NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia—The games of the 2018 World Cup and local corruption scandals were the main topics this week in Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s five biggest cities. All tickets for this summer’s FIFA test game have already sold out. The city hardly cares about the nerve agent used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal in England—spies, Moscow, and London are too far away from the Volga River, still locked in ice in late March.
Nobody seems too upset here about dozens of Russian diplomats being kicked out of more than 20 countries around the globe. Conflicts cannot last forever, locals say—by June, this diplomatic war will calm down and the newly built stadium on the picturesque bank of the Volga River will be filled with football fans.
When it comes to President Putin’s public support, Nizhny Novgorod is not any different from most Russian cities. Earlier this month Putin won his biggest election victory: Nearly 77 percent of the public voted to re-elect Putin for his fourth term. In his victory speech, Putin said that Skripal’s case in London and the diplomatic scandal helped his popularity.
Russians know that most officials are corrupt. A few days before Election Day, Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Oleg Sorokin was arrested on suspicion of taking a bribe of around $1 million. But no matter how criminal Putin’s allies appear, how poor international policy might seem, Putin’s popularity does not fade away.
President Vladimir Putin’s supporters doubt that London has enough evidence to prove that Russian authorities sent a nerve agent to England to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The strong public opinion inside Russia is that the West is wrong to be putting too much pressure on the Kremlin—unless they want to help Putin shore up his power at home. “Europeans must know how stubborn we Russians are, that we never give up,” a student of a local law school, Veronika Ozerova told The Daily Beast. “Every time they are unfair to Putin, we support him even more.”
Independent analysts take a different point of view. “The day will come when British investigators roll out hardcore evidence of Russian spies being behind Skripal’s poisoning. The Kremlin will have to admit that they lie, just the way they had to admit it, when London presented the world with the investigation of [Alexander] Litvinenko’s murder in London,” a prominent Russian analyst and professor, Vladimir Ryzhkov, told The Daily Beast.
But that is not the opinion currently reflected on Russian state TV channels.
Both national television channels and state officials chose to treat the Skripal issue with dismissive irony. Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert said that to have good relations with Washington, Moscow had to acknowledge its responsibility of the attack on Skripal and “cease its recklessly aggressive behavior.” Moscow hated Nauert’s remark that “Russia has lots of tentacles.” Russian parliament members immediately suggested that Washington should look in the mirror and examine its own influence on foreign states, and they compared the United States to a sea monster in its own right.
Denial is the Kremlin’s usual strategy and that’s been no exception with the spy poisoning. On Thursday, Russian officials mocked Boris Johnson’s comparison of Skripal’s case to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Konstantin Kosachev, senator of Federation Council, the upper house of the Federal Assembly, said that “they use the punishment as their proof of the crime—both Dostoyevsky and Raskolnikov, chill out.” Kosachev also joked about the Western allies expelling scores of Russian diplomats.
Aleksei Kandaurov, a retired KGB general and an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, doubted that President Vladimir Putin would give up and compromise under such massive international pressure. “Before the scandal around Skripal’s poisoning, I was convinced that right after the election, Putin would make a step forward towards the West and suggest some compromises in the negotiations with Ukraine—as in fact Russia cannot afford full isolation,” Kandaurov told The Daily Beast. “But now Putin is pushed into the corner, so he will not make any efforts to stay friends with the West.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin suggested that Austria should become Russia’s mediator with London. Austria was one of the few countries in the European Union that did not expel Russian diplomats. Only a small percentage of Russian population feels concerned about future diplomatic relationships between the Kremlin and NATO countries. According to the latest social study by Levada Center, almost a third of Russia’s more than 140 million people thought that both the U.S. and EU were acting hostile toward Russia.
The chief editor of Russia Today, Margorita Simonyan, blamed the West for Russia’s fading liberal electorate. In her recent Twitter post Simonyan said that via sanctions and the West’s harsh anti-Putin criticism—combined with the “Russians never give up” mentality and the fact that most Russians have never been to the U.S.—the electorate thinks they can live perfectly fine without any relations with the West.
Fewer than 20 percent of Russians travel abroad; the rest experience the world as described on Russian television. Nizhny Novgorod residents Tamara and Aleksei Trifonov were trying to understand the Skripal poisoning case. “As far as I understood, London did not present any hardcore proof—so it means Putin is right, the West jumps to conclusions, that Russia is guilty of everything,” Aleksei, a manager of a local car service, told The Daily Beast. “Look, I wonder if ordinary Americans realize that we expect the world to come over to our hometown of Nizhny Novgorod for the World Cup. I trust Putin, he wouldn’t risk spoiling relations with the West before these expensive games.”
Tamara Trifonova was also skeptical. “The relations with Europe and America do not really matter to us, but we are convinced that Russia is innocent, that Putin is not an idiot to order a murder right before the presidential election,” Tamara, a housewife, added to the conversation. “He would not be cutting off the branch that he sits on.”