Although Putin usually defers to Medvedev on the international stage, as it is the president’s area of responsibility, it was Putin front and center this week, taking on both WikiLeaks and Russia’s bid for the World Cup.
First, Putin gave an interview to Larry King, dismissing criticism of Russia’s style of a ruling duo as an attempt to “destroy our effective interaction in running the country.”
Pavel Golovkin / AP
A young man holding a Russian flag hands out free national flags to motorists in downtown Moscow, to celebrate FIFA's selection of Russia as host to the 2018 World Cup.
But the real intrigue came when Putin announced that he would not be traveling to Zurich to preset Russia’s bid for the World Cup. Putin’s support of the bid, and the resources and results his power can deliver, was one of the key points in Russia’s bid. It was Putin’s personal appeal, in English, to the IOC in 2007 which is widely credited for Russia being awarded the 2014 winter Olympics.
One day later, Russia won its bid in only two rounds of voting. It’s a huge deal for Russia, and Russian pride, to host the World Cup. Medvedev tweeted his congratulations (@MedvedevRussia), it will be Putin’s influence, and strategy, that Russians remember when they think of how they won.
MOSCOW – For fans of espionage news, this week in Russia was a busy one.
It started Monday with Russian media reports that President Dmitry Medvedev granted awards to members of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. The president’s press secretary said that among them were the 10 Russian agents who were arrested in the U.S. and swapped this summer for four men accused of spying for the West.
Tuesday, though, brought even bigger news.
The Russian version of Maxim magazine announced that it had the first interview with the most (in)famous of the 10 Russian agents, Anna Chapman. The magazine said that the interview and a revealing photo shoot would be in its next issue, which would hit newsstands here Thursday. A teaser video went up on Maxim’s website, and a longer, more detailed video was promised for the day that the magazine came out.
Thursday morning came, but the magazine didn’t.
“People have been asking for it all morning,” said one of sellers at the nine newsstands I went to in search of the magazine.
However, if you were looking for some insight into the inner workings of the Russian intelligence community, or about what exactly the agents were hoping to achieve in America, Maxim’s interview is a disappointment – questions about any of those topics were off-limits.
Instead the interview focused on what Maxim knows best: flirting and seduction. But that doesn’t mean Chapman’s answers weren’t still cryptic and vague. For example:
Q: Have you ever been so in love, that it made you do foolish things?
A: I’ll answer like this: Even if I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.
Men’s mag fluff or hidden meaning? That’s for the reader to decide. Trying to pin down Chapman’s espionage credentials proved equally elusive:
Q: Which men are easiest to seduce? Russians, British or Americans?
A: Seduction, just like love and friendship, are the same everywhere. Most men can be divided into three categories: primitive – who need only sex. Smarter ones – who want to be loved. And the third group – those, who don’t only want to be loved, but who also want this love to be the biggest and most wonderful feeling in their life. With them it’s the most difficult, but it’s my favorite category.
As much as the other nine agents have stayed out of the limelight, Chapman seems to be launching a very public – and revealing (the cover and interview featured images of her in states of undress) – campaign to stay in it.
The Russian blogosphere is rife with speculation about her future. Will she become an actress and play herself in the story of the spies? Or will she become a politician with Putin’s dominant United Russia party?
MOSCOW – You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin. For someone who so often shows up hours late to his appointments, the Russian prime minister has an astonishing sense of timing.
Earlier this week, 11 million Muscovites were choking from a thick noxious smoke cloud hovering over their city. They were told to wear masks if they ventured outside, but few could find any masks in the pharmacies. And if they stayed inside, they were pummeled by an oppressive heat their winter-friendly houses or apartments were built to retain and amplify.
REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Nikolsky
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wearing headphones, sits in the cockpit of a firefighting plane in Ryazan region on Tuesday.
By Tuesday most people were in a daze from lack of sleep and the effects of the smog on their lungs and nervous systems. The day before, Moscow’s health czar had corrected his earlier reassurances about the heat and revealed publically that it was in fact responsible for doubling the death rate in the city.
And that didn’t include the blanket of smoky smog which was said to be the toxic equivalent of 8 packs of cigarettes a day. There was a sense that even Russians – perhaps the most patient people on Earth – were losing that patience.
So, under pressure, the city opened up about 120 so-called “anti-smog centers.” Places where you could go to literally catch your breath, with comfortable chairs, tea and biscuits, but most of all, air-conditioning to take the sting out of 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. However, by Tuesday, few air-conditioning units had even been installed yet in these urban oases.
By that evening the tension in the streets seemed as volatile as the tinderboxes that were igniting into hundreds of fires throughout the bone-dry nation.
Would President Dmitri Medvedev announce he was sacking half the cabinet and the whole Emergencies Ministry? Would there be denials of a people’s uprising in the Ryazan region – where the worst of the fires were burning? There were reports that some Russians there were actually fighting fires on their own, only hundreds of yards from their threatened homes, with shovels and water from garden hoses, and without a fire truck – or fighter – in sight.
Would Putin address the growing criticism in the small, but increasingly noisy Russian blogosphere, that the policy decisions he made when he was president had neutered the Federal Forest Agency and left Russia too ill-equipped to fight its own fires?
I turned on the evening news on state-run TV that night not knowing what to expect.
Enter ‘Action Man’ And there he was – Putin – in the cockpit of a Russian-built, amphibious Be-200 aircraft, his right hand firmly on the control stick. He appeared laconic; so laid back he could have been in a simulator.
But the fires across Ryazan were burning below him when the plane veered and you could hear, off camera, the REAL pilot – presumably – yelling.
“Attention, get ready to dump!” commanded the off-camera voice to Putin. Putin looking slightly more focused, then guided the stick forward on the command. “Dump now!”
Only then did I figure out what I was looking at: Putin was fighting a fire from inside a water-dumping plane.
With a judo-like flick of his head, he glanced askew and asked what had to be one of the most leading questions of all time: “Did we hit it?” The answer, “Yes, we hit it precisely!” was immediate – as was my amazement. (See video of Putin in the cockpit in the link below).
Instinctive political timing Imagine President Barack Obama filming himself dumping 24 tons of water over a California fire from the cockpit of a C-130 and you get a better sense of how instinctive a Russian leader Putin is.
The situation looked very grim that day. People were choking in Moscow, 52 had died from fires across the country, and 2,000 had to flee their burning homes.
This was clearly a time for… Action Man.
So the mild-mannered prime minister of Russia slipped into his blue denim shirt and jeans and – once again – showed his people who was in charge.
It had been some years since Action Man – as he is sometimes called – appeared flying in a chopper, or fighter jet, or bomber, or navigating a submarine. But Putin knew – somehow – that it was time.
And if you think that dumping a plane-full of water over a fire that had already consumed 1.8 million acres of forest and peat bogs would have a minimal effect at best, think again.
When Muscovites woke up Wednesday morning, they did so in a New World.
The Kremlin’s golden spires were shining, once again, in full splendor, as was the rest of the capital’s cityscape.
The grey smog was gone. Skies were blue. Air pollution – at one point some 600 percent above safe levels – had returned to normal. The city’s 11 million people could breathe again, without masks, and it didn’t matter to them if some fires were burning closer to Chernobyl and might even unleash locked-up radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Life was better, just hours after some 70 percent of Russians who get their news from TV saw Putin at the controls of a fire-fighting plane.
Of course there was no connection between Putin’s publicity stunt and the sudden break in the heat wave. He had nothing to do with the overnight thunder showers and strong winds which washed in and blew away Moscow’s smog.
But that was hardly the point – Action Man had acted, and now things were good. And it didn’t matter to most Russians for how long or how it all really happened. Isn’t politics mostly about perception?
‘The government will take care of us’ It’s as if Putin were in the Anti-Smog Center, earlier that day, when I asked an elderly Russian man why people were so accepting of such a horrific situation, one in which hundreds were dying a day. The man wouldn’t give his name. He spoke softly, but his words were stunning.
“What we see at the moment is worse than it was in World War II or during Chernobyl. Maybe because we were younger then and stronger. We are now no longer capable of defending ourselves, and all we can do is hope that the government will take care of us. But the government is not defending us, either.”
Uncannily, as this man spoke, Vladimir Putin was jumping into his Be-200 for a photo-op he couldn’t resist. And storm clouds were – for the first time in weeks - beginning to form over Moscow.
Hundreds of fires are still burning, and the shroud of smoke and smog could return to Moscow. Action Man may have to strike again.
Meantime, the 30 percent of Russians who don’t believe in miracles – or in Putin – are screaming “foul” in various blogs and online chat rooms. But it’s hardly a nascent opposition. One angry blogger named “viking_nord” demanded that Putin pay the equivalent of an $80 fine…for flying without a pilot’s license.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Moscow.
MOSCOW – If you want an air conditioner in Moscow, you’re too late.
Russia’s heat wave is almost one month old, and is showing no signs of letting up. Having lived extensively in New York and the Middle East, temperatures hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit are nothing strange for me, but it’s a different experience in Moscow.
The toughest part may be the scarcity of air-conditioning here, especially in residential homes. Maybe I should count myself lucky that the heat wave has coincided with the annual two-week hot water shut-off in my building (so that the utility company can do repairs on the pipes), as a freezing cold bath seems to be the only way to cool down at the end of the day.
Air conditioner suppliers caught by surprise by the high temperatures have run out of stock, and home appliance stores have back-orders of up to three weeks (two companies declined our request to film people looking for air-conditioners in their stores because they didn’t want us to show empty shelves).
Even though most of my friends back in the U.S. are knowledgeable enough not to ask me anymore if it snows in Moscow in the summer, the heat wave has still taken some tourists by surprise.
"We knew it was hot, but we didn’t expect it to be this miserably hot," said Doak Simpson, a 48-year-old Motorola employee from Miami visiting Moscow with his family. "We’re from the land of air-conditioning. You can get out of it, and here there’s just no escaping it."
Swimming – for better or worse Muscovites still do a pretty good job of escaping it, though. Any part of Moscow that has water – fountains, the river, even barge canals – has been full of people swimming and sunbathing.
But the Russian Emergency Ministry’s web site shows perhaps the harshest measure of the heat wave: the death toll. Over 2,000 people have drowned in Russia since June 1. And this past Monday broke an unfortunate record: 71 people drowned in a 24-hour period.
According to Vadim Seryogin, a ministry official, many of the cases are due to people swimming while drunk.
"Of course, it’s good to swim during such hot days," said Kseniya Kurus, a 19-year-old international law student, when told about the grim statistics. "But we shouldn’t drink alcohol during the summer. It’s dangerous."
Young Muscovites find some relief from the sweltering heat in a fountain at the All-Russian Exhibition Center in Moscow, Russia, on Friday.
And there’s no relief in sight. Forecasts predict the coming week to potentially break Moscow’s record of 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
And the heat goes beyond Moscow – it has also slammed Russia’s farmland with a crippling drought. Twenty-three grain-producing regions have declared a state of emergency and the Russian Grain Union reported that the drought has destroyed over 22 million acres of crops. Some forecasts see agricultural and farming losses by year-end topping $1 billion.
Lying on a grassy bank after a swim in a canal, a group of students told me they’d had enough.
"It’s been good, but we don’t need a whole month of this," said 20-year-old Igor Alexeyev. "It would be better to have two weeks on, two weeks off. Or even just hot weather every other day."