The annual New Year's Eve address by the Head of State is a tradition across the former Soviet space. Most years, Russia's version sees Vladimir Putin appear standing before the grand Kremlin walls, wearing a red tie, and making promises about what the next year is set to bring.
This year was very different and Putin chose to address citizens from, what the Russian Government said, was the Southern Military District of Russia. Appearing with a gray tie and what looked like heavy amounts of make-up, Putin stood in front of a group of soldiers.
Yet something looked out of place. Some of those people, especially a blonde woman in the first row behind him, looked rather familiar.
Within a short period of time, further pictures of the blonde woman began to circulate on social media. All were from times when Putin was supposedly "with the common people of Russia" engaged in various activities.
Based on the photos uncovered, it appears that the woman in question – referred to as "Natasha" in Ukrainian Telegram channels – is a woman of many talents, having been seen camping, fishing, selling things, and attending a church with Putin over the past few years.
Putin's public outings are known to be highly stage-managed so that the president always looks invincible. It is also known that Putin takes his security very seriously.
This latest photo scandal suggests Putin would prefer to avoid direct interaction with his own people. It also supports old rumors that the Federal Guard Service of the Russian Federation (FSO) – charged with protecting the Head of State and senior Russian officials – are carted out as actors for Putin's "public" events, which are in fact held at enclosed or secure facilities.
Writing for Newsweek, Thomas Kika describes how the ten-month old war in Ukraine has left Russia beleaguered and is the main reason for delivering this year's address against a backdrop of “soldiers.”
Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarussian journalist, remarked how the mysterious Natasha appeared to have popped up at various recent events attended by Putin, humorously noting her wide-ranging talents as "a soldier, a sailor, a devout Christian. God moves in a mysterious way."
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former Ukrainian minister of defense, responded with a near eye roll, saying “Anyone surprised?”
Putin's love of theatrics are well known, and observers have picked-out repeated use of actors at his various events over the years
As the war continues, Putin will likely make yet more addresses about Russia's yet to be seen “successes.” it will be interesting to see how many more “former businessman,” “doctors” or “monks” will be portraying the role of soldiers to demonstrate military support for his failing war.
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