Did Putin threaten to have traitors assassinated? - Skeptics Stack Exchange

No, on the occasion in question Putin did not say that traitors would be killed. The quote in your question comes from a March 5, 2018 broadcast of BBC Newsnight. It is a concatenation of three soundbites from a three-minute statement in which Putin says that Russia no longer kills traitors. The soundbites come from the last paragraph of his statement in which Putin paints a picture of traitors as broken men living out their remaining days in abject misery leading to an early death.

The translation in the BBC broadcast alters the tone of Putin's statement and broadens the meaning of his words to the point that, when they are read in the style used by Western comedians portraying Putin, they seem to convey veiled threats of violence.

The Story Spreads

The next day (March 6th) the composite soundbite from the BBC broadcast appeared at the head of article on the website of The Sun, now shorn of all even the context provided in the BBC broadcast. The article describes the statement as a "threat to 'choke traitors'", thereby changing the BBC's poor translation into an unambiguously false one.

The day after that (March 7th) the Independent put up an article with its own version of the BBC video. The article incorrectly identifies it as a video which "re-emerged online" and describes Putin's words as "apparent death threats".

Also on March 7th the Telegraph described Putin's words unambiguously as a "death threat". This despite the fact that in 2010 they had reported on the very same statement and found exactly the opposite meaning in it. What is more, now Putin's words were not simply spoken close to the time of Sergei Skripal's release, they are now actually about him.

On March 7th on Good Morning Britain Piers Morgan asked Alexander Nekrassov (former Kremlin adviser) what Putin had meant by "kick the bucket". They each considered the other's interpretation of the phrase ridiculous. (Not surprising since Mr. Morgan was interpreting the Putin's words in the BBC's poor translation while Mr. Nekrassov was presumably interpreting Mr. Putin's actual words which, at least for this phrase, can be heard in the BBC broadcast.) Neither one of them seemed to know the context of the quote.

On March 12th the video was mentioned in an editorial in the New York Times. The editorial links to the March 7th article in the Independent and quotes the translation from the video. The editors seem to have obtained some information about the TV show during which the statement was made, but this is a bit garbled too. In particular their description of the question is incorrect and they make no mention of the overall import of Putin's answer.

Earlier Western Press Coverage of Putin's Statement

Putin's statement attracted some press coverage in the West at the time he made it. At the time the press had the full text of the statement and did not interpret it as a threat against traitors:

Background of the Statement

Putin refers to the exposure and arrest of agents of the Illegals Program on June 27, 2010. The Illegals Program (which is the name given it by the US Department of Justice) planted Russian sleeper agents in the United States under cover as private citizens.

In July of 2010 the ten spies arrested in the United States were exchanged for three Russian nationals who had been convicted of high treason for espionage one of whom was Sergei Skripal. (This appears to be his only connection to the affair.) In August the deported Russian spies were “warmly greeted” by Vladimir Putin who "led them in singing patriotic songs".

After the program was exposed, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service began an investigation in an attempt to determine whether the agents had been betrayed. Suspicion fell on one Colonel Aleksander Poteyev who was in charge of undercover spying in the US. He is thought to have fled Russia a few days before the arrest of the undercover agents. Where he is now is unclear, but the opinion in the Russian press is that he went to the US, that his children are also in the US, and that he may or may not have died in 2016.

The Statement

In the quote in question Putin is commenting on this affair. He is speaking during the program Direct Line: A Conversation with Vladimir Putin in December 2010. Direct Line is a marathon ask-me-anything-style show which he does once a year. The broadcast is on Youtube (the question is asked at about 3:12:15 and Putin concludes his answer at about 3:15:15) and there is a written transcript. Here is an English translation. The parts included in some form in the quote from your question are in bold:

M. Sittel: Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’m taking a question from the website, this time it is a personal one. It is clearly written by someone who loves memoirs. “When you spoke of the recent spy scandal, you noted: traitors do not live long. The leaders of many countries, as know from recollections, have signed orders for the the liquidation of the enemies of the homeland oversees. The French have done so, the Israelis. Have you, as the head of state, had occasion to make such a decision in the past?”

V.Putin: I do not think that the leaders of state signed such orders personally even in the past. That is the work of the special services. And during Soviet times, in Stalin’s time, it is no secret, there were special subunits which carried out, including (these were military subunits, it was not all they did), which when necessary carried out such assignments: the liquidation of traitors. Such subunits were themselves liquidated long ago.

It is known that actual many, say the Israeli special services used such methods, yes, all things considered, as for today, far from all have given this up even now. The Russian special services do not use such means.

With regard to traitors, they will curl up on their own, I assure you. That’s because...Here we have this latest instance of betrayal in which they exposed a group of our illegals. And these are officers! Do you get it? Officers. A man betrayed his friends, his comrades in arms. These are people who laid their entire lives on the altar of patriotism. What is it like to learn a language at native level, leave behind one’s relatives, not to be able to bury one’s loved ones? Think about that for a minute! Someone has given his entire life to serve his homeland and now this brute comes along who betrays people like that. How is he going to live with that for the rest of his life? How will he look his children in the eye, the swine?! Whatever went on there, whatever 30 pieces of silver those people may have gotten, they will stick in their throat, I assure you. To spend your whole life trying to keep out of view, to be unable to talk with your loved ones, it means that someone who chooses such a fate will be regretting it a thousand times over.

So the quotation in the form you cite is garbled and has been interpreted in a manner which is at odds with the original context which is a specific denial that Russia assassinates traitors.

Notes on Translation

The word “загнуться” famously translated “kick the bucket” literally means “to curl up” or "to curl down". What it means here is open to interpretation. The translation “kick the bucket” can be found in Wiktionary as a possible translation of a very informal use of the word. @bashbino’s assertion that such use refers to decline and death rather than sudden death is probably correct. I suspect it is an allusion to the way plants whither and die. In 2010 the phrase was translated "they will croak all by themselves" (The Telegraph, NBC News)

In translating “прятаться” as “trying to keep out of view” I am trying to leave the question of whether the traitor is hiding from assassins or simply from people he cannot look in the eye up to the reader’s interpretation. This word can refer to social avoidance such as the behavior of a child who hides behind his mother’s skirt.

The phrase “колом станут у них в горле” refers to difficulty swallowing due to revulsion, not difficulty breathing. To make this clear I have translated it “will stick in their throat”.

Russian Press References

Articles on the Illegals affair: