Syria crisis: After diplomatic triumph in Geneva, an upbeat Putin allows Russian opposition a rare public hearing

Mary Dejevsky observes the cheerful Russian President, close up (but a little late) in Valdai

Russia may not be crowing about its diplomatic triumph in averting US air strikes on Syria, at least not to the domestic audience. But the Vladimir Putin who met the international group of Russia specialists known as the Valdai Club in the resort of the same name today, came across as a very happy man, even as he acknowledged that failure of the agreement reached a week ago in Geneva was likely to result in the use of force.

Answering questions on Syria, the Russian president was careful not to take the success of the agreement on chemical weapons for granted, but said he was hopeful that President Assad would honour his undertakings. “Whether we will manage to see everything through, I cannot say 100 per cent. But everything that we have seen up to now, in recent days, inspires confidence that this is possible and that it will be done.”

And if not, would Russia be held responsible for the failure? “No,” said Mr Putin. The US and Russia, he said, had a joint role and bore joint responsibility. “If the present efforts fail, it will be extremely bad, and it is clear that there will be a resort to force.” Interrupting a questioner who challenged Mr Putin about his apparent opposition to a military response, the Russian President was adamant: “We are not opposed to the use of force; we are opposed to the use of force without the approval of the UN Security Council.” 

Mr Putin also offered a glimpse of how his much-praised article for The New York Times came into being. The idea to use a newspaper article for a direct appeal as members of the US Congress were considering whether to vote for punitive air strikes, he said, was his and he said that the article in fact contained nothing that he had not said before in various pronouncements.

He said that his draft was edited twice; The New York Times was alerted to expect it, and he stipulated that there should be no cuts. At the last moment, though, the Kremlin asked for publication to be delayed by a day, because President Obama was due to speak that evening and Mr Putin wanted to wait, in case the US changed its position.

With Mr Obama still arguing for air strikes, the Russian President’s article was published the next day with no changes, except that he had added the last sentence, with its reference to God: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

For all the seriousness of the Syria exchanges, the mood at this year’s Valdai meeting with Mr Putin was both upbeat and increasingly light-hearted. At last year’s gathering, at his residence outside Moscow, the Russian president was very late; he seemed out of sorts and at times distracted, and we later learned that he was being treated for a back problem.

At the time, the West was up in arms about the prison sentences for the female punk rock group, Pussy Riot; there had been sporadic political protests against his return to the presidency, and at the UN Russia was returning to its old habits of saying “nyet”.

All that this year’s Vladimir Putin and last year’s had in common was the abiding inability to keep to time. A speech planned for 3pm slipped to 4pm and almost to 5pm without a hint of the presidential presence, except for the growing number of security people.  There was ample time for a cleaner to vacuum the platform in the conference hall (in Britain, her diligence would have earned her a cheer), for the electricians to blind us with their lighting experiments, and for the sound engineers to check that all the microphones were working.

Then a cheerful Mr Putin strode in, accompanied – for the first time at these gatherings – by a supporting cast of foreign dignitaries. All of them, as it happened, from the political right, whether because they were out of office and so able to speak at such occasions, because – which is not impossible – this is where Mr Putin’s own political instincts lie. 

Mr Putin proceeded to the lectern to deliver – another first for this gathering – a sombre set-piece speech on the theme of Russian identity. Broadcast live on Russian state television, it traced what many Russians regard as the specificity of their national character, in which a sympathy for Russian Orthodoxy plays a particular role.

Factually, rather than apologetically, he explained – among other things – that this was why he and the Russian government take such a dim view of gay marriage. But this was an unusual speech for the Russian leader, which dwelt mainly in the realm of ideas, and seemed designed to draw a line under the past 10, if not 20 years, and set Russia on a different – albeit slightly different – course, in response perhaps to the current, more introspective, public mood.

The post-Soviet period, he said, was now past, but a new national idea could not be imposed from above. “We have left the Soviet ideology behind, and there is no going back to it”. It was time, he said, to heal the wounds from the past and stop deceiving ourselves. “If we lose our national DNA, we lose ourselves.” 

Mr Putin’s supporting cast, who then commented on what he had to say, and shared the questions, in a genial atmosphere more reminiscent of a television talk show, was a strange collection: Volcker Rühe, a former German defence minister; Romano Prodi, the former Italian Prime Minister;  François Fillon, who was Prime Minister in the Sarkozy government, and Dimitri Simes, a noted US Russia specialist of the realist school, who has bent the ear of successive American presidents.  

There were lighter moments, including Mr Prodi’s mock horror, when Mr Putin coupled him with Silvio Berlusconi as Italian politicians whose presence he had enjoyed, and much banter amid the mutual compliments, including about Sunday’s German election. But it was not the bonhomie alone that distinguished this year’s marathon performance from Vladimir Putin. Not only was the event broadcast for the first time, but the audience included prominent members of the Russian opposition, who were allowed (perhaps encouraged) to ask questions from the floor.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a long-standing – and uncompromising critic – of Russia’s defective democracy and Mr Putin personally,  cited his evidence of extensive fraud at last week’s local governor and mayoral elections, and challenged the prosecutions of those who had taken part in 2012 pro-democracy protests that had turned violent. Having said, to no one’s surprise, that the judicial process had to be left to take its course, Mr Putin then added – to widespread amazement – “it may be possible to consider an amnesty, and I don’t rule that out”. 

And Xenia Sobchak, a star television journalist turned democracy campaigner, who is also the daughter of the late mayor of St Petersburg, asked about representation for Russia’s urban  “thirtysomethings” who formed the core of the 2011 protests. In a typically clever twist, she asked how Mr Putin thought today’s young people would remember him – and how he would remember them.

The Russian President – who, like several of his staff, cut his political teeth as a member of her father’s team as the Soviet Union collapsed – welcomed what he described as the political awakening of Russia’s younger generation, but he was non-committal about how the authorities might encourage the trend.

Ms Sobchak took his reply with a good grace, and while many viewers might have gasped at the spectacle of her and Mr Ryzhkov confronting the President in public, in the hall the response was slightly different. There was hope, but not much confidence, that this might just be the start of the “dialogue” that the opposition has asked for ever since Mr Putin returned to the presidency a year last May.

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