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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

A look back at Putin's year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Moscow, at midnight on December 31, chances are Vladimir Putin will happily say goodbye to 2023 and eagerly welcome 2024. This past year began on a tough note for the Russian president. His war in Ukraine was stagnating. The head of the Wagner mercenary group, his close ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was openly criticizing the adjudication of the war and questioning the truth behind the reasons for the invasion. Well, as the year ends, Prigozhin is dead. And a political battle here in the U.S. Congress over border funding could mean that Ukraine has seen the last of the aid it's been getting from the U.S. The EU is faltering in its support as well. And Putin is running for a fifth term as president. Well, our man in Moscow is on the line and is going to help us unpack all of this. Charles Maynes, how are you doing?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: OK, so sketch out a brief arc of what I just described - sounds like a very challenging year for Putin. Where was he as the curtain rose on 2023? Where is he now?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, Putin's mantra from the beginning of the year was everything is going according to plan in Ukraine, even when it clearly wasn't. I mean, at the time, everywhere you looked, there were setbacks - repeat withdrawals of Russian forces from large parts of Ukrainian territory. We saw infighting among nationalists and the Wagner mercenary force with the Kremlin's top brass, accusing them of incompetence and prosecuting the war. And we saw Putin's popularity drop because of a messy mobilization drive.

KELLY: OK, so that's how the year began. What about now?

MAYNES: Well, you know, you fast-forward to today, and Putin is now clearly feeling as though Russia has the upper hand in Ukraine and in this wider struggle that he sees with the West. He was very confident at this year-end press conference last week, insisting Russia would meet its goals in Ukraine. And we saw a very confident Putin yesterday in Moscow as he accepted an endorsement to run for the presidency by the ruling United Russia party, again saying Russia would be victorious over those trying to destroy it. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here he says Western elites have unleashed this aggression against Russia, trying to destroy the economy and foment revolution but that all these efforts would fail as long as Russia remained a sovereign state - and the implied contrast, of course, with countries like Ukraine, which in his view are mere client states of the U.S.

KELLY: When you say he's very confident now, as 2023 ends, why? Is that all down to he thinks the war in Ukraine is going better for him?

MAYNES: Well, on the one hand, there's definitely the war. Russia has clearly learned from mishaps, even if the Kremlin never quite acknowledged them. They certainly have more weapons thanks to partners like Iran and North Korea. And Russian forces are now largely occupying well-fortified defensive positions. So we've seen Ukraine try and really fail to advance in a much-hyped summer counteroffensive. Meanwhile, there's also Putin's argument that Western patience for the war in Ukraine would run out. It certainly looks like it these days. You know, we've seen the U.S. and EU stall military commitments to Kyiv. And, as Putin puts it, the free stuff for Ukraine is coming to an end.

KELLY: So let me turn you to his presidential campaign. He is running to be reelected to a fifth term in office - fifth term. He's already run the country for 24 years. But I remember being there for the last election in 2018, covering it with you. There wasn't much suspense then either. Although we did think that at some point, term limits, the Constitution, that thing - that would kick in, and eventually he would have to groom a successor.

MAYNES: Well, that prediction didn't work out so well, did it? You know, Putin's declared candidacy this time was widely expected, as you note, as is his continued hold on the job. These constitutional reforms they passed in 2020 laid the quasi-legal groundwork for Putin to remain in office by effectively, you know, restarting his own term count to zero. Meaning the Russian leader, currently 71 years old, could remain in office until possibly even 2036...

KELLY: 2036?

MAYNES: ...So we're really talk...

KELLY: Wow.

MAYNES: 2036. So we're really talking about how to inject, you know, intrigue into a process where there's almost none.

KELLY: Are there any other candidates - serious candidates - running?

MAYNES: Well, Kremlin officials insist themselves that Putin has no real competition. But there will be candidates on the ballot from the major Duma parties. We may also see some lesser-known figures emerge. But many would argue they're all there, basically, to give the election a veneer of competition or to help legitimize the results.

KELLY: Charles, talk us through what - I think for people who don't track Russia closely - was perhaps the one moment you just could not take your eyes off what was happening, and that was the Wagner rebellion. You were in Moscow. Play out the scene for us.

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, we saw this rivalry between Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the top brass unfold throughout the year and really bubble over in late June. Prigozhin first launched an attack on the city of Rostov-on-Don. He took it over, including the main military headquarters of the Russian army. Then he turned his mercenaries on Moscow, only to turn back at the last minute. Putin later offered Prigozhin an amnesty deal in exchange for life in exile in neighboring Belarus. But then, remarkably - or maybe not - two months later, Prigozhin was dead in a mysterious plane crash.

KELLY: I remember interviewing the director of the CIA, Bill Burns, in that window between the rebellion but while Prigozhin was still alive and walking this earth. And Burns described Putin as a man who thinks revenge is a dish best served cold - his words. And here we are. So what happened to his mercenaries, to his group?

MAYNES: Well, after Prigozhin's demise, there were offers to join the army or other mercenary groups. Some seem to have done that, and it's silenced some of their criticism for now. But questions still linger about the future of these men. For example, will the Kremlin honor, you know, Wagner's promised payments to veterans? Because Wagner was always an off-the-books operation.

KELLY: Speak to the economy for a second, Charles. Putin claims that he's beaten all of the sanctions that the West laid on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Has he?

MAYNES: No. But he's managed them more effectively than many predicted, thanks in large part to a skilled economic team. Certainly the sale of oil and gas to India and China has buoyed government coffers. Meanwhile, even as hundreds of Western companies left Russia in protest over the war, many more stayed. And we saw the emergence of copycat replacement brands who took over established businesses. So they're now under new Russian ownership. So, for example, Starbucks is now Stars Coffee. McDonald's was rebranded to a new name, Tasty And That's All in Russian. And we see other ways that, you know, Russia's economy has adapted. For example, I mean, I've never seen so many Chinese cars in my life. And all told, the economy looks pretty good for now anyway. You know, it's set to expand by 3.5%, according to the central bank. Although independent economists will say that growth is really largely on the back of wartime spending - in other words, weapons.

KELLY: So is it all good news for Putin as he heads into 2024 and perhaps another six years as president?

MAYNES: Well, not entirely. You know, beneath this supposed normalcy, this kind of veneer of confidence we see, there's a lot of turmoil bubbling below the surface. For example, we see this intense anger among families of civilians who were mobilized to fight in Ukraine over a year ago. They're now demanding demobilization. They want their men home. And they've clearly been unhappy with President Putin for not engaging with them in any serious way, despite their demands. And let's not forget tens of thousands of war dead - we don't even know how many - here in Russia. Last spring I was in a small town a few hundred miles from Moscow to cover a trial, and out of curiosity, I went to a local cemetery. Just let me play a little clip of what I found.

Vlad Zukov - born in 1976, died in January 2023.

This is Alexander Pultacheov - born in 1996, died in December of 2022.

And, you know, OK, this is just one cemetery in a small town in Russia. But we know that scenes like this are playing out all across this vast country.

KELLY: NPR's Charles Maynes sharing a year's worth of fascinating reporting there. Charles, thank you. Happy holidays.

MAYNES: Happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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