Support for Putin among western celebrities drains away over Ukraine

At an upscale restaurant in Moscow, the bubbly was flowing as guests in cocktail dresses and expensive suits danced the night away.

They had gathered on Sunday for the 70th birthday of Steven Seagal, the American-born actor best known for playing hard-bitten cops and commandos in action movies.

“Each and every one of you, you are my family and my friends. And I love all of you,” Seagal toasted, wearing his signature oversized black shirt.

“We stand together, through thick and through thin,” he added.

Sitting at the table next to Seagal were some of Russia’s leading Kremlin supporters, including the editor-in-chief of the state-controlled news network RT, Margarita Simonyan, and Vladimir Soloviev, one of the country’s most notorious propagandists, who was interpreting Seagal’s speech into Russian.

The actor, a self-described Buddhist, has long had a close relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and was granted Russian citizenship in 2016.

He previously called Putin’s annexation of Crimea “very reasonable” and described the president as “one of the world’s greatest living leaders”.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has doubled down on his support for Putin, saying in a recent interview that an “outside entity” was at fault for pitting the two countries against each other.

The Kremlin and state-controlled media have for decades cultivated Putin’s friendship with western celebrities, such as Seagal, in what many saw as an effort to boost his image at home and abroad.

“The main goal of all of this was to demonstrate that the country’s model of society is appealing to outsiders,” said Mark Galeotti, the author of We Need to Talk About Putin and a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute.

However, the number of western stars and politicians who, like Seagal, are still willing to go “through thick and thin” with Putin has quickly dwindled over the past month, with many eager to distance themselves from a country that is accused of committing war crimes during the invasion.

One of the first among Putin’s friends to condemn Russia’s actions was the French superstar Gérard Depardieu, who denounced “the crazy, unacceptable excesses of their leaders like Vladimir Putin” in Ukraine.

Depardieu, who has won global acclaim for his roles in films such as The Last Metro and Jean de Florette, became a Russian citizen in 2013, after criticising the French government over its tax policies.

In a letter to Russian state television at the time, Depardieu exclaimed: “I love your president, Vladimir Putin, very much and it’s mutual.” Putin personally awarded Russian citizenship to Depardieu that year at a special dinner where the two were pictured hugging.

However, speaking to Agence France-Presse in March, Depardieu, who is currently facing rape charges in France, called on Russia to “stop the weapons and negotiate”.

Depardieu’s comments were met with anger in Russia, with Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, saying the actor “did not completely understand” the situation in Ukraine. Some Russian officials have called on Putin to cancel Depardieu’s Russian citizenship.

Criticism of Russia’s actions has only increased after news reports emerged showing the bodies of men in civilian clothes lying in the streets of Bucha, outside Kyiv, a testament to the full scale of the atrocities that Russian forces are believed to have committed in Ukraine.

On Saturday, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi admitted that he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” by the behaviour of the Russian leader.

Berlusconi, thought to be an admirer of Putin’s macho style of governing, famously visited a Crimean vineyard with the Russian leader shortly after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014.

The billionaire has now said Russia was responsible for “the horror of the massacres of civilians in Bucha and other places, real war crimes”.

Putin has also been criticised by the so-called western anti-establishment camp – journalists and celebrities who have previously expressed support for Russia in their mutual criticism of “American imperialism”.

Shortly after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, the veteran US film director Oliver Stone, who has defended Russia’s actions in Crimea in his documentaries and in 2017 conducted a series of interviews with the Russian leader, tweeted that Putin’s “aggression in Ukraine” was a “mistake”.

“Although the United States has many wars of aggression on its conscience, it doesn’t justify Mr Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. A dozen wrongs don’t make a right. Russia was wrong to invade.”

While Galeotti argued that Putin probably “never put much trust in foreign friends” in the first place, he said the latest criticism by once pro-Kremlin figures ultimately points to the growing isolation in which Russia has found itself.

“When a would-be great power’s only real friends seem to be Syria, Venezuela and Nicaragua, you have to ask what has gone wrong.

This article was amended on 12 April 2022 to correctly refer to a speech being interpreted, rather than translated.

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