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Putin's Iron-Fisted Message

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Jabbing the air with his finger Vladimir Putin stood on a giant stage erected on Red Square, framed by a military chorus in crisp white uniforms, and looked out on a sea of joyous faces. "After a difficult, long and exhausting journey, Crimea and Sevastopol have returned to Russia," he proclaimed, "to their home harbor, their home shores, their home port!"

"Glory to Russia!" the crowd roared. The strains of the Russian national anthem - a stirring blend of Soviet-era melody and post-Soviet lyrics - filled the square. "From the southern seas to the polar regions, lie our forests and our fields. You are unique in the world, one of a kind - This native land protected by God!"

The TV cameras, broadcasting the celebration live, panned the audience, lingering on young, bright faces, then focused on the Russian Presidential standard, the czarist double-headed eagle on a field of white, blue and red, unfurling in the chill breeze

On a red, white and blue heart projected on a giant video monitor at the back of the stage the words "Crimea is in my heart!" glistened in white. "Glory to Russia!" the president cried.

The revolution in Ukraine, and Russia's lightning-speed annexation of Crimea, have triggered a landslide shift in the Russian media. With Russia's state-owned domestic mass media firmly under government control, the Kremlin is putting increasing pressure on smaller, independent media. Internationally, it is moving aggressively to champion Russia's policies and values by rebuilding the decayed communications and propaganda structures of the Soviet Union.

Injecting new life - and new money - into the "medium," it has honed its "message:" a litany of recriminations against the West and a firm conviction that Russia has the right, to reject Western values, and to promote its own alternative view to the world.

As the head of President Vladimir Putin's administration, Sergei Ivanov, told reporters in December: "Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests. It's difficult to explain this to the world but we can do this, and we must do this."

Breaking News

The tectonic plates began to shift on a Monday morning in December of last year as Putin, in a move that stunned the Russian media world, issued two presidential decrees.

RIA Novosti, Russia's leading news agency, founded in 1941 to report from the frontlines of the war against Nazi Germany, was ordered to liquidate within three months. The Voice of Russia short-wave radio, founded in 1929 as Radio Comintern, was ordered shut as well.

In their place Putin decreed formation of a new international information agency, Russia Today. Its mission: "to highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation." Russian officials provided few details but explained the step was being taken in order to more economically utilize government funds and to improve the effectiveness of state media.

In a second decree Putin named the well known, some would say notorious TV personality, Dmitry Kiselev, 59 years old, to head Russia Today. In the early days of post-Soviet Russia Kiselev was an aggressive, liberal journalist but, as a friend and fellow journalist described him to me this month, at heart he is an "opportunist," a man "without principles." The Kremlin announcement came three days after President Putin met with Ukraine's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovich.

Dmitry Kiselev had his own history tied to Ukraine. A decade ago, working as a journalist in that country, he lambasted the Orange Revolution that upended the rigged election of its Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich. Fast forward ten years, Yanukovich was the more-or-less-legally elected president of Ukraine and angry crowds stormed the streets of Kiev protesting his decision not to sign a cooperation agreement with the European Union but accept a financial bail-out for his cash-strapped government from Moscow.

In December, reporting from Kiev for Russia's government-owned Russia One television channel, Kiselev decried the anti-Yanukovich protests as a Western-fuelled and funded plot, reminding his viewers in March that "Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash."

Kiselev also was toeing the line on the Russian government's increasingly strident tone on "depraved" Western values like gay rights, at one point saying "fining gays is not sufficient - they should not be allowed to give blood, or sperm and in case of a car accident, their hearts should be burnt or buried as useless". In February, reacting to a CNN website story lampooning a monument to Soviet forces in World War II, he insinuated that the U.S. Marine's Iwo Jima monument looked like some gay guys having sex.

Showing the memorial from behind, two soldiers appear to be climbing on each other, Kiselev smirkingly told his viewers "It's easy to mock. A fevered subconscious could ascribe just about anything to it. Take a closer look: A very modern theme, isn't it?"

In February I called Kiselev and asked for an interview on his role in the new Russia Today. He said he remembered me from my years as Moscow Bureau Chief for CNN and would be happy to grant an interview. "Call me after March 8th when we will know more," he told me.

I rang him back in March but his mood had changed. "I will not give an interview to anyone from CNN!" he growled. When I tried to convince him that I had left CNN and was now on a fellowship at Harvard he cut me off. "I will not give an interview to any American!" he shouted. "But why?" I asked. "Because it is my right! I am sorry! Good- bye!!" and he hung up the phone.

In mid-February President Putin awarded Kiselev the Order for Service to the Fatherland Fourth Class for "many years of diligent work," as well as "services in the humanitarian sphere, strengthening the rules of law," and "protection of the rights and interests of citizens."

Some Russian journalists I've spoken with call Kiselev a "buffoon," or, as one put it "a classic example of absolute, unbelievable, unexplainable idiotism."

But Kiselev's broadcasts are watched by millions of Russians. In late March, in a sign of his important role in the Kremlin's media wars, the European Union included him in a list of Russians to be sanctioned over Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

You're Fired

Preparing for work December 9th, Svetlana Mironyuk, head and editor-in-chief of the Russian news and information agency "RIA Novosti," first heard reports that her agency was being shut down on orders from President Putin. The 46-year-old Mironyuk, one of the most powerful women in the Russian media, had transformed the Soviet-era agency into a sophisticated, modern, and influential digital behemoth - a network covering more than 45 countries, reporting in 14 different languages.

Now, in a prelude to Vladimir Putin's move to re-position Russia in the world, she was out.

A few hours after getting the news, Mironyuk sat on a stage at RIA-Novosti's headquarters in downtown Moscow, looking out at her shell-shocked journalists, many of whom had fled from other Russian media outlets under pressure from the Kremlin. "As government people, or people working for the government," Mironyuk announced, they would not discuss the reasons or motivations for the president's order. "We don't even discuss this decision," she said. "We obey it and we carry it out."

RIA Novosti, she said, would be "liquidated, that is, destroyed." The Voice of Russia, the government's international radio broadcaster, would be silenced. Russia Today would take their place, supposedly, she added, to "save money."

As a member of the staff recorded her on a cell phone from the back of the auditorium, Mironyuk said she would not comment on the financial aspect of the shakeup. The tall, striking blonde, normally self assured and in command, then added, her voice quivering, "It was good to work with you for these past ten years. Thank you to those who believed in me. Forgive me, those whom I could not save. Truly, it's very painful for me. I'm not embarrassed that I am brought to tears."

Mironyuk said she was protecting her "historic responsibility" as the editor who had served longer than anyone else in her position, among those who, during Soviet times, "were shot, who were put in prison, who are now retired...I am just sorry that it is ending with me."

What "Russia Today's" mission would be was, on that Monday in Moscow, unclear. How many staff would be fired, how many retained, also was not known. What was the "real state of affairs politically," as Mironyuk put it, was unexplained. Reporting on its own demise, RIA Novosti, said on its English-language website: "The move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape that appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily-regulated media sector."

The news of Putin's decree rocked Russia's media world.

"None of my former colleagues had a clue that was coming," says Andrew McChesney, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times. RIA Novosti, he says, was in the midst of a hiring spree just before President Putin's order, offering high salaries and poaching Russian and English-speaking journalists across the spectrum in Moscow.

"It was just a really big shocker," he says. "And to make matters worse - the complete lack of information on what is going on."

Rumors, however, had been circulating over the summer," one senior staff member of RIA Novosti tells me, "and there were rumors that it might happen after the Olympics. After all, RIA Novosti was the host agency for the Olympics. It was in the air. But the format of how it happened, that nobody was informed, that Bam! Monday you have it. It seems it was quite an on-the-spot decision. It was decided within a couple of days over the weekend." This editor has no doubt "it was Putin's decision."

Ten days after his bombshell decree shutting RIA Novosti, Vladimir Putin, at his marathon annual news conference, left no doubt about his intent to bring government media into line. Watching him from a seat near the stage, I could see his face harden as a reporter from Bloomberg news agency raised the issue of Dmitry Kiselev's appointment to head Russia Today, without naming him. "The person who has recently been put at the head of a new propaganda agency causes an allergic reaction in Kiev," the reporter said, "precisely because they consider Russia's information campaign regarding their country as hostile."

Putin shot back: "There should be patriotically minded people at the head of state information resources, people who uphold the interests of the Russian Federation. These are state resources. That is the way it is going to be."

Between the Kremlin and a Hard Place

RIA's editor in chief Svetlana Mironyuk, several Russian journalists agree, was caught in a tenuous balancing act. She had hired a number of popular, influential journalists from liberal media outlets. Her website carried live reports from the anti-Putin protests in Moscow during the winter of 2012. Far-right Russian groups criticized RIA Novosti's reports on the uprising in Ukraine as a "sewer" of pro-Western propaganda.

"Sometimes it seemed like she acted as, you know, as special embedded agent of the opposition in pro-Kremlin media," Mikhail Zygar', editor-in-chief of Dozhd'-TV tells me. "She tried so hard to look very decent. To be not an opposition activist but at least a very decent and honest person."

Mironyuk, other Russian journalists say, was highly respected by independent journalists, members of Moscow's political opposition and human rights defenders.

At the same time, Zygar' says, Mironyuk was close - initially - to some influential Kremlin figures, allies of President Putin, men like his First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov; Mikhail Lesin, adviser to Putin and his former media official credited with creating Russia's international TV network RT; and Putin's senior aide Vladislav Surkov.

In March Gromov and Surkov, along with Kiselev, were slapped with U.S. sanctions over Crimea. Surkov quickly jeered: "The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Mironyuk later switched allegiance to another Putin adviser and political mastermind, Vyacheslav Volodin, earning her the enmity of her former Kremlin favorites.

One Russian TV journalist, requesting his name not be used because of the political sensitivity of the issue, told me it's not so much an issue of being pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin; Mironyuk, he says, "was a kind of liberal Kremlin media manager and that liberal clan has been defeated, and defeated with blood. And another hard-line clan has been waiting...they are now ruling the Russian media and that's why everyone who used to be against them is being destroyed."

A key player in the tightening of Kremlin control over the media is Vladimir Putin's friend and Russia's version of Rupert Murdoch, Yuri Kovalchuk. Forbes Magazine lists him as owning stakes in six federal TV channels.

In March, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized sanctions against Kovalchuk in connection with Russia's annexation of Crimea, noting that he is the "largest single shareholder of Bank Rossiya and is also the personal banker for senior officials of the Russian Federation including Putin. Kovalchuk is a close advisor to President Putin and has been referred to as one of his 'cashiers.'"

The Other "Russia Today"

Another person who was taken aback by Putin's decree that December morning in Moscow was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT television, Russia's government-funded international TV network. As she explained to the news website lenta.ru, she learned of the decision "from news reports."

Some media observers scoff at that assertion. The 33-year-old Simonyan is close to the Kremlin and Russian officials I've spoken with consider her Russia's poster child for in-your-face international broadcasting.

Appearing on RT broadcast nine months ago President Putin praised Simonyan for providing "an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia" and for trying "to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams."

Now, there was no doubt Putin's Principle - that "patriotically minded people" should run state media - ruled the day.

Mironyuk was out; Simonyan was in, with a big promotion. Retaining her job as editor-in-chief of RT, she also would be editor in chief of Russia Today. For now, at least, RT TV would remain a separate entity from Russia Today.

In a mind-bending bit of re-branding, "Russia Today" happened to be the original name of her own RT at its founding in 2005. A year ago, in an interview about RT, she told me the name Russia Today "was a mistake, really."

"What is going to make me watch a TV station? Not too many people out there are
interested in Russia so much that they really want to watch things about Russia and only about Russia," she said. "How many people are there? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Fifty thousand across the world? That's not nearly enough that it's worth spending so much money."

RT soon shifted its editorial approach, forgetting about early features on life across the vast expanse of Russia, broadcasting a steady stream of "alternative" news reports, heavy on conspiracy theories, criticism of the American government's "oppressive" domestic and international policies, and a steady stream of "what-about-ism," a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government in which criticism is deflected by cries of "but what about?..."

As the Ukraine crisis exploded, RT suffered two public relations disasters: an on-air screed by one of its American anchors, Abby Martin, against Russia's military incursion into Ukraine and an on-air resignation by another American anchor, Liz Wahl, who also lambasted Putin's actions in Ukraine.

Martin stuck with the network and later criticized Western media for ignoring her previous criticism of U.S. military action abroad. RT's editor-in-chief Simonyan accused Washington-based "neo-cons" of staging a psy-ops campaign by setting up Wahl. RT's website didn't mince words: "Turns out things might not be as spontaneous as they seem - in fact, in the paranoid world of neo-con American journalism things are very rarely spontaneous. They're usually nasty, angry, ugly exchanges full of trolly self-righteous butthurt."

The Home Front

Events in Ukraine were roiling the domestic media world in Russia as well. One of Russia's most popular news websites, Lenta.ru, published an interview with a member of a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group. The interview contained a link to the group's leader, Dmitriy Yarosh, whom the Russian government put on an international wanted list, accusing him of fighting against Russian soldiers in Chechnya and inciting terrorism.

The Russian Government's Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor,) which licenses and supervises the media, officially warned Lenta.ru that the website itself could be charged with extremism for publishing the interview.

Lenta.ru's long-time editor, Galina Timchenko, was replaced, the agency's owner claiming she had stepped down, the staff charging she had been fired. The editor of a pro-Kremlin website, Alexei Goreslavsky, took over.

Roskomnadzor, by law, has the right to close down any website if it contains "extremist" information. "Extremism," however, is defined broadly. "Anything can be extremist," a long-time Russian newspaper reporter told me on condition of anonymity. "So it's a very useful tool for the government to shut down almost anything."

On March 12, on the Lenta.ru website, 69 staff members published an open letter protesting the firing of an independent editor and the replacement of her with one "directly controlled from offices of the Kremlin" was a violation of Russia's media law.

"Over the past couple of years, the space for free journalism in Russia has dramatically decreased," the letter read. "Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through curators, still others by editors who fear losing their jobs. Some media outlets have been closed and others will be closed in the coming months. The problem is not that we have nowhere to work. The problem is that you have nothing more to read."

When It Rains

Dozhd' TV - the word means "Rain" in Russian - attracted viewers from the hip, young world of Moscow's successful middle class, the group that the Kremlin has, essentially, given up on attracting to its political ranks. Until February, the privately-owned channel was broadcast on cable, private satellite and on the Internet; its news included criticism of the government and gave air time to well-known Putin critics, like Alexei Navalny. It reported on allegations of corruption and human rights abuses during preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi. And it broadcast news of the uprising in Kiev.

"Why do you need to remove that pathetic Dozhd', which is watched by approximately three of my colleagues?" asks journalist Anton Krasovsky. "The only logical explanation" he says, "is the Ukrainian Maidan" - the Kiev square where the uprising against Yanukovich began.

Krasovsky, a gay television journalist who was fired after coming out on air, tells me he thinks the Kremlin must have said to itself "Let's take it off cable, just in case, because, what? They're going to show pictures from Kiev every day? And if something happens in Moscow they're going to show it the same way like the demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square? (The Moscow square where protesters turned out in 2012 to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin.)

But Dozhd' also touched the third rail of Russian history. On the 26th of January, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Nazi Blockade of Leningrad, the channel conducted an on-line poll asking its viewers: Should the Soviet government "have surrendered Leningrad in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives?"

The question, for many Russians whose families had lived - and died - in those 900 days of starvation, was a sacrilege. The siege of Leningrad is a scarring, yet sacred event in modern Russian history. Vladimir Putin's own parents barely survived the siege; their little boy, older brother to Putin, died.

The political uproar was immediate. The government's media agency Roskomnadzor accused the channel of violating the law, noting that article 49 of the media law requires journalist to "respect laws and the legal interests of citizens."

"Such questions and statements," Roskomnadzor said, "could be interpreted as insulting to veterans of the Great War of the Fatherland (the term many Russians use for World War II) and to residents of Leningrad during the Blockade, who exerted all their efforts to achieve victory in the battle with Nazi Germany."

Dozhd's editor in chief Mikhail Zygar, publicly said the channel had no intention to insult anyone but called the campaign against it the result "of a politically motivated directive."
Cable and satellite operators quickly dropped Dozhd' from their lineups, severing the channel, it said, from 90% of its outlets and 80% of its income. In February the general director, Natalya Sindeyeva, announced that Dozhd' had only enough money to survive another month. It still exists, but as a website only.

Echo Chamber

In March, access to the website of the independent radio station Echo Moscow, still a free-wheeling alternative universe of open debate and balanced journalism, was temporarily blocked. Internet providers had cut access to Echo's site after the government media monitor Roskomnadzor banned access to the blog of a leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, accusing him of extremism. The station had a link to Navalny's blog but, after deleting it, Echo was back on the web.

In February there was more. Yuri Fedutinov, Echo's CEO since 1992, was dismissed by the station's shareholders and replaced by Yekaterina Pavlova, formerly the deputy chairwoman at Voice of Russia.

Echo's long-time editor, Alexey Venediktov, is a fixture on Moscow's media scene. With his beard and mane of unruly gray hair, he has skillfully navigated the shark-infested waters of Russian broadcasting for more than two decades. He called the move a "totally political decision" but vowed "I won't change editorial policy. We are professionals, instead of civil activists. We will work in a genre of traditional journalism when each bit of news is verified."

Hostile Takeovers

In the 1990's Russia's media outlets were sometimes taken over at the point of a gun. At 3 a.m. on April 14, 2001 I stood in the hall on the eighth floor of Ostankino Television Center at the offices of NTV, Russia's cutting-edge, hard-hitting news channel, as armed men forced the station's security to step aside. NTV was now under control of the state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom. The new NTV specializes in screeds against the opposition and two years ago made waves with an ambush interview with the new American Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. After that run-in McFaul tweeted "Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar?"

Today, the domestic Russian media are more likely to be brought under Kremlin control in "hostile takeovers" than in midnight raids by men in balaclavas and body armor. The state controls all TV networks, beginning with First Channel, which covers approximately 98% of all households in the country.

"All TV networks are either under state control or under control of the state-affiliated companies that are headed by Putin's closest friends," investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of The New Times magazine told me in March. "All these current media are in the hands of the Kremlin."

Talking to "Brotherly" Countries

Vladimir Putin's media reach doesn't stop at Russia's borders. It extends to other parts of the Russian-speaking world, "brotherly" countries that used to be Soviet republics. Last December, explaining why he was offering a loan to cash-strapped Ukraine, Putin told reporters: "I'll tell seriously without any irony: we often use the phrase 'brotherly country' and 'brotherly people.'"

In Ukraine, Russia's main TV channels - Vesti, Russia 24, Channel One, RTR 'Planeta', and NTV Mir - were part of the regular channel until just a few weeks ago. When fighting broke out in Kiev the interim Ukraine government, in an attempt to control Russian propaganda, shut access to those outlets. In a counter-move the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea, which later voted to join Russia, shut down Ukrainian channels.

During the height of the fighting, Moscow networks whipped up fear among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, accusing the revolutionaries in Kiev of being fascists and anti-Semites.

Image Problems

Moscow, however, has had difficulty in expanding the reach of its media internationally.
Kremlin officials have candidly admitted to me that Russia has an "image problem." In an interview in Moscow last year Konstantin Kosachev, head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia's key soft power agency, told me: "Right now the image of Russia is, in some way objectively, negative. In some way it is discredited."

Vladimir Putin claims the West is waging a media war against Russia. Kremlin officials are deeply cynical about the West's "image management." Human rights, democracy, they have told me, are nothing more than "branding" meant to "sell" a nation internationally. As Alexander Smirnov, the Kremlin's public relations and communications chief, put it in a Moscow interview in February 2012: "If we are talking about democracy, it's the most expensive brand in the world that you (the U.S.) have created. It's a million times more expensive than Coca-Cola."

Now, with the sudden birth of Russia Today, President Putin is re-creating a crucial part of the Soviet Union's external propaganda structure dismantled under Boris Yeltsin. The new agency is shaping up as a modern version of APN (News Press Agency,) founded in 1961, which was tasked with reporting on "the social-economic and cultural life of the Soviet people and items reflecting Soviet society's point of view on important internal and international events".

Putin's Big Idea

His "medium" is now in place, even if many details are yet to be worked out, and Putin "message" is coming into focus.

Russia's search for a "narrative" that could explain its vision of itself and its role in the world goes back to czarist times. The Communists found their answer in Marxism-Leninism.

Russia's first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, rejected that - and even ideology itself - as the oppressive legacy of the past but Russia needed something to bind its people together.

In 1997 Yeltsin set up a commission under his aide, Georgi Satarov, to define Russia's "national idea." Trying to distill common purpose from the chaotic mix of political views, however, proved an impossible task. After a year of work the commission disbanded, unable to find the principles that could unite Russians and provide an identity for the new nation.

From the beginning of his rule in 2000 Vladimir Putin has been weaving together the strands of a new narrative for modern Russia. In speech after speech he has laid it out, often in stark terms. In his March 19th address to the Russian Parliament on Crimea he charged: "We have every reason to believe that the notorious policy of containing Russia in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is being pursued to this day."

Only national unity, in which the individual sets aside his own welfare for the good of the country, Putin believes, can ensure the nation will survive. Russia is a unique civilization, fully entitled to reject the values forced down its throat by the West. No longer on its knees, Russia now can project its own principles, superior to the West's.

"Like a mirror," he said, "the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades."

"Our Western partners, headed by the United States, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exceptionalism and their sense of being the chosen ones. That they can decide their destinies of the world, that it is only they who can be right."

His litany included Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Western bombing of Belgrade; the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the "color" revolution in Ukraine and Georgia; the "chaos" of the Arab Spring; the United States' missile defense system: "We understand what is happening," Putin said. "We understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration. And all this while Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West. We are constantly proposing cooperation on all key issues; we want to strengthen our level of trust and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But we saw no reciprocal steps."

For Putin, it's personal, says a senior journalist at a major Russian newspaper. "There is quite an emotional factor here."

"We've been writing about it as well and I don't think it's gotten any coverage in the West," this reporter told me on condition of anonymity. "For me this is the only explanation that I have, because nothing else makes sense. Of course, I don't know everything that's happening behind closed doors, it's only that sentiment - "Shto Putina otkinuli," - that "Putin was thrown under the bus," tricked, set-up by the West.

In his speech to the Russian Parliament on Crimea Putin said as much: "They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts. That's the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They always told us the same thing: 'Well, this doesn't involve you.'"

For many Americans and Europeans, including their political leaders, Putin's venom, his emotion, his recriminations against the West come as a shock. Journalist Yevgenia Albats says they shouldn't.

"He has said many times, in fact at the beginning of his first term, he talked about the tragedy that the Soviet Union fell apart. And I think it was clear to all of us that he is thinking about his place in the history books. And he would like to be in the history books as the one who managed to reinstitute the empire, at least partially. And Dzerzhinsky (Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Secret Police) said, and I think he was absolutely correct in that, that there is no empire without Ukraine."

Albats reminds me of the Russian expression "sobirat' zemli" ("to collect the territories".) "Many times before in his speeches he (Putin) has referred to those czars who managed to expand the Russian empire so that there's nothing new there. It's another question why the West has seen Putin for what he never was. We're talking about the blindness of the West."

What We are Not

Walking to the microphone on Red Square March 18th, Vladimir Putin moved like the athlete he is. Confident, defiant, pronouncing every syllable with explosive precision, he urged his fellow Russians to be proud, because they were united - at last.

The message resonated with a gallery owner, Marina Makarova, quoted by Britain's Guardian.com. "I am proud to be Russian and proud of Putin," she said. "Proud that he didn't back down and kept Crimea. For a long time, we didn't know what kind of country we were living in and where it was going. Now a new confidence in our country has appeared."

Russia, in Putin's eyes, has become the un-West, a center of gravity in its own right. "I think they are getting more definite about what we are NOT," says Ekaterina Zabrovskaya, editor in chief of Russia-direct.org. "They are opposing our beliefs to some Western ideas."

"I would say it's 'progressive conservatism," RIA Novosti's Executive International Director Pavel Andreev told me. "It's based on the foundation of Russianness, of unique Russianness. I think this is the narrative which they will be developing but it's still in the early stages, to be adopted and to develop the external messaging that would be unified across the board but, I mean, they are getting there."

Ukraine, Vladimir Putin says, is the turning point. "Our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally," he told his lawmakers, as applause filled the ornate hall of the Kremlin.

"They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything."