У ПУТИНА ДВА ОДИНАКОВЫХ ОФИСА
MOSCOW — Political commentators saw signs of infighting among the elite. An opposition leader chalked it up to the Kremlin’s habit of lying. But for many who have been working from home for months, the report from a Russian news site just made perfect sense.
The investigative news outlet, Proekt, reported last week that President Vladimir V. Putin has built two identically appointed offices for video linkups, one at a government residence outside Moscow and the second on the warmed-up shores of the Black Sea, a traditional vacation area.
The sight of Mr. Putin sitting in a sparsely furnished office, with a couple of beige armchairs, a Russian flag in the background, has become a familiar one on TV this year, as he has carried out official business tucked safely away from the coronavirus.
The confinement is atypical for Mr. Putin, usually a man of action during crises, showing up at floods or wildfires to console Russians and direct the responses.
And this time, as so many others have discovered, work from home has been a bit too confining, the report asserted. Though the article was based largely on anonymous sourcing and circumstantial evidence that could not be independently confirmed, it touched off a flurry of commentary in Moscow about the reported sleight of hand by Mr. Putin, a former spy.
The report cited public records of flights by presidential planes that seemed to contradict Kremlin statements about Mr. Putin’s whereabouts, as well as several unnamed sources said to have knowledge of the duplicate office in the Black Sea city of Sochi. The Kremlin denied the report.
Mr. Putin has access to a number of official residences, including the site outside Moscow, Novo-Ogaryovo, and a presidential retreat in the Black Sea city of Sochi, Bocharov Ruchey.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Putin worked frequently — and openly — in the Sochi residence, in an effort to promote the city’s tourism industry or to greet official visitors in a more relaxed setting. But the politics shifted with the pandemic, the Proekt report said.
“In such moments, in the Kremlin’s understanding, people should think the president is in the capital or close by,” working to combat the virus, which has hit Russia hard, and not spending time at a resort.
Ekaterina Schulmann, a political commentator for the Echo of Moscow radio station, said the report, coming on the heels of other articles revealing details of the personal lives of Mr. Putin’s inner circle and family members, is further evidence of the elite infighting that has broken out lately. In recent years, both leaks and smears with misinformation have been rare in Russian domestic politics.
Proekt, founded two years ago by a veteran reporter for Russian opposition and business newspapers, Roman Badanin, describes itself as a crowd-funded site for investigative reporting about Russia. Its exposés have leaned heavily on unnamed sources.
“We do what we do best — find what is hidden,” the site says of its mission. “We consider this important because almost no media remain in Russia taking on difficult and dangerous themes.”
The site is among several that have released a string of exposés in recent months about Mr. Putin’s family and his romantic life.
Ms. Schulmann suggested the articles are an effort to embarrass rival clans as the children of senior officials jockey for jobs in government or state corporations that are being vacated by an older generation of insiders.
Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, who is recovering in Berlin from what the German government said was a nerve agent poisoning in Russia — something the Kremlin denies — wrote on Twitter his explanation of the reported duplicate offices.
Having the two offices, he wrote, was “absolutely Putin’s style — to lie even in the little things.”
Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the presidential work spaces outside Moscow and in Sochi are not identical. “This is not true,” he told journalists on a conference call on Wednesday. The Proekt report, Mr. Peskov said, was one of a series of recent exposés about Mr. Putin’s personal life that were an “information campaign, an information attack” on the president.
“The president has many offices and no identical offices,” Mr. Peskov said. He challenged Proekt’s use of flight records to contradict official statements about Mr. Putin’s whereabouts. Presidential planes are at times based outside of Moscow, he said, but he declined to discuss specific flights, noting the movements of the head of state are classified for security reasons.
Mr. Putin has told the Russian news media that he has rejected plans to use subterfuge to protect his security. In February, he told the Tass news agency that, early in his tenure, he declined to use a body double to deceive potential assassins.
This year, verifying Mr. Putin’s whereabouts has only become more difficult as he has taken extraordinary precautions against the virus, even by the standards of other heads of state.
Russian journalists who cover the president in the Kremlin pool have seldom seen him up close since March, reporters have said. Visitors are required to quarantine for up to two weeks before coming within breathing distance. And even then, before meeting Mr. Putin, they have to walk through a disinfecting tunnel — a structure resembling an airport metal detector that sprays a fine mist of antiseptics.
The president has conducted so many televised meetings by video link that state television over the summer ran a special report on the site, noting the microphones and screens available for meetings — and identifying it as located at the government residence outside Moscow, not by the seashore.
One site that republished the story, T Journal, elicited hundreds of comments from readers poring over photos of Mr. Putin, suited and seriously conducting state business, seated in similarly appearing offices. Some found signs of a ruse.
“The perspective is a little different,” one reader wrote, “but that wouldn’t explain the difference in the wall paneling.”
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