In Russia

Commentary by Bryan MacDonald,, Dec 23, 2016

Vladimir Putin’s annual media event was a calmer and more locally focused affair than in previous years. That said, it was still a notable feat of stamina.

Vladimir Putin speaks to year-end press conference in Moscow on Dec 23, 2016

Vladimir Putin speaks to year-end press conference in Moscow on Dec 23, 2016

So, this was Putin the peacemaker. Delivering a conciliatory news conference where everybody was a potential partner, even nefarious Western countries which imposed sanctions on Russia. The Russian President couldn’t have made his position more obvious if he’d turned up with flowers in his hair and released a flock of white doves while humming Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.

There are three likely reasons for his sudden reticence. First, a feeling that Russia’s Syria policy has largely succeeded. Also, how domestic economic concerns, facing a possible 2018 re-election campaign, need to be addressed after some years when foreign policy was a priority. And thirdly a willingness to give Donald Trump time to show whether his campaign rhetoric about building a new relationship with Russia is actually implemented when in office.

There’s also the issue where some of Trump’s cabinet picks are favorable from Moscow’s viewpoint. Notably, the choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Thus, it’s reasonable to suggest that Putin would be wary of saying or doing anything which might jeopardize the ExxonMobil chairman’s chances of winning Congressional approval.

As a result, this 2016 installment of the president’s annual marathon press event was light on geopolitics. Unlike previous years, the world order, neither new or current, received little mention and the star of the show was more interested in cracking jokes than lambasting anyone.

Variety is the spice

Clocking in at around four hours, Putin answered questions from a wide range of journalists. Of course, we had some fawning admirers, a few literally shaking with excitement at being chosen. But, on the other hand, there were also posers from liberal Russian opposition reporters and a Ukrainian was given a chance to grill the president. On top of this, some Western outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, BBC, and NBC were also handed the microphone.

Detractors of the format wail about the lack of follow up questions and a few dismiss the exercise as a ‘stunt.’ Nevertheless, even Putin’s biggest critics would surely admit that regarding mastery of his brief and the ability to authoritatively speak on so many topics, without an autocue, the Russian leader’s performance is remarkable. It’s also very doubtful if any other major world leaders could pull off a similar presentation.

From a domestic perspective, and after all the news conference is primarily aimed at Russian voters, Putin had relatively good news on the economy. He forecast how the country’s GDP is only expected to contract by 0.5 percent this year “thanks to growth in the real sector of the economy.” This follows a 2015 shrinkage of 3.7 percent. While the recession has largely been caused by falling energy prices, the Kremlin has made efforts to diversify the economy. “We exported $14 billion of weapons, $7 billion in IT services and we have pockets of expertise. In aviation and defense, we are world leaders.”

The president also spoke of an agricultural revival. Under his watch, Russia has flipped from being a net grain importer to becoming the planet’s biggest exporter of the foodstuff.

Top resources

Speaking of oil, Putin maintained how his government expects a $40 a barrel price for the black gold in 2017. However, all experts in the sector project $50 and plus. That would mean an extra $21 billion for state coffers next year, significantly reducing the budget deficit.

Although Putin’s current term runs to 2018, The Wall Street Journal wanted to know if we can expect an early election. The president’s quip, “in which country,” masked speculation in the ‘expert community’ about a snap poll. Later, Putin insisted how he mightn’t even seek another term. “Time will tell, I’ll decide based on the state of the country and the world, and what we’ve done and what I can do at that stage,” he replied.

There was a very deliberate nod to Trump when he said: “Russia is stronger than any potential aggressor in the world today.” In Putin-speak, this translates as ‘Moscow no longer sees America as a potential enemy.’ Because he recently admitted and repeated here, that the U.S. is the world’s most powerful military player.

However, he sounded a note of caution on nuclear proliferation and a potential new arms race. While the statement “we have overhauled our nuclear missiles, have new nuclear submarines, new airbases, and improved aircraft, but in full compliance with the START treaties” sounds menacing out of context, it is somewhat different in another light. “In 2001 (it was actually 2002), the U.S. pulled out of the ABM (anti-ballistic missile treaty). This was the cornerstone of European security. We said we’d respond.”

Hence, Putin appeared to be opening the door for new arms control agreements with Washington.

American paranoia

Regarding US internal affairs and the repeated claims of Russian interference in the recent election there, Putin scoffed at the allegations.

“They are attempts by the Democrats and the current administration to blame their failures on external factors. The Democrats didn’t just lose the presidential election, but the House and the Senate as well. Did I do that as well? They need to learn to lose with dignity,” he jibed. He also reached out to Republican voters and moderate Democrats saying “the vast majority of the U.S. population have the same ideas of threats and challenges and share our traditional values.”

On the first meeting with Trump: We will discuss how to put Russia-US relations back on track
— President of Russia (@KremlinRussia_E) December 23, 2016

Two years ago, Ukraine was the main topic here. This year, the tone had also mellowed. He called for the normalization of relations with Kiev: “We have come a long way since the summer of 2014.”

Lashing out at the “cold war” visa system in Europe, which isn’t based on GDP but rather on “values”, he praised Brussels’ apparent offer of open access to Ukrainians, which surprised some on social media. “I fully support the EU’s decision to allow visa-free travel for Ukrainians,” Putin remarked.

Yet, it didn’t placate a Ukrainian reporter present who asked: “You do realize that even if one day you leave office, Russians will stay occupiers for Ukrainians?” Putin shot back, “If the Ukrainian army wasn’t considered as the occupant in their own country in the Donbass that would change the situation.”

Other talking points included when the President insinuated how Ankara may have problems inside its state services, “I’m no longer so skeptical that SU-24 (the Russian jet shot down by Turkey in 2015) wasn’t shot by a rogue pilot, too.” And when he asked his Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, to find someone from “TV channel RT, which is accused of all sorts of cardinal sins.”

He also observed how “what we have between Russia and China is more than just a strategic partnership.”

And that first meeting with Trump? “The newly elected president needs time to build his team, it’s not expedient to meet unless ready,” Putin cautioned. Nevertheless, their initial encounter will certainly be one of the news events of 2017.

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia. Access the full, four-hour press conference by Vladimir Putin on  December 23, 2016 , in video and transcript, here on the website of the President of Russia.


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