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‘We have no sources inside Putin’s head’ Can journalists predict the Kremlin’s next move? How do they find high-ranking sources of information? And will we get any warning about regime change in Russia?
When the Russian government launched an offensive against the independent media in 2021, no one could have predicted that this would be a step towards starting a war with Ukraine. Since February 2022, most of the free Russian media have been forced to leave the country and adapt to working in exile. Journalists who continue work in Russia compare themselves to “partisans” doing what’s necessary at their own risk. How do the free Russian media survive under these conditions? How does the war reshape journalistic standards? And what is the research process behind a story that reports on developments in the Kremlin? This article takes you behind the scenes of the new Russian political journalism. In this season’s first episode of Deadline, Meduza’s Russian-language podcast about the new media, Natalia Zhdanova spoke with two investigative journalists writing on Russian politics: Meduza’s Kremlin correspondent Andrey Pertsev and our former correspondent Farida Rustamova, author of the Faridaily newsletter. Anna Razumnaya retells their conversation for Meduza in English.
“Look, what is it that stands behind the phrase ‘sources close to the Kremlin’? How many handshakes from Putin does that stand for?” asks the host, Natalia Zhdanova.
“This is actually an important question,” says Farida Rustamova. Independent journalists who maintain high standards, she explains, have a duty to attribute information to their sources, signaling to the reader how reliable a given source might be, in relation to a particular question.
In current circumstances, though, it’s becoming all too easy for independent journalists to lose their sources altogether. A person might easily think twice about speaking with a member of the banished, “undesirable” press. This is why journalists can hardly afford to attribute their information too specifically. Instead, they must communicate the nature of a source and its relevance to the story in some abstract, roundabout fashion. Hence the apparently evasive formulations like “Kremlin insiders” and “sources close to the administration.” What stands behind these phrases, says Farida, is usually a person “one or two handshakes” removed from Putin — a source who speaks regularly either with Putin himself or with someone else who speaks with him directly. Readers can also assume that these contacts are not from “20 years ago,” but in fact current.
“For the sake of preserving the readers’ trust,” Farida graduates her attributions:
I rarely get to cite a “source close to the Kremlin.” Objectively speaking, there are very few journalists right now who have access to some amazingly high-ranking sources. I cannot pretend to personally know all of the Security Council.
For Andrey Pertsev, that phrase means “two or three handshakes” from Putin:
Supposing that Kiriyenko is one handshake away, mostly it comes down to two. In my case, I’m usually talking to people who are developing some kind of scenario. It’s not a fact that it’s going to be realized, since these things are not very controllable. It’s not just a question of arbitrary power, or that Putin decides everything, but that everyone decides: the Ukrainian army, the EU, Biden, and lots of other factors.
To find someone who regularly speaks with Putin is “a serious challenge,” says Pertsev. The same is true for finding “ultra-high-ranking” sources in the government — a phrase by which Farida designates, as she explains, people two or three rungs of power below the Russian president. Few independent journalists have access to officials like the Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Federal Council Chair Valentina Matviyenko, Speaker of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, or like Nikolay Patrushev or Dmitry Medvedev in the Security Council.
High-ranking sources haven’t always been so hard to find. Back in the day — say, around 2007 — a young journalist could have become friendly with a young bureaucrat; together they would grow in their careers, the journalist’s friend gradually turning into the coveted high-ranking confidential source. Or you could simply go to Cofemania — a coffee shop just outside the Kremlin wall — and hang around the officials. In those relaxed times, a journalist could sometimes buttonhole a minister — and that minister might then speak to her or him again and again…
The younger journalists working in today’s Russia never got a chance to relish this golden age. Making new contacts and building connections takes determination and quick wits. Rustamova remembers, for example, working on a story about Putin’s eldest daughter, Maria Vorontsova, and the medical company she had founded:
That company was taking part in building a big medical complex in the Leningrad region. I needed to do this story very quickly, because I was really afraid that someone else would notice it and write it up. Now it seems like we were all really spoiled — but at the time, it seemed to me really important to get a comment from a relevant official. I was still accredited in the government and would go there, to very few specific events. Most of them were completely meaningless. I went to one of those things — but, after a meeting, they rarely walk past the journalists, and at that time they were already leaving through a different set of doors and a different entryway. So, I was hanging around the elevator in that entryway, pacing, waiting for this functionary, and simply praying that I could get a comment out of him. I spent an hour by that elevator, discreetly, trying to stay out of the security guard’s view. It was a miracle. I’m standing, thinking of maybe leaving already — and the elevator opens, he comes out… So, I was able to get his comment, and to torture him a little, maybe 10 seconds, while he walked from the elevator to the door. He stopped a little, listened to me, said something — and it became a great final touch on my investigation… But this is completely insane. It shouldn’t be this way, that a journalist just cannot call a minister or deputy minister or some relevant official — and simply get their comment.
In a more recent story, Farida reported that, right after announcing the mobilization in Russia, Putin left for a vacation. The idea surfaced in passing, when a source mentioned this fact while talking about a different subject. Verifying the story with other sources familiar with Putin’s schedule took several days — the information was too sensitive to leave any uncertainty about it. One source wasn’t enough for Farida and her partner at Faridaily. Two were not enough. But three sources confirming the same information did clinch it. Thanks to Farida, it’s now safe to say that Putin sleeps till 9 a.m.:
He is generally quite a sybarite. All these tales about him — that he doesn’t eat or sleep, working like a galley slave — it’s so far from the truth. He sleeps till late, and stays up late. In the morning, he swims in the pool. He pays lots of attention to his health. It’s his first priority.
Since becoming a prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, Putin prefers to spend his time at one of his comfortable residences — fortifying himself to live forever. “Everybody knows this,” says Farida, attributing her sources broadly, for a change.
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No source was there to predict the war, since no one — people being rational — expected it to happen. “People expected something slightly different,” says Andrey Pertsev:
The recognition of the “DNR” and “LNR” as the next step, as an escalation, or maybe something else. One person did tell me, look, the regions are not utilizing their budgets. And instead of redistributing that money, the feds are saving it all up in a kitty. What does this mean? I didn’t know what that meant. Amidst all the rumors, one person said to me: you know, I believe there will be a war. But this was just his feeling — his premonition, based in some unknowable background.
On February 18, Andrey Pertsev wrote that, according to Meduza’s sources, Russia was not planning to invade Ukraine.
That was what they thought. And, judging by the Security Council meeting of February 21, I think that Patrushev still hoped that there wouldn’t be any war. My mistake, and the speakers’ mistake, was to think that people would discuss this decision, and that there would be some warning. But in reality, this was a purely voluntarist decision by Putin, based in nothing that anyone knew of.
This arbitrariness is part of Putin’s strategy of intimidating the Russian elites by his sheer unpredictability: “you’re this hawk that drops down on everyone else,” Rustamova muses, “and they’re all shocked, disarmed, and afraid of you.” The same desire to be unpredictable, and to obstruct the mechanisms of warning, is behind Putin’s sensitivity to media coverage. He thinks of the press as spies just like himself, and he lives in a paranoid expectation of obstruction from those who are informed. And this is why we see these sudden, unilateral decisions — that sometimes cannot be foreseen precisely because they’re too irrational, and too cruel for anyone to expect them without doubting their own judgment.
When “sources close to the Kremlin” try to foresee a situation, they often speculate about something that they don’t really control. Andrey Pertsev says that, if you’re a Kremlin bureaucrat,
you could be preparing something, and suddenly Putin does something else, or the real situation doesn’t let you realize what you had planned. Recall, for instance, the fired Rogozin… In July, it seemed that the Russian troops would definitely enter the Donetsk region sometime in the near future. There was this afterglow of success in the Luhansk region — “now, they’ll definitely enter Donetsk, and Rogozin will get to work there.” It was Mishustin who said that Rogozin would soon get an appointment — though it wasn’t clear where exactly. But in reality, it turned out that he had no job. Even though they had planned it — plan it was all they did.
Talking about developing scenarios is always a dilemma for a journalist. Any incipient Kremlin scenario can be overturned by Putin personally; inevitably, some of the apparatchiks’s expectations are realized, and others are not. Andrey Pertsev thinks it important for the public to understand even potential scenarios, and the possibilities that are being considered behind the closed doors. Mobilization, the annexations, the closing of the Russian borders were all potential scenarios, two of which were realized and one wasn’t.
Farida Rustamova doesn’t like to consider such potentialities — because of the scarcity of available informed sources. Given the hypothetical scenario — that the closing of the Russian borders is being bruited in the Kremlin — she says:
There’s a 99 percent change that I won’t write about it. Why? Because I don’t have any sources inside Putin’s head. It’s very simple. I have no sources in the FSB, I don’t talk to its leadership, to Alexander Bortnikov. If he said this to me, I would write about it.
Even before the war, many potential sources, says Rustamova, cut their ties with journalists, seeing the independent media targeted by the state and subjected to layers of repressive regulation. Around 2021, many people stopped answering phone calls from journalists. Andrey Pertsev, too, points out that perhaps a fifth of his would-be interlocutors stopped talking around the time when Meduza was designated a foreign agent. Some people continued to talk — or, rather, to make small talk, abstaining from any pointed political conversation. Some are afraid of their phones being tapped, some worry about being reported by their colleagues, and finally, everyone simply learns to qualify their ability to predict Putin’s behavior: “These people are seriously demoralized,” says Andrey Pertsev,
they’re looking at some insane old man who is capable of a nuclear strike, who thinks nothing of anyone, of the children, but only cares about his own victory. Some are still hopeful about Putin’s rationality with respect to his current dubious allies, China and India — since those, too, would turn away from him in the event. Being totally isolated doesn’t really coincide with his wishes — he sees himself as a leader, after all, and he probably doesn’t want to be so anti-Western as to alienate the East, too. But, once again, this isn’t grounds for forecasting anything, since, yes, we don’t have any sources inside Putin’s head. As for regime change, we can be certain that those who are planning it will not be in hurry to notify the journalists.
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