There has been a lot of speculation about Russian interference in the US Presidential elections in 2016. The Democrats and liberals insist Russia brought Donald Trump to the Oval Office with the help of US tech giants owned by the Russians. The Republicans retort with the Clinton emails and painting liberal media fake. Numerous articles, interviews, Congress meetings, hearings, and careers tumbling down from a single word spoken to the former Russian ambassador create this year-long tiring narrative of Russian involvement in US politics. As if the USA had never been involved in Russian politics. But hey, now it certainly is — recruiting its agents to assist Trump’s best friend Vladimir Putin to win yet another election in spring 2018.
On November 9, TeamPutin Telegram channel was created.
Telegram is a new pet of the Russians who are somehow involved in politics — be it by leaking government secrets, manipulating the political agents, setting the agenda, or reading this whole mess. The medium’s anonymity allows anyone and everyone to feel rather safe compared to other social networks, blogs or the media. One never knows, whether what you read in Telegram is a fact or fiction, a piece of political analysis or a political analyst grandstand playing. Some authors do not hide behind nicknames and created identities, others pretend to be someone they are not. With the media under near-total control of the government, people still interested in politics flock to the social networks. Facebook is popular but not so much as its Russian version, VKontakte (incidentally created by the same guy who gave us Telegram). The latter, however, is a constant source of information for the Russian law-enforcement agencies using that information to indict the most frivolous with some criminal offense. And Facebook just hasn’t cut it yet to be a fully acceptable replacement. Telegram, on the other hand, offers a fresh and alluring alternative accessible on the go.
It was only a matter of time that Putin’s staff resorted to Telegram in an open fashion. This time has come.
Putin’s Team or Putin Team first came to the light on Facebook’s photo network Instagram on November 2. The Russian hockey player Alexander Ovechkin posted a photo of himself with Vladimir Putin and wrote that he had heard the words “Putin’s team” in the Western media. Mr. Ovechkin admitted he liked the name and decided to join this team. He suggested his fans pulled together around the current Russian President to show the world that Russia is “strong and united“. This was quickly picked up by the Russian media. Bear in mind that Putin has not announced his intention to take part in the spring election yet. So, while the popular speculation is on why he would even bother with the official procedure, the media speculation is on when exactly the Russian boss makes the announcement. Any possible sign is telltale. Everybody is ready to start the new rounds of forecasts on the margin with which Mr. Putin wins over his potential puppet contenders.
Ovechkin’s post and his Putin Team was universally believed to be yet another hint at Putin’s resolve to use his constitutional right for the second term (it is indeed second after the constitutional amendments). This would be no news in Russian politics. Show business, big sport, and other so-called key opinion leaders have always been used by the top Kremlin man whatever his name — be it Yeltsin in 1996 re-election or Putin in most of his campaigns (save, maybe for his first one in 2000 when he won everyone’s love by quickly striking back at Chechnya). No wonder, they are all lining up to pay their respects and show their servitude. And with Putin often posing as a sportsman and lover of sport, it is not surprising that Putin Team was started by a sportsman, or that sportsmen dominate it so far. With Russia being a patriarchal society, fighters for gender equality should not be bemused with the clear absence of women. After all, Vladimir Putin has long been rumoured to have specifically befriended a particular sportswoman a few years ago.
Alexander Ovechkin was followed by Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin (in addition to a few others). What immediately struck everyone here in Russia was that two of the three hockey players who voiced their unanimous support for Putin, currently play for American clubs and reside in the USA. Ovechkin has been a winger and captain of the Washington Capitals since 2004. Malkin has played for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 2004. Kovalchuk, although now back to Russia, spent twelve years in various NHL clubs. Funny how no one spoke about the Russian interference in the American hockey affairs. But today it might be time to laugh about the American hockey interference in the Russian elections.
The official Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Putin’s involvement in the public initiative or that Putin was even in the know. He clearly did not stay in the dark for long. Things like that usually do not go out without some sort of blessing — Putin either hints at something personally or lets his administration plan certain steps. Like a true spy, Putin tries hard to pretend like he has learnt about it from the news or heard it from some John Doe’s letter to the President. Putin Team or Team Putin may be said to come to light on Instagram. And it did.
But now it is in Telegram too. Telegram analytics have already stated that creation of the Team Putin channel marks the official entry of the Kremlin political technology into the Telegram world. They have been actively listening and monitoring. Since recently, Telegram has been mentioned regularly in state media political talk shows. Now, Team Putin will recruit Telegram users with strong men (and possibly women) projecting their charisma onto the even more charismatic President. Accounts in other social networks will follow. But the fact that Telegram was ahead of Facebook, Twitter and even VKontakte speaks volume. The Kremlin administration might be suspicious that the avant-garde of the Russian political thought, news and activism is now hiding behind Telegram’s wall of anonymity and is the social platform du jour. Carpe diem, said someone in the office of the Russian President, and they seize the Telegram. This comes after information was leaked a few weeks ago on the Kremlin’s idea to launch 100 Telegram channels that would flood the agenda on this platform with news and opinion favourable of Putin and his current course.
So far, Team Putin’s Telegram channel has posted the photos of the movement backers and their short bios along with a photo of Vladimir Putin defeating someone in judo. It all sends a clear message that despite his age the Russian President is in his prime to keep on managing the country. His usual puppet opponents in the ballot paper are older anyway. Some observers, however, try not to rush with the conclusions based on the mere fact of Putin Team existence. They believe this might be a stunt to support an alternative candidate like Ksenia Sobchak, who recently announced her determination to fight for the ultimate post in the country. Some even claim that this PR stunt is aimed more at the US, though they do not reveal how. There might be a point there, though — NHL players have not been largely involved in the series of anti-Trump showcases in US sports, and now that some of NHL’s most notable players are Russian and openly support the man “behind Trump’s victory” it may add steam to political debate and suspicion.
Most, however, agree that Putin Team is a typically Russian way of making it all look as if people — famous people, beloved celebrities, to start with — were asking Vladimir Putin to run for the next term. Putin would play the act of a tired old man who has done a lot and wants to give way to younger politicians. Then he would be urged to reconsider at every public appearance. And finally, the old man will say that seeing such a strong support, which started the whole movement, he cannot stay in the shadow and must obey the vox populi. The pretense of democracy is everything here. Russia may be an authoritarian society run by Putin, his close friends (the biggest oligarchs), and the siloviki, or those in the police, military, and national security — but by Constitution, we are a democracy where people still need to vote for the President. The fact that the voting results are clear before the campaign starts means nothing when foreign observers are shown the democratic procedure in action. And now with the so-called Crimean consensus, Putin has the majority of votes even without rigging the elections. His only enemy is the state of the Russian economy. But the old-school politicians either believe that people can be convinced that things are getting better, or they are just out of touch with and oblivious to what’s happening beyond the Kremlin walls and their Côte d’Azur villas.
Speaking of the villas.
If Putin Team continues to be backed by celebrities associated with foreign countries, it may pose a certain problem for the public relations team of the future campaign. Not that the majority of people who watch Russian TV know about this, but even benign opponents may use this fact to throw a little stone into Putin’s way. This is particularly tricky in the light of the alleged Russian interference in the US elections. If there were a strong independent candidate for the Russian presidency allowed to run for the office and speak freely publicly, they could play this card to their advantage by pointing out that a number of high-profile US residents are being involved in backing up Putin’s campaign, if not initiating it. Had we US media in Russia, these would be up to their neck researching the connections between Putin and his US friends, these and any US institutions. It would be easy to just smear them all with suspicion — these Putin Team fans or their family members own real estate in the USA, where they or their children live and go to colleges. These ardent supporters of the Russian President prefer happy life in warmer countries to the bleak existence in some provincial Russian town.
The expression foreign agent is heard quite often now in relation to some media outlets. I would say that Mr. Ovechkin and Co. look suspiciously foreign to Russia. Team Putin desperately needs some other faces whose owners are not the happy owners of Miami apartments or Virginia mansions. The PR-company that was suspected to be the actual creator of Team Putin by the Russian independent Vedomosti newspaper, did a poor job at choosing the guys to start the whole affair. But the advent of Team Putin in Telegram also means that this medium won’t be banned in Russia at least for another five months.