‘Putin could shut us down with one little finger’ ‘Ekho Moskvy’ chief editor Alexey Venediktov lays out his storied career and insider insights
On August 19, Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov granted a two-hour interview to Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, where the two discussed Venediktov’s storied career and various backroom insights into major political events in Russia over the past two decades. Meduza presents a summary of the exchange, broken down by subject.
The annexation of Crimea
Venediktov says it wasn’t always Vladimir Putin’s intention to take back the Crimean peninsula. In September 2008, after Russia’s war with Georgia, he had an hour-long private conversation with Putin (after the president publicly criticized Ekho Moskvy for negative coverage), where the president said Crimea was “by all rights Russian,” but he vowed not to start a war with Ukraine to retake the territory. At that same meeting, Putin supposedly asked Venediktov how his presidency would likely be recorded in history books, and Venediktov said Putin would be remembered for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’s full restoration of communion with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007, but not for “raising Russia from its knees.” This upset Putin, who was apparently growing concerned about his legacy. After annexing Crimea, Putin stopped Venediktov in a hallway and asked if his place in the history books was still just religious reconciliation.
The Ekho Moskvy chief editor says Putin is a tactician, not a strategist, and the Crimean land grab “wasn’t some long, calculated plan,” though it did involve Russia’s Security Council and Nikolai Patrushev “dusting off” a 20-year-old blueprint. The catalyst, Venediktov says, wasn’t a Kremlin plot, but the opportunity created by the political collapse and confusion in Kyiv.
For Moscow today, Crimea isn’t even open for discussion. The sanctions associated with the annexation, moreover, aren’t serious enough to necessitate any major policy changes. (The West's more damaging sectoral sanctions are tied to the situation in the Donbas, not in Crimea.)
Relations with Ukraine
According to Venediktov, Vladimir Putin sincerely believes that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all one people destined to reunite under Great Russia’s tricolor. When the president talks about the geopolitical tragedy of the USSR’s collapse, says Venediktov, he’s referring to the dissolution of the union between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus — not Moscow’s loss of Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan. Venediktov says Putin sees these nations like East and West Germany during the Cold War, or the North and South Ossetians, believing that the time will come for their reunification. Venediktov also says that Putin is too old to be “reeducated” to think any differently.
Venediktov says Putin doesn’t even conceive of a “Ukrainian question” in Russian foreign policy, believing the conflict in the region to be a proxy war with the United States. Ukraine is merely a “territory” for Putin, not a state, Venediktov says, and the president is convinced that he’s protecting fellow Russians from genocide.
According to Venediktov, Vladislav Surkov’s “Novorossiya” project was meant to unfold like the Crimean annexation, where Moscow sat back and waited for the chance to be “saviors.” The idea appealed to Putin, who “positions himself like Batman,” waiting to swoop in, when people think they’re helpless without him. Surkov never really believed this, Venediktov says, but he got Putin to believe it. Venediktov adds, however, that Surkov is not the main Kremlin official now responsible for Ukraine, and this task likely falls to Anton Vaino and Andrey Bogdan, who probably delegated the assignment to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who distinguished himself in Transnistria, doing similar “technical work.”
Admittedly, Venediktov says, Moscow has lost the support of modern-day Ukrainians by perpetrating a war in the Donbas that’s killed thousands, but anything remains possible in the future, once the war’s “emotional memory” has become a mere statistic.
Before Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections, Venediktov says his sources in Kyiv claimed any Ukrainian sailors released then by Russia would fly home aboard Viktor Medvedchuk’s private jet, which Kremlin strategists expected to boost his party’s ratings by five percent. The day after Venediktov was told this, Putin reportedly spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and said he wouldn’t release the sailors before the elections, in order to help Zelensky’s party and withhold the advantage to Medvedchuk’s “Opposition Platform — For Life.”
Russia’s news media
Venediktov acknowledges that press freedom and freedom of expression are under fire in Russia, but he says social media and online messengers still offer important outlets. When police recently planted drugs on Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov, Venediktov says it was a combination of street protests and backroom appeals (by Venediktov and Novaya Gazeta’s Dmitry Muratov at the city level, and Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan going to “higher-ups”). Both the demonstrations and private lobbying were necessary to resolve the Golunov case, Venediktov says, insisting that public campaigns need people who can speak in dialogue with the elites. At the same time, the Ekho Moskvy chief editor confesses that he’s no longer personally interested in the “aesthetics” of street protests.
Asked about Simonyan, Venediktov says she honestly believes in her work at RT, seeing it as her patriotic duty, which is therefore “beyond reason.”
When asked about the “deteriorating quality” of journalism at Ekho Moskvy, Venediktov says his chief concerns are preventing activism from seeping into the radio station’s reporting, and making sure that his journalists don’t cite anonymous Telegram channels as sources of information.
A Russian political figure, media executive, and adviser to Putin, Mikhail Lesin died in a Washington, D.C., hotel room under unusual circumstances in November 2015. Almost a year earlier, on December 18, 2014, Lesin was forced from his position as head of “Gazprom-Media,” after losing a public conflict with Venediktov, whose birthday, it so happens, is on December 18. That same day, Venediktov says he got a personal phone call from Putin, who said he’d removed Lesin as a birthday gift.
When Lesin was first appointed to serve as head of Gazprom-Media, he apparently summoned Venediktov to his office and tried ordering him to fire four popular pundits who appear regularly on Ekho Moskvy: Yulia Latynina, Viktor Shenderovich, Yevgenia Albats, and Sergey Parkhomenko. Venediktov refused.
When he announced that he intended to fire Venediktov, Lesin supposedly got a call from someone “high up” in Putin’s administration who doesn’t work on the media (not First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov or Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov), and was told that Venediktov and Ekho weren’t “in his purview.” Ten days later, Lesin stepped down, knowing that Putin was about to fire him. Venediktov says he learned about Lesin’s resignation at his own birthday party from Margarita Simonyan, who was so distraught by the news that she was “in tears.”
Venediktov says he doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories that Lesin was murdered, arguing that he was a heavy drinker and took pills for a serious spinal injury.
Venediktov says anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexey Navalny is an “independent figure” now, but he used to be “young and manipulated.” The problem, Venediktov says, wasn’t that he received leaked information, but that he presented it as his own research. Now Navalny has apparently realized that he’s being manipulated, and he’s started verifying the data that are leaked to him. Venediktov says Navalny has political prospects, but they’re not huge, because he’s already too old for Russia’s next generation, who supposedly considers Navalny to be its elder “Albus Dumbledore.”
According to Venediktov, President Putin avoids using Navalny’s name not out of fear, but because the president doesn’t want to share his own “aura of love, support, and gratitude.”
The USSR’s final leader apparently refused to watch HBO’s recent miniseries “Chernobyl,” but the show’s release prompted Venediktov to ask Gorbachev about the fateful days of the accident. Gorbachev apparently told him that the CIA knew it was an explosion from the start, whereas his own advisers denied it until the end of the day, at his third briefing. Gorbachev says he didn’t believe the worst until he learned that the Swedes were reporting a radioactive cloud. “He knew the Swedes wouldn’t lie,” Venediktov says.
Venediktov calls himself President Putin’s “opponent,” recalling an interview from 2000, where Putin infamously called him an “enemy,” after explaining that enemies are people you fight and eventually make peace with, before becoming allies. “Traitors,” on the other hand, can be given no quarter, because they’ll stab you in the back, the moment they sense weakness. Venediktov admits that he’s afraid of the president: “I’m afraid that he’ll make a decision, let’s say regarding Ekho, without discussing it with me (and he could shut down Ekho with one little finger).”
Putin apparently has a deep suspicion of the Internet, and he once told Venediktov that it’s “nothing but disinformation and manipulation.” In this exchange, the president then pointed to a folder on his desk, and said that his briefings are signed by generals, and Putin can always “tear off their epaulets,” if they’re lying to him. When it comes to guidance, Venediktov says Putin has a highly “segmented” circle of trusted advisers, where he turns to specific people on different issues.
Why doesn’t Putin just resign already? Venediktov says the president’s reluctance to leave started as a simple question of personal safety (for himself and his family). After Crimea, however, Putin started seeing his job as a grand mission, Venediktov says, and abandoning this mission before it’s finished would be tantamount to desertion. Venediktov expects Putin to find a way to remain Russia’s head of state, after his current presidential term ends in 2024. He says Putin fears appointing a close ally as successor, having watched this end poorly in Angola and now Kyrgyzstan. Venediktov says Putin even cautioned Nazarbayev against stepping down.