Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The curtain has risen on what may be President Vladimir Putin’s last constitutional run at Russia’s top job – and the orchestra is playing a very familiar tune, albeit with a new accompaniment.
Even before official campaigning began on Monday, Putin had already made his first move.
Late on Sunday night, the Kremlin announced that he had called President Donald Trump to thank him for America’s help thwarting a terror plot.
This wasn’t the first time has Putin used the often real threat of terrorism to draw Russian voters towards him. But never before has he so publicly engaged a US president in the endeavor – and perhaps never before could he have found such a willing partner.
During his National Security speech late Monday, as if on cue, Trump told his audience: “yesterday I received a call from President Putin thanking our country for the intelligence that our CIA was able to provide.” Perhaps thousands of lives were saved, he said. “And that’s a great thing, and the way it’s supposed to work.”
The following day, Putin’s spokesman gushed back: “I once again want to remind that the perfect example of such cooperation is the recent exchange of information between the special services which really helped to save many lives.”
What he didn’t say was why Putin seems so keen on making Trump part of his election campaign. That’s sounded alarm bells in Washington, where former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said “Vladimir Putin knows how to handle an asset and that’s what he’s doing with the President.”
Putin first ran for the President in 2000, shortly after Moscow had been shaken by a number of bombs thought to be the work of Chechen separatists. Putin’s tough talk of retaliation – famously saying he would “rub them out in the outhouse” – helped him ride public fears in to the Kremlin.
He later denied allegations that he’d stage-managed the situation by having his henchmen plant the bombs. But his crackdown in Chechnya that followed left no doubt he was in power to protect Russia and Russians.
Barring a four-year apparent job swap with Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev between 2008 and 2012, he has held the post ever since. And even during the seat shuffle to get around the constitution’s two consecutive term limitation on the presidency, few Russians doubted that he really held all the power.
While no one expects him to lose in 2018, turnout and votes will still be a matter of pride. Not just because this may be his final term, but because it could impact his ability to keep his hands on the levers of power once this term runs out in 2024.
Putin is off to a grand start. He has walked this stage before, playing the part of being protector of the people for so long he owns it – and so does the rest of the Kremlin’s cast.
As Moscow was announcing Putin’s call to Trump, Russia’s Ambassador to Washington was hosting a concert in DC celebrating 210 years of Russian-American diplomacy.
Thousands of miles from Moscow, he was in tune with the opening lines of Putin’s new election campaign – delivering a similar message to an audience of diplomats.
“It absolutely important to overcome existing bilateral differences and find ways of integrating mutual interests.”
Trump’s man in Moscow, the recently appointed shrewd Ambassador John Huntsman, might have seen this coming. On Friday, in a post to the 45.1k followers on the US Moscow Embassy Twitter account, he said: “I think we will expect to see further improvements in the US-Russia relationship.”
Turns out he was right. Come Sunday, we learned that the CIA had successfully helped take down a Russian ISIS terror cell late on Thursday.
But while this good will and cooperation seems timely for Trump as he attempts to beat back accusations from Clapper and others that he is being duped, the reality is that there may be gains in it for Putin too.
Russia’s elections are a performance within a performance. Putin plays the people’s savior from terrorism, in an election that has the hallmarks of a charade. He is the only realistic candidate in a field thinned out by government controls.
So while Putin wants voters to turn out in force for him come elections on March 18, he has a far more fractious and potentially dangerous constituency on his mind: Russia’s oligarchs, who are the real force behind his power.
Just last week, the world got a glimpse of how riven they are when a power play spilled out into rare public view.
Russia’s second most powerful man Igor Sechin – boss of state owned energy company Rosneft – clashed with economic development minister Alexei Ulyukayev over a gas deal and in a sting operation worthy of a Mafia boss.
Sechin set the minister up for a fall, trapping him a $2 million cash bribe. Ulyukaev denies the charge, claiming that he has been framed.
While few in Russia were surprised to hear about government corruption, they were shocked at the severity of the Ulyukayev’s sentence: eight years hard labor.
Sechin refused to turn up to give evidence in court. The subtext to it all is that real power in Russia comes through money. No amount of electioneering will win over the super-rich powerbrokers.
What will make them happy, however, is an end to US sanctions – or at the very least no additional ones that impact their incomes.
So while Putin is dressing his election stage with the usual props ahead of what may be his last round of campaigning, he appears also to be artfully performing two acts in parallel: One at home and one for a US audience.
He is having Trump take a walk on part in the Russia performance, backing him, on a theme that is also close to Trump’s heart. Meanwhile, what the US audience sees is Putin cast as a worthwhile and willing US ally to combat global terrorism.
As Putin’s ambassador in Washington told the concertgoers about the two Presidents: “Their contacts confirm that our countries need each other to define a joint program of work on strengthening international security.”
Come mid-February, when the US decides on a new raft of sanctions against Russia, Putin will no doubt be hoping that his tune will be resonating in the minds of US lawmakers.
Because if Putin is to have an encore in power beyond 2024, he’ll need Russia’s oligarchs to help stage that performance.