Is Putin Looking for a Way Out of Ukraine?

The president's favorite journalist has floated an exit strategy.
RIA Novosti/Reuters

Sometimes it's a good idea to pay attention to what Andrei Kolesnikov writes.

The Kommersant columnist is one of the Kremlin's anointed court scribes and is often described as President Vladimir Putin's favorite journalist. Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, recently wrote that the Russian president "pays particular attention" to Kolesnikov's columns, which he enjoys "greatly and always reads right to the end." 

Kolesnikov regularly travels with Putin and is often a conduit for messages from the regime's inner sanctum to the broader elite. It was in an interview with Kolesnikov in the summer of 2010, on an epic road trip across the Russian Far East in a bright-yellow Lada, that Putin strongly hinted that he intended to return to the presidency in 2012 and that pro-democracy protesters should be beaten. Both of these things, of course, happened.

So it didn't go unnoticed when Kolesnikov wrote on July 29 that Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

Kolesnikov's argument should by no means be taken at face value. Who really believes that Putin is suddenly shocked that the separatists he has been sponsoring could have shot down a civilian airliner? And does anybody really believe civilian deaths are a red line he will never cross? "If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this, that would radically change [Putin's] attitude toward them—even if it was a fatal mistake," Kolesnikov wrote. "Children who died for nothing, as well as adults and elderly people, this is a red line he will not cross. He will not cover up for those who did this if he knows they did it. He will not have this sin on his soul."

But Kolesnikov doesn't write anything by accident. And it's safe to assume he doesn't write anything that is not Kremlin-approved. So with his July 29 column, he is clearly either floating a trial balloon or delivering a message from Putin to the elite that a change of policy is imminent.

There are other signals that a change in the Kremlin line may be coming. In an interview with CNN on July 22, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said reports that the rebels in eastern Ukraine thought they had shot down a military aircraft around the same time that MH17 crashed suggested they weren't really culpable. "According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet, so if it was [that they thought they] shot down a military jet, there was confusion," Churkin said. "If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism."

Kolesnikov's column has also provoked a bit of hand-wringing in the nationalist press. "Common people who read King Lear think that court jesters exist to tell the monarch the truth with a smile on their face," Yegor Kholmogorov wrote in Vzglyad.  "The truth is that they are used to tell lies in the monarch's name. Andrei Kolesnikov is one such person who is close to Putin who set off a storm among journalists who are accustomed to seeing signals every time he sneezes."

It's too early to tell whether this was a trial balloon, a signal of a policy shift, or a court jester telling noble lies for the king. But the column's timing, on the day when the European Union and the United States announced tough new sanctions against Russia's financial and energy sectors, was certainly interesting.

It also comes at a time when Russia's erstwhile defenders in Europe appear to be distancing themselves from the Putin regime—putting additional pressure on the Kremlin. In a cover story last week titled "Stop Putin Now!" the Hamburg-based weekly Der Spiegel reported that "52 percent of Germans said they would favor tougher sanctions, even if they would lead to the loss of many jobs in Germany." According to the article, Germany's business community, which has close ties to Russia, "has also gotten the message. Although the initial sanctions had few direct consequences for them, many business leaders had warned against sanctions—drawing the ire of the chancellor and other politicians. Now they are changing their position."

In a July 22 article, Yevgenia Albats, editor of the opposition magazine Novoye vremya, or The New Times, issued an emotional call to the Russian elite to persuade Putin to change course in Ukraine or be left "without a country."  

"Never before in its post-Soviet history has Russia been in such a horrific position as it is now. All possibilities—from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin—are possible," Albats wrote, adding that Putin's "Chekist entourage ... has led him not just into a dead end," but also "into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone who has the blood of innocent children on his hands."

Maybe somebody in high places actually heard her call.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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