By Alec Luhn
President Vladimir Putin’s annual December press conference is a unique chance for some thousand-plus international and local journalists to ask the Russian leader a question.
It’s also a chance for Putin to get things off his chest. The president typically goes on for several minutes in each response, praising his successes, lashing out at his enemies, and cracking a few of his trademark salty jokes.
This year, he made his first official comments about Donald Trump: Asked about the Republican presidential candidate as he left the room after the conference in Moscow on Thursday, Putin called him a “very colorful and talented person” and said he welcomed Trump’s desire for a “closer and deeper level of relations.” (The affection is mutual, as the Republican presidential candidate previously said he would have a very good relationship with Putin if elected.)But after its military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, bombing campaign in support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and involvement in a track-and-field doping scandal this year, Russia seems to have ever more enemies in the world, including longtime ally Turkey. Here are five countries and people that Putin singled out for special criticism:
Moscow’s relations with Ankara plummeted after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 jet near the Syrian border in November. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained that Russia had violated Turkey’s airspace despite repeated warnings and was attacking Turkmen rebels in Syria, who are closely tied to Turkey. But Putin called the incident a “stab in the back,” while Russia banned some Turkish imports.State television has vilified Turkey, and the defense ministry has accused Erdogan’s family of buying oil from ISIS.
Putin’s macho standoff with Erdogan continued at Thursday’s press conference. The Russian leader noted that he had deployed more warplanes and anti-aircraft systems to Syria and didn’t “see any prospects for improving relations with the Turkish leaders.” Rather than explaining itself, Turkey was “hiding behind NATO,” he said.
“Even when we tell them ‘yes, we agree,’ they are trying to outflank or stab us in the back for absolutely no good reason,” Putin said.
2. The United States
Although Putin said he supported the US proposal for a UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria, he also suggested Washington could have been involved in Turkey’s decision to down the Russian plane. In response to a Turkish journalist asking if a “third party” was to blame for the deterioration of relations, Putin said “if someone in Turkish leadership has decided to brown-nose the Americans, I am not sure if they did the right thing.”
“I can imagine that certain agreements were reached at some level that they would down a Russian plane, while the US closes its eyes to Turkish troops entering Iraq, and occupying it,” he added.
Putin also tied the appearance of the Islamic State to the US invasion of Iraq, which had “destroyed that country” and created a power “void.”
Trump according to Putin: A “very colorful and talented person”
The United States is guilty of meddling not only in the Middle East but also in Russia, according to Putin. Asked about relations with the next US president, he said that unlike Washington, Moscow was ready to would work with whatever leader the other country elects.
“They’re the ones who try to tell us all the time what we need to do in our country, who to elect, who not to elect, with what procedures,”Putin said. “We never do this, we don’t get involved there.”
After a new pro-Western government threatened in 2014 to move Ukraine, which shares a long history with Russia, away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, the Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. In response to a Ukrainian journalist’s question on Thursday about two Russian special forces soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine, Putin admitted to some military presence there for the first time: “We never said that there weren’t people there engaged in solving separate issues in the military sphere, but that doesn’t mean that regular Russian troops are there,” he said.
But Putin blamed the Ukrainian government for not ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has been reduced but not stopped by a patchy ceasefire. While the West has blamed Russia for hindering the peace process known as the Minsk agreement, Putin said Russia wanted to resolve the conflict, “but not by way of physical annihilation of people in southeastern Ukraine.” He argued that the Kiev government had failed to give special status to eastern regions.
“Even in those territories of Donbass [eastern Ukraine]that are controlled by the Ukrainian authorities, the Lugansk Region, more than 43 percent voted for the opposition,” Putin said, referring to the opposition bloc that remains sympathetic to Russia. “Don’t the Kiev authorities see this? Are they so reluctant to take into account the sentiments and expectations of their own people?”
4. Mikheil Saakashvili
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now governor of Odessa, Ukraine, has been in the news this week after the interior minister threw a glass of water at him during an expletive-filled spat in front of the Ukrainian president. Putin, who fought a brief war with Saakashvili in Georgia in 2008, couldn’t resist getting in his own dig. He called Saakashvili’s appointment as governor earlier this year an insult to Ukrainians, suggesting that it was part of a US-led ploy to have foreigners run Ukraine.
“I think this is simply spitting in the face of the Ukrainian people,” Putin said. “Not only have they been put under an external administration but they’ve also had to accept so-called politicians that were delegated there. By the way, I think Saakashvili was never granted a work visa to the United States but they sent him to run the show in Ukraine and he is functioning there.”
With little possibility for follow-ups, the format of the annual press conference allows Putin to deflect or not fully answer uncomfortable questions. But the work of Russian journalists and whistleblowers made this harder than usual this year.
Investigations and leaks have raised allegations of nepotism, corruption and even mafia-style hits by several Russian officials this year. In one instance, journalist Oleg Kashin, who nearly lost his life when he was beaten with a metal bar in 2010, named in September the three men responsible for the attack and linked them to Pskov governor Andrei Turchak.
When asked about these allegations by a journalist from the independent TV Rain, Putin said it was the government’s “obligation to respond,” but then said people shouldn’t be held responsible for deeds unconnected to them. He cited a Soviet anecdote where the theft of a woman’s fur coat negatively affected her husband’s career: “Something had happened, so the guy won’t be promoted, just in case. This should not be our attitude.”
Another revelation came this month when opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption group released a film accusing general prosecutor Yuri Chaika’s family of using his official position to enrich themselves and funnel the profits into a Greek luxury hotel, among other holdings. It also linked the Chaika family to the Tsapok gang, which was finally brought down after murdering 12 people on a farm in southern Russia three years ago.
Asked about the allegations against Chaika, Putin similarly suggested the authorities were looking at them, without giving much hope that anyone would be brought to justice.
“Did he assist or help his children in any manner?” Putin said. “For that, we have the Presidential Control Directorate. I didn’t want to mention this issue, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not working on it.”
Putin also deflected a question about whether Moscow State University official Yekaterina Tikhonova was his daughter, as suggested by recent reports: “To say where my daughters work, what they do, I never have done this and I don’t intend to here, for many reasons, including security,” he said.
He refuted suspicions that FIFA corruption had helped Russia win the right to host the 2018 World Cup and even said disgraced head of the world soccer body Sepp Blatter deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his work to bring people together around the sport. Similarly, Putin said Russia was committed to the fight against performance-enhancing drugs despite the International Athletics Federation suspending its track-and-field team for systematic doping.
But the most burning question didn’t come until Putin was walking out of the room: Does he use a body double, as innumerable posts on the Russian internet have suggested?
“I don’t have any body doubles. What do I need them for?” Putin said. – Vice News
By Alec Luhn