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Putin Revels In U.S. TV Interviews, But His Target Audience May Be In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to NBC News that was aired on June 14.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to NBC News that was aired on June 14.

MOSCOW -- In September 2000, just months after his inauguration to a first presidential term in Russia, a stiff and skittish Vladimir Putin sat in a New York studio across from legendary TV anchor Larry King.

"What happened with the submarine?" King asked about the Kursk, the nuclear-powered vessel that had sunk in the Barents Sea a month earlier after explosions on board, killing all 118 crew members.

"It sank," Putin replied. The clumsy line would dog him for years, as journalists in Russia and abroad continued to scrutinize his government's failed response to the tragedy.

Almost 21 years later, in an interview with the U.S. network NBC ahead of a June 16 summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, a more polished and media-savvy Putin avoided such gaffes.

Biden is the fifth U.S. president to serve since Putin came to power, and many of the questions Keir Simmons posed may have sounded familiar: The NBC correspondent probed allegations of Kremlin complicity in the killings of its critics, the issue of NATO expansion, and the government's treatment of opposition leaders like imprisoned Putin foe Aleksei Navalny, among other things.

Putin, who has now had years of practice honing his narratives and handling such questions, sought to dismiss the query about killings as an offensive against him, saying that he had "gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles" and that "none of it surprises me."

And in his first major interview with a U.S. news outlet since 2018, Putin tried to turn the tables on the United States, talking up Russia's ties with China, accusing Washington of acting hypocritically on the world stage, and flatly rejecting concerns about Moscow's human rights record even as it continues a sweeping political crackdown ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

But analysts say Putin is less concerned during such interviews about persuading the U.S. public than he is about playing to his own domestic audience, while providing fodder for obedient Russian news outlets that portray him as an unflappable leader for whom no Western reporter is a match.

"They're not taking the opportunities to use foreign media exposure to actually change the conversation in the West," Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, said of Putin and his Kremlin aides. "But what it does produce is a pretty picture, of Western journalists being respectful, being broadly unable to shake Putin, and being caught off-guard periodically or at least unable to come up with the right follow-ups."

That picture is widely broadcast within Russia, where TV stations prioritize video excerpts in which Putin challenges reporters or seeks to expose a lack of knowledge about international affairs.

On occasion, Putin has even been afforded a live audience for his sparring matches with American journalists. "Give her a pill or something," he said after being questioned by NBC's Megyn Kelly on a panel at an annual investment forum in 2017, provoking raucous laughter from a room filled predominantly with Russian officials and business leaders.

The drumbeat of triumphalist coverage that followed the latest interview, which was released in full on June 14 after excerpts were aired days earlier, was by now par for the course for the state-run and Kremlin-allied media in Russia.

"Putin knocked the NBC correspondent down a peg," ran a headline in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia on June 14. "The Chinese are delighted by Putin's interview with NBC," state news agency RIA Novosti declared. "Did you notice how many times Putin stuck it to him?" prominent host Vladimir Solovyov asked during his talk show on June 13.

But how convincing Putin's responses are to audiences in the United States and the West is another matter, and one that analysts say the Kremlin seems less concerned about. Some Western journalists who have interviewed Putin have come away saying he is difficult to corner, even if one doubts the truth of his remarks.

"You should not try to outwit Vladimir Putin -- I don't think that's going to happen. But you can try to box him in a bit," Kelly said after her NBC interview with Putin in March 2018. "He wasn't telling the truth about the matters that I was examining him on. He knew it, and I knew it."

Greene suggested that ultimately, that may not matter much to Putin and the Kremlin.

Since the disastrous Larry King interview after the Kursk disaster, Kremlin handlers have "learned how to spin it at home, and they've probably learned how to stop caring about how it plays overseas," he said. "There's a sense that more and more of what they do from a foreign-policy standpoint is being done for domestic consumption."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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