Opinion A week in the life of Vladimir Putin

(Washington Post Staff illustration; photo by Getty Images)

All politics is local, as the saying goes, and that applies even to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That truth becomes evident from a close look at Putin’s publicly available calendar, which offers fascinating insight into a leader who oversees virtually every aspect of Russian life.

Putin’s public schedule wraps the brutal reality of his war in Ukraine in the photo opportunities of a conventional, media-savvy, Western leader — shaking hands, getting briefings, meeting farmers, tax collectors and diplomats. This presentation for his domestic audience gives no hint that outside Russia he is seen as an unchecked autocrat whose invasion has displaced millions and led to the deaths or injury of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians.

Putin is often portrayed in the Western media as something of a cartoon villain. But he’s also a skillful politician who has used the state-run media, a pliant bureaucracy and brutal repression to dominate Russian politics so totally that he appears to have no significant opposition. For many in the West, he’s a figure of derision, even hatred. But at home, he retains a bedrock of popular support, even amid the Ukraine fiasco.

The calendar shows Putin filling his days with a surprisingly mundane string of meetings, videoconferences and ceremonies that demonstrate how he tries to bolster domestic confidence even as he wages a failing war in Ukraine. He is peripatetic, talking with aides about animal husbandry one day and artificial intelligence the next. He knows that he rules a vast nation, and although he’s often seen as a Russian nationalist, he assiduously cultivates Russia’s disparate ethnic groups. And though the Soviet Union is gone, he stays in regular touch with fractious leaders of former republics. His nostalgia for the Soviet era is palpable.

When confronting a dangerous adversary such as Putin, it can be useful to imagine the world through their eyes — to examine their template for maintaining power rather than trying to impose our own. What do they worry about? What public messages do they try to send? Putin operates in secret, but he also leaves a public trail. His official agenda is published on the internet, and it helps explain the practical, “retail politics” side of his life as an autocrat.

What’s it like to be a 21st-century czar? Here’s a compilation of his public events during five days last month, drawn using Google Translate from his official website, Kremlin.ru. There’s nothing revelatory in this “week in the life.” But you can see how governance works, Russia-style. And you sense how hard Putin is working to maintain the appearance of normalcy as the war in Ukraine grinds on.

Monday, Nov. 21: Turkeys and taxes

Putin pays almost obsessive attention to the small details of government. He begins the week with a videoconference on the state of Russia’s livestock and poultry industry. The nominal reason for this virtual meeting is the opening of a breeding center for turkeys in the Tyumen region in Siberia. “We have spoken many times about the importance of creating our own selection and genetic reserve in animal husbandry and in poultry farming,” Putin admonishes his agriculture apparatchiks on the video call.

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As the Russian leader is briefed on pig rearing, egg production and a half-dozen other details of what he calls “the agro-industrial complex,” it’s obvious that more than 30 years after the end of communism, Russia is still in many ways a command economy. Putin wants to show he’s boss — even of turkey breeding.

Putin’s other big Monday event is a “working meeting” with Daniil Yegerov, the head of the Federal Tax Service. As usual, Putin quizzes his subordinate about details, starting with collection rates over the past 10 months (during which the “special military operation” in Ukraine was underway). The tax man cheerily (and not quite believably) reports that receipts are up 18 percent over the previous year. “How are things going with you on VAT refunds?” Putin asks. It’s as if Putin has a compulsion to demonstrate that he has a handle on every issue.

Tuesday, Nov. 22: Fidel and nuclear icebreakers

Putin takes an emperor’s delight in ceremonial events, and the first one Tuesday celebrates two new nuclear-powered icebreakers, the Ural and the Yakutia. The ceremony takes place in St. Petersburg, but Putin participates by videoconference. Putin describes the two ships as “part of our large-scale, systematic work … to strengthen Russia’s status as a great Arctic power.” He thanks the shipbuilders “from the bottom of my heart.” Putin later attends the unveiling of a bronze statue in Moscow honoring Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a charismatic ally in the glory days of the Soviet Union. Dedicating the monument, Putin recalls Castro as “a true friend of our country” whose “power, energy and unbending will … still attract like a magnet.”

Putin meets later with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Describing his encounters with Castro, Putin tells his visitor: “I was very surprised by his immersion in details. … He knew and was able to analyze everything that was happening in the world.” Putin might be talking about how he sees himself.

Putin ends his official day with a phone call to Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that, like many others, chafes at Russian hegemony in the region.

Wednesday, Nov. 23: Fertilizer and a not-so-fraternal visit to Armenia

Putin’s day begins with Dmitry Mazepin, chairman of the Commission for the Production and Marketing of Mineral Fertilizers. Mazepin provides the boss with a blur of statistics about fertilizer production.

The fertilizer industry, like so many others, has been affected by the war in Ukraine. Putin tells Mazepin that poor countries in Africa that need fertilizer are suffering food shortages because of Western sanctions. (That’s false, according to U.S. officials, but Putin insists that the blame lies with “obstacles created by some countries.”) Exporting more, Putin says, “will be right from a humanitarian point of view and … a business point of view.”

Then Putin travels to Yerevan, Armenia — a place where Russian power has been unraveling — for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of former Soviet republics. Russia sees it as a version of NATO, but it has become a bitterly divided and ineffective group whose members quarrel with Moscow and one another.

Putin’s speech evokes “the memory of the common history of our states, that our peoples together won the Great Patriotic War,” and he describes himself as “your obedient servant.” But the backdrop for the meeting is the group’s failure to prevent a 2020 war between two member states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia’s failure since then to make peacekeeping plans work.

When Putin meets later that day with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, he touts a supposed 67 percent increase in trade between the two countries in the first nine months of 2022. The Kremlin website does not mention Pashinyan’s snub earlier that day in refusing to sign the CSTO communique that Russia had drafted.

Thursday, Nov. 24: Artificial intelligence, an ‘Order of Courage’ and no ‘extraordinary measures’

Putin’s big event Thursday is attending a long, detailed discussion of “Artificial Intelligence Technologies for Economic Growth.” Putin discusses AI with surprising intensity — and verbosity. My printout of his remarks is 42 pages long. Putin asks interesting questions: What is the cognitive basis for intuition? How can data improve governance? What will AI mean for employment? How can data be anonymized?

In reality, Russia lags badly behind the United States, Europe and China in AI research. But Putin imagines a brighter future and tells the gathering of researchers, “the success of the country as a whole will depend on your success.” It’s one of those moments where Russian ambition and Russian reality simply don’t match.

But Putin presses on. When one of the AI researchers pledges, “We will definitely do everything,” Putin interjects: “This immediately worries me: ‘We will do everything.’ ” The chastened researcher responds, in language that recalls the Stalin era: “We will overfulfill everything, yes.”

Putin takes time later that day to award the “Order of Courage” to a propagandistic Russian blogger named Semyon Pegov, who stepped on a land mine and was wounded in Ukraine. The Russian leader closes his day in a videoconference with the coordinating council of the Russian armed forces. Putin’s website doesn’t give any hint that recent events have gone disastrously for Russia: Russian troops have retreated from areas they had captured in Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine.

The public Putin insists that all is well. New efforts have been made to “correct our joint work.” And to those who demand changes in the special military operation, Putin argues: “There is no need to introduce any extraordinary measures — nothing needs to be done.”

Friday, Nov. 25: Grieving mothers, Chechen allies and Russian gunsmiths

Two days before Mother’s Day in Russia, Putin meets with a group of women said to be Russian mothers whose sons are fighting and dying in Ukraine. “We share this pain,” Putin tells them. “We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child.”

What’s striking about this carefully selected gathering is how many of the women are presented as being from Russia’s ethnic minorities and distant regions. And here, Putin is canny. For these areas, not cosmopolitan Moscow or St. Petersburg, are supplying an inordinate share of the soldiers for the costly, unsuccessful campaign in Ukraine.

Putin tells a mother from Dagestan: “Russia as a whole is unique civilization, where people of different nationalities, ethnic groups, different religions live side by side for a thousand years.” He comforts a Cossack mother from Krasnodar; a mother from Tuva, near the Mongolian border; a mother from Sakha, in eastern Siberia.

The Ukrainians are “playing someone else’s game, but we have to fight for our interests, our people, our country,” he tells the mothers. And then he offers this extraordinary, chilling comment: “Today’s events are the way to some kind of … internal purification and renewal.”

Putin meets next with his war cabinet, the permanent members of his security council. What’s said here isn’t explained on Putin’s website. After that, he receives Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, a region brutalized by Putin’s scorched-earth campaign in the early 2000s that is now supplying fighters to Ukraine. Again, no details of their conversation.

The Russian leader closes his day, after 11 p.m., with a speech to a state company called Rostec, which is struggling to maintain production of high-tech weapons despite Western sanctions.

Across the country, Rostec factories are “working at maximum capacity, in several shifts,” Putin says. “Indeed, people are working hard, looking up to our ancestors, to the great traditions of many generations of our gunsmiths, who proved by deed that Russian weapons are weapons of victory.”

At no point during this week does Putin acknowledge, in any way, that his military is conducting a brutal campaign that has terrorized Ukrainian civilians and made the country itself, rather than Ukraine’s armed forces, its target. This was a week when Putin fired scores of missiles and drones at Ukraine’s infrastructure, trying to freeze the nation into submission. Much of the world is outraged, but Putin appears oblivious.

Over this week, Putin tries instead, in nearly every encounter, to justify a war that many Russians don’t understand. He is an enigmatic leader, everywhere and nowhere. He talks falsely of Russia as the victim, rather than the aggressor. His confidence never appears to flag. But he would not work so hard to appear all-powerful if he didn’t fear that the foundation beneath his throne was fragile.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

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