Vladimir Putin has had a busy week on the international stage, cuddling up to Chinese leader Xi Jinping last Friday, attending the BRICS summit in Durban, and mulling a Cyprus bailout on Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean he’s neglecting the homefront. Reports of the return of a Russian adoptee from the United States on Tuesday provided the autocratic leader with an unexpected boost on the domestic front. That 18-year-old Alexander Abnosov has publicly accused his American adoptive parents of poor treatment will add fuel to Putin’s anti-West campaign, one that has targeted global watchdogs like Amnesty International in recent days. His allegations will also lend credence to Putin’s December ban on adoption of Russian orphans by American parents — legislation passed in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, a series of U.S. anti-corruption sanctions adopted in late 2012. (Putin placed the bill’s namesake — a deceased Russian whistleblower — on trial posthumously this March to further discredit the American bill.)
Interviews of Abnosov describing how he had to steal in order to get food have already been widely broadcast by state media and framed as a warning of what can befall Russian orphans adopted by Americans — one that dovetails nicely with the indignation over a March 2 ruling by American officials that the death of an adopted Russian boy was accidental. Any resulting boost in local popularity will further calcify Putin’s hard-fisted domestic strategy. Which is working: in March 2013, one year into Putin’s second term, 65 percent of Russians polled believe that their leader did more good for his country in the past year than bad. Although below Putin’s unprecedented 80% pre-recession domestic approval rating, his current popularity is nonetheless impressive, especially given the harsh climate surrounding it: 2012 has been described by human rights organisations as Russia’s worst human-rights year in two decades. Yet despite a spate of repressive gestures targeting global NGOs, internal dissenters, and gay rights activists, the majority of Russians continue to support Putin and his more polemic moves, namely the adoption ban.
Look for Abnosov’s case to be used to justify future, more extreme, actions — ones just as likely to target Western influences as political dissenters (since Putin took office last March, anti-West persecutions, like a crackdown on NGOs, have typically been accompanied by harsh repression of dissent.) Because despite the possibility for rapprochement with Washington that emerged last week after the U.S. reduced the scope of a contentious missile shield in eastern Europe, Putin is not likely to yield any ground. Especially with such a plum opportunity to further discredit the United States. After all, what better symbol to spur on Russian domestic sentiment (and highlight alleged U.S. weakness) than a soft-spoken boy who professes his eagerness to join the Russian military on national television. All the more so since the young and living Abnosov provides a more, er, dynamic example of the dangers of the West than a dead whistleblower.