President Vladimir Putin took a tour of the shiny new studio complex of Russia Today, the English-language television channel funded by the Kremlin, and spent an hour answering questions from a number of its journalists during a round-table interview.
The channel, which has garnered huge viewing figures in the US and claims to be the most-watched news channel on YouTube, was set up eight years ago and frequently reports on the decline of the West, while generally taking a soft line towards reporting on Russia.
It has broadcast a chat show hosted by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and recently announced that it would also be running a series of programmes made by the veteran US host Larry King.
Foreign journalists were invited to observe the interview with Mr Putin, but were not allowed to ask their own questions. In opening remarks, the Russian President told the channel’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, that the goal of the channel when it was set up had been to “end the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon media” in the world, and said that he believed it had been successful.
The channel’s journalists asked mainly soft questions on foreign policy issues, producing mainly soft answers. Mr Putin did criticise Iran’s “unacceptable” threats to destroy Israel, but stressed that he had no doubt Tehran was “adhering to the rules” on its nuclear programme. The anti-gay bill that passed through the Duma today was not raised.
In response to a question about current relations with the US, Mr Putin digressed, noting that the original settlers in America had massacred the indigenous population, and criticising the US for using an atomic bomb against the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. “We know a lot of things about Stalin now that we didn’t know before – that he was a dictator, and so on,” said Mr Putin. “But if he had had an atomic bomb in spring 1945, I very much doubt Stalin would have used it.”
None of the questions touched on controversial issues such as the ongoing trial of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or the trials of more than two dozen protesters who are accused of public order offences over a protest in central Moscow the day before Mr Putin returned to the Kremlin last year. The only question about internal Russian politics came from Peter Lavelle, an American chat show host who has worked on the channel since its outset and is known for his fawning affection for the Russian leader.
“Opinion polls show that the opposition in Russia is very small,” asserted Mr Lavelle. “What kind of opposition would you like to see?”
The channel’s slogan is “Question more”; but this does not seem to apply when they are being asked of Russia’s leader.