Election Victory Glow Fades As Putin Faces 2 Major Issues
NOEL KING, HOST:
Just over a week ago, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, won an election that gives him another six years in power. But today, Putin is facing two of the biggest crises of his 18-year presidency. The first is public outrage over a shopping mall fire that killed 64 people, many of them children. Putin also has a diplomatic crisis on his hands. That's the expulsion of Russian diplomats from more than 20 countries. We have NPR's Lucian Kim on the line from Moscow to talk us through all of this.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right, so Putin won the presidential election in a landslide, which we expected. But now he has two really big crises on his hands - the fire and the diplomatic crisis. How are those affecting his popularity?
KIM: Well, surprisingly, both of these disasters fit the Kremlin narrative that only Putin can lead Russia. From the Kremlin's point of view, the expulsion of the diplomats shows that the rest of the world is in fact ganging up on Russia. And as for the fire, it shows that Putin is the good czar who is surrounded by incompetent and corrupt ministers. He visited Kemerovo, the town where it happened on Tuesday. That was designed to put him on the side of the people. He blamed criminal negligence. He talked to some groveling local officials. And just yesterday, one of Putin's top advisers said rabble-rousers from the opposition are trying to exploit the tragedy for their own political gain. I think the problem here is that, you know, it's not that Russians don't know how to put out fires, but it's really, you know, corruption among officials and, you have to say, the willingness of businesspeople to play along with that.
KING: Let me ask you about something you said just now - the rest of the world ganging up on Russia. And it's true. Almost two dozen countries acting in conjunction have expelled Russian diplomats. How has Putin reacted to those expulsions? Has he's spoken publicly?
KIM: Well, Putin himself has not commented on it. He's really been preoccupied with the fallout from this terrible fire. It's a national tragedy. But his spokesman has said that any response to the expulsions will be reciprocal. What I find interesting here is that a lot of the rhetorical reaction here in Moscow was actually directed at Britain. Yesterday in a statement, the Foreign Ministry said that Britain can't protect the lives of Russian citizens on British soil and that Britain needs to prove that it didn't poison the double agent Sergei Skripal. And what's interesting is that the attitude towards the U.S. seems much more tempered coming out of the Kremlin from Putin's administration. His spokesman said that Russia wants good relations with all countries. And it seems to me that Putin is still very interested in a summit meeting with President Trump, maybe especially now since even North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is supposed to get that honor.
KING: And I understand you are expecting a briefing today in Moscow. Is that right?
KIM: Yes. I mean, the Kremlin certainly likes surprises. A Putin spokesman said the reaction will come in due time. And the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman has already said that she has prepared a present for British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
KING: Oh, dear. We'll keep an eye on that one. NPR's Lucian Kim joining us from Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.
KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.