Third Term: Media Coverage of Putin May 2012-May 2016

On May 7, 2012, Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia—again. After a four year stint as Prime Minister, he was back in the Kremlin. If you’ve been reading these posts, then you know the drill: I’m going to lay out a timeline of the most significant events in news media coverage of these four years, and then I’m going to tackle the prevalent themes I noticed.

Before I dive in, I’m sure you’re thinking, “But Catherine, Putin is still the president of Russia! His third term isn’t up until March! Why does this post stop on May 18th, 2016?” The answer is twofold. First of all, I am well over my two-week research time and frankly, reading endless articles about Vladimir Putin has not been the easiest emotional task. Second, and more specifically, May 18th marks a new chapter in US coverage of Putin. On that date, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, said that he had seen evidence of hacking into presidential campaigns. Since then, we’ve had a veritable whirlwind of coverage of Putin, which would constitute its own research project.

 

Vladimir Putin returns to the presidency at his 2012 inauguration.

Vladimir Putin returns to the presidency at his 2012 inauguration.

As Putin was inaugurated, protests were still raging through Moscow. The summer of 2012, however, saw Putin cracking down. That was the preferred term for both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post—the phrase “crackdown” occurs in headlines and articles throughout the spring and summer. Two significant events occurred in July 2012. First, there was the infamous NGO law, requiring any NGOs operating in Russia that received foreign money to register as “foreign agents,” a loaded term in Russia with sinister connotations. Also in July, three members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot was put on trial after their December 2011 performance in a Moscow cathedral. The papers presented these and other events as different somehow; the Journal’s headline on the trial called it a “shift away from tolerance.” I’m skeptical of the idea that Putin was very tolerant previously, but the papers saw this political moment as a turning point.

In December of 2012, Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which you may have heard come up recently. This was a package of sanctions targeting specific Russian officials connected with human rights abuses. In response, Putin signed an act of his own, which, among a few other things, banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families (which is why “We were talking about adoptions” does not dispel concerns about the nature of meetings with Russians). The adoption ban was portrayed as “heart wrenching,” “callous,” and a “tragedy.” The tone around this issue was near disgust at Putin.

 

Putin and Putina announce their divorce in an exceptionally awkward interview. Image via Daily Mail.

Putin and Putina announce their divorce in an exceptionally awkward interview. Image via Daily Mail.

A minor note, significant perhaps solely because of how little it mattered, was Putin’s divorce in June 2013. He and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, went to the opera and afterwards confirmed to reporters that they would be getting a divorce. It passed by in a blip, a testament to how little Putin’s personal life has seemed to matter. He has allowed very little of his personal life to become public, but I still find it interesting that we paid more attention to, say, Anthony Scaramucci’s divorce than Vladimir Putin’s.

Throughout this time, the slow-burning issue has been Syria. In September of 2013, we began to suspect that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons on its own people, and Putin denied that was the case. Putin’s support of Assad, like his adoption ban, was covered with some amount of disgust, tempered in news coverage but on full display in editorials.

In February of 2014, Russia held the Sochi Winter Olympics. A lot of controversy led up to the event. Allegations of corruption and grift were rampant, as were descriptions of incomplete construction. There was also controversy due to the so-called Gay Propaganda Law, signed by Putin in August 2013, which banned materials promoting “nontraditional relationships” being disseminated to minors. This was seen as broad allowance for homophobic policy and many countries condemned it. The Post and Journal both scoffed at the law, with the Post saying Putin “violate[d] the Olympic spirit.”

Also in February, the crisis in Ukraine began with the removal of pro-Putin president Victor Yanukovich. Putin, predictably, did not react well, and March saw the annexation of Crimea. Russia was removed from the G8, slapped with some sanctions, and soundly condemned. The entire conflict, which lasted throughout 2014, was complicated and you can read a timeline here, but essentially it was seen as an irrevocable split between Putin and western leaders. This is when the Hitler comparisons began, with Crimea as the Sudetenland. It seems that while Putin wreaked havoc in his own country, the Post and the Journal were condemnatory but removed; now that his actions were moving beyond the borders, they reached a new level of anger and disgust using more loaded language than before. An editorial in the Journal called him “a threat to global stability,” and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Post wrote that Putin was “basking in an orgy of chauvinistic sentiment.”

 

Boris Nemtsov, high-profile opposition leader, was killed in 2015 outside the Kremlin.

Boris Nemtsov, high-profile opposition leader, was killed in 2015 outside the Kremlin.

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a significant opposition leader, was shot outside the Kremlin. The Journal called it “the highest-profile killing of a political figure in more than a decade.” It was not quite taken for granted that the Kremlin was behind the killing, but both papers left little room for doubt. At this point, two years after the adoption ban and in the wake of Sochi, Syria, and Ukraine, the tone of disgust seemed commonplace and Nemtsov’s killing did not heighten it.

The end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 also saw more Syria news, as Russia launched airstrikes there. The papers were both condemnatory of the action and skeptical that it could turn out well for Putin, continually making reference to the potential “quagmire” he could find himself in.

And at that point, for all the talk in 2001 about “Putin’s soul,” or in 2008 about a “reset” in US-Russia relations, our two countries seemed, especially in the eyes of these two papers, firmly in adversarial territory which seemed unlikely to change.

Now for the themes I noticed in coverage over these four years:

  1. Putin as litmus test

This is the idea that we evaluate other leaders, in America and throughout the world, based in part on how they interact with Putin, or we use Putin as a shorthand for criticism of them. Though I haven’t mentioned it before, this one has cropped up throughout the sixteen years worth of research. However, starting in 2012, it became more pronounced. Criticisms of Obama frequently revolved around his being too “weak” on Putin. Leaders such as Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were measured up based on how they dealt with  Putin. And, as the 2016 election cycle began a year and a half before the election itself, candidates on both sides were measured up based on how they spoke about Putin. This, too, was the first mention of Donald Trump in regards to Putin; Putin was used as a way to attack or demean Trump, especially when he was still seen by many as something of a joke.

  1. Putin’s image

 

Putin projects a tough-guy image, seen as humorous to many Americans. Image via CBS.

Putin projects a tough-guy image, seen as humorous to many Americans. Image via CBS.

Putin projects a very specific image: he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s fit, he rides horses. That image works very well at home in Russia; here in the US, it is more frequently used for comedic effect. What struck me was that as the papers condemned Putin more and more, they also used this mage to mock him, to try and belittle him. In 2012 in the Post David Mason called Putin “a shirtless, gun-toting, scuba-diving judo crane-savior, ” and during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, the Journal’s Peggy Noonan asserted that “he’s a media-obsessed operator who plays to his base back home by tranquilizing bears, wrestling alligators, and riding horses shirtless.” In 2014—in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine—the Post’s William Wan talked about “his iron-pumping, horse-riding, tiger-hunting ways and his affinity for being photographed sans-shirt.” These descriptions seem to be written with at least a smirk, and I think are part of a desire to try and minimalize someone like Putin even as he presents a real threat.

  1. Putin as aggressor

As I mentioned earlier, I noticed a real shift in tone once Putin began to affect not only the lives of his own citizens, but in a meaningful way impact people in other parts of the world. Talk of Putin as “tough” and “aggressive” pervaded these four years. It was once he asserted himself outside of Russia that this characterization began, at the same time as strong condemnation of his actions.

  1. Putin the czar

We’ve talked before about comparisons of Putin to czars of old and to Soviet leaders. It hasn’t really been a secret from the beginning that Putin was the one with the power. I noticed in this final four-year period, though, that this was, if not more explicitly stated, still more pronounced. Before, while it was acknowledged that Putin was in charge, mentions were still made of the Duma and of his ministers. These became much rarer since 2012 and his return to power. It seems the papers no longer felt that actors other than Putin had much significance at all.

  1. Who is he?

And this takes us back to the beginning. In 1999, Putin was an unknown and these two papers were trying to parse his motives and who he would be; after sixteen years, the papers still saw Putin as a mystery. There were conflicting arguments: either Putin was running an incompetent Kremlin, or he had total control, or he was surrounded by poor advisors, or he was the only voice he listened to. The task of understanding Putin and trying to determine what was happening in his mind and in the Kremlin is one that never seemed to go away for these Papers.

 

Thanks for reading again. I hope to post my conclusion within the next day or so, and wrap everything up.

Comments

  1. fjbabetski says:

    Hi Catherine! This is a great research topic and all of your blog posts are so detailed and well-written. I find the points you have raised intriguing, especially the whole question of Putin’s mysterious personal life. I actually went and looked up the video in which he and his ex-wife announced their divorce, and it struck me how formal and rigid they both were. You used the word “blip” to describe this moment, and I think that fits perfectly since it was just so random.

    I also started thinking about what Putin’s relationship with his two daughters is like, since we know barely anything about them either. In the US, for example, we know so much about the children of the president and former presidents. Donald Jr, Ivanka, and Eric Trump are heavily involved in their father’s administration and Malia Obama is often featured in the media, most recently because of her behavior at Lollapalooza. By contrast, Putin’s daughters, Maria and Ekaterina, barely appear in the media and a lot of the information that is out there about them is unconfirmed. Did this topic come up during your research? What are your thoughts on it?

  2. catherine says:

    Hey! Thanks for reading and for your comment.
    I think there’s an entirely different conception of first ladies/first families in Russia. In general, from Soviet times to now, very few first ladies were really vocal or stood out, with the exception of Raisa Gorbacheva. Even while they were married, Lyudmila Putina stayed out of the public eye and, as you pointed out, so did their daughters. I saw almost no mention of the two in all my research, even in lighter pieces that talked about Putin’s life or routine. I think that perhaps it’s just a cultural difference–that the Russian press, people, and especially Putin himself don’t see the purpose of focusing on those family members.

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