (in Russian):

  • Putin as in 2013? Will his popularity drop lead to a new “geopolitical victory”? Political strategist Vitaly Shkliarov discusses the implications of Putin’s lower-than-usual approval rating. [Republic]
  • Protection for $3.8 billion: Sberbank started negotiating the acquisition of a large stake in Yandex”: The Bell reports that Russia’s largest bank is looking to buy up to 30 percent of Yandex (Russia’s largest search engine and tech company) and thus protect it from potential problems with competitors and the government. [Bell]
  • The Image of the Journalist in the Public Mind”: MediaStandart Foundation and ZIRCON Research Group published a new study on public attitudes toward journalism and the media in Russia. According to the authors’ data, 65 percent of Russians respect journalists, however 50 percent don’t really trust them and 30 percent believe that journalists don’t have any serious influence on anything.  [komitetigi.ru]