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Offhand Remark Or Political Theater? Putin's Announcement Belies Kremlin’s Penchant For Pageantry


Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to seek reelection at an award ceremony for veterans on December 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to seek reelection at an award ceremony for veterans on December 8.

For a Kremlin that has raised the production of meticulously orchestrated, pomp-filled, televised political spectacles to an art form of sorts, how Vladimir Putin went about announcing he would in fact be seeking another term as Russian president was a head-scratcher.

Or maybe it was planned that way.

Over most of his 24 years as Russia’s preeminent leader, Putin has honed his political performance skills at elaborate events televised live: annual news conferences before hundreds of journalists; annual call-in shows where average Russians can ostensibly ask questions, big and small; state-of-the-nation speeches to parliament; stadium-filled campaign rallies to mark triumphant anniversaries such as Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Not on December 8.

Since at least 2021, close watchers of Russian politics have scrutinized his statements and appearances for clues on whether he intended to blow through any pretext of democratic succession and seek yet another term in office.

Plucked out of relative obscurity by President Boris Yeltsin to become prime minister in 1999, Putin was catapulted to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 2000, before winning outright five months later amid a cloud of fear and uncertainty over terrorism and a new war in Chechnya.

Since then, he served two terms, then handed the presidency to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev, serving as prime minister for four years to abide by term limits before returning to the presidency for a third time in 2012. That inauguration came with its own cloud: of vote-rigging and electoral doubts fueled by anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.

Constitutional Wrangling

Two years ago, the Kremlin oversaw another round of constitutional wrangling: a new set of amendments that, among other things, opened the door for Putin to stay on beyond 2024 -- the end of his current, fourth term – with the possibility of remaining in power until 2036, at which time he would be 83.

All that had left little doubt that he would run in March 2024 -- and given the tight state control over political levers and the media, the systematic crushing of the opposition, and the scope for cheating, running means winning.

Still, Putin was coy about his intentions. And he remained so even after deciding to go toe-to-toe with the West over the fate of Ukraine -- and then launching an all-out invasion in February 2022, sparking the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

The war has dragged on far longer than military commanders had forecast; casualties -- killed and wounded -- among Russian troops have climbed past 300,000 by Western estimates.

Still, Putin remained hugely popular. Russian society has consolidated -- in many cases, grudgingly -- around him. Some of his most outspoken opponents, such as Aleksei Navalny, have been jailed.

Russia watchers waited not so much for an announcement, but for confirmation of his intention. The opening of a major exhibition of Russian achievements at a famed north Moscow pavilion -- a throwback to Soviet exhibitions -- was widely expected to be the venue where Putin would announce his reelection campaign. It didn’t happen.

Nor did it happen when Russian lawmakers formally set a March 17 date for the vote.

When the Kremlin announced that Putin would hold a combined news conference and call-in show on December 14, betting money was that he would use that event to confirm his intention to stay in power and seek to justify it before a national audience.

On December 8, Putin held yet another ceremony at the Kremlin, this time to award Russia’s highest medal -- the Hero of Russia -- to several veterans who have fought in the Ukraine conflict. His speech was triumphant, but not political.

Shortly before the ceremony began, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Russian president would announce his intention when he saw fit, saying “Putin will announce this when he considers it necessary and appropriate.”

Vladimir Putin (right) poses with Ukrainian separatist leader Artyom Zhoga at the Kremlin on December 8.
Vladimir Putin (right) poses with Ukrainian separatist leader Artyom Zhoga at the Kremlin on December 8.

After the ceremony, however, he mingled with some of the attendees, including Artyom Zhoga, a lieutenant colonel who fought with separatist militias in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

With Kremlin cameras following Putin’s every move, Zhoga asked him to run again. Putin responded:

"I will not hide that I have had different thoughts at different times, but it is now time to make a decision. I will run for the presidency of the Russian Federation,” he said. "I understand that there is no other way."

'Cringeworthy' And 'Unsubtle'

Problem was, the announcement wasn’t televised, in full production, with all due teasing and promotion. The news was instead initially relayed by state news agency TASS, whose reporter said Putin had “given his assent” in response to a request by Zhoga.

Less than an hour later, video of the encounter appeared on Telegram channels of Kremlin pool reporters. A short time after, the video, and a short transcript, was published on the Kremlin website under the title “Conversation with participants of the gala event marking the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland.”

Peskov later insisted that the announcement had been spontaneous and not orchestrated.

"He was asked a question and he answered it. Well, yes, it's completely spontaneous," he told reporters. "He reacted to the appeals of heroic people, so yes, it was a reaction to the appeal of people."

Despite it not being a flashy campaign announcement -- one could still be planned for December 14, or some other day -- it wouldn’t be the first time that Putin has revealed a major policy decision in what looked like an offhand way – but may have been another piece of Kremlin choreography.

On December 6, 2017, as he toured a famous automotive factory in the Nizhny Novgorod region, one worker joined Putin on stage and asked him to run the following March: “Today in this hall, everybody, with no exceptions, supports you. Give us a gift! Announce your decision!”

Putin responded that he would run again.

In 2013, after concluding one of his signature marathon news conferences, Putin approached a scrum of a reporters, to answer yet more questions. He was asked about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a once-powerful oil tycoon who had been jailed for more than a decade on tax and fraud charges.

"He has been in jail already more than 10 years. This is a serious punishment,” he said, while also noting that Khodorkovsky's mother was ill: "I decided that, with these circumstances in mind, we should make a decision to pardon him."

Then there was the 2013 announcement that he and Lyudmila, his wife of 30 years, were getting divorced.

After attending a ballet performance, the pair were walking in the Kremlin when they encountered a state TV reporter who appeared to have been prompted to ask about the state of their relationship.

So was the December 8 remark a premature slip of the tongue by Putin that preempted a bigger, flashier announcement in the coming days?

Some close watchers of Russian politics weren’t convinced.

“Cringeworthy, unsubtle political theater,” Ben Noble, a professor of Russian politics at University College London, said in a post to X, formerly Twitter.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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