President Putin did his best today to reassure Russians – and the markets – about the underlying stability of the tumbling rouble, while warning his countrymen of a tough two years ahead. For his Western critics he held out carrots as well as sticks, sounding a conciliatory note when he reiterated his calls for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the east of Ukraine.
But he brooked no compromise on the annexation of Crimea, and renewed his lambasting of the West’s policies since the fall of the Berlin Wall, accusing it of putting up new “virtual walls” and wanting to “chain” the Russian bear. He said that even if the bear were to “sit tight… supping berries and honey” and “abandon its hunting instincts”, the West would still “seek to chain us… then rip out our teeth and claws”. The bear, he said, had no intention of being turned into a “soft toy”. It would defend its sovereignty.
Mr Putin was speaking at his now-traditional marathon of an annual press conference, which came in this year at a relatively modest three and a half hours. And the format – the moustachioed Dmitry Peskov playing compère; the massed journalists from the furthest reaches of Russia, competing for attention by holding up placards advertising their region; and the ponderous nature of so many of the questions – was by now so familiar that it was easy to forget the extraordinary circumstances in which this encounter was being held.
Yet rarely can a long-scheduled event have taken place at a time at once so opportune and so perilous. This year’s press conference came in a week when the value of the rouble had plummeted, the viability of the country’s economy had been called into question, and many outside Russia had sensed the first hints of Vladimir Putin’s political mortality.
Mr Putin himself appeared entirely untroubled by such presentiments; he strode in and answered each question with his customary incisiveness and air of command. And the rouble, it was observed, strengthened after he began speaking. Of the two distinct messages he sought to hammer home, one concerned the essential soundness of the Russian economy – and he used his preamble to reel off figures as the heads of the Soviet-era Gosplan once did.
The other, primarily for his Western critics, was that while there would be no going back on the status of Crimea, the conflict in eastern Ukraine was different and – he strongly implied – unsought by Moscow. He claimed part-authorship of the first Minsk ceasefire agreement last September and spoke of Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, as a man he could do business with, adding that talks were in progress on a deal to exchange all prisoners of war in time for Christmas and New Year.
At one point Mr Putin linked the two themes, suggesting that Russia’s rouble troubles were the price it had to pay for defending its sovereignty (the euphemism Russia appears to have adopted for its annexation of Crimea).
For the West there were pluses and minuses. The first plus would be that the Russian leadership in its present composition has not – quite – given up on a westward orientation. Yes, Mr Putin made much of the interests Russia shared with China, both in bilateral trade and in international forums, such as the regional Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and the United Nations. But his list of common interests lacked the zero-sum threat such statements sometimes hold: if Europe spurns us, we’ll turn east.
At times, Mr Putin seemed almost to be pleading with the West, and with Europe in particular, to try another co-ordinated review of regional security. Any new European security opening to Russia would draw opposition. Poland and the Baltic states would resist such moves from their perches within the EU and Nato. The majority Republican US Congress is even now mooting arms shipments to the Ukrainian government in Kiev. But Russia has not yet burnt its European boats.
A second plus was contained in Mr Putin’s response to questions about a looming economic crisis in Russia. He almost repeated what was memorably said of the US banking crisis: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” And he made the point, repeated for a decade or more by Western economists, that high energy prices had allowed successive Russian governments to raise living standards while leaving the economy essentially unreformed. Today, he said the hardship caused by lower oil prices gave Russia its chance – finally – to diversify from commodities towards modern manufacturing. How far this will be possible, while Western sanctions and post-Crimea distrust persist, is another question. At least, there could now be the requisite political will.
The third positive lies in the relatively conciliatory signals Mr Putin conveyed on eastern Ukraine, coupled with some quite harsh criticism of the waywardness, as he saw it, of the anti-Kiev rebel fighters. As he presented it, the rebels, not Russia, were the main obstacle to a settlement that would leave Ukraine as a united, but more federal, country.
And therein lies the first minus. If the rebels are such a problem, not just for Kiev, but also for Moscow, why is Russia (it seems) still giving them supplies? The extent of Russia’s control may always have been exaggerated, and there is a fine line between calling on Russia to use its influence and appearing to encourage military intervention. But Mr Putin offered no blueprint for the united and independent Ukraine he said he wanted to see.
A second minus would be the exclusive blame he attaches to the West for, as he put it, erecting “new walls” after the Soviet collapse. Since then, the West has made overtures to Russia – not least President Obama’s much trumpeted “re-set”. It takes two to preserve a Cold War mentality.
The third minus, which may reflect deeper misunderstandings, was his colourful talk of the bear. Russians have spent decades, perhaps centuries, complaining to foreigners about this stereotype and the picture of unpredictable savagery it conveys. Yet here was the Russian President reclaiming the bear and its wild hunting habits for Russia. Regrettably, there is a risk that this vivid imagery could eclipse the more conciliatory tone he adopted elsewhere.
Conference call: Putin’s world
A local reporter asks, while slurring, about bringing a mildly alcoholic drink called kvass to supermarkets in his region. “I see you’ve already partaken,” the President replies. But, the reporter was not in fact inebriated, but a survivor of two strokes and a head injury, reports state-owned Moscow mouthpiece RT.
The Great Bear
Asked about Ukraine and the rouble, Mr Putin turns to the Great Russian Bear for a metaphor. “Do they want our bear to become a stuffed animal?” he says. Minutes later: “Perhaps the Russian bear should eat berries quietly and not chase piglets in the forest,” he muses. “Maybe they’ll leave him in peace? They won’t because they’re going to try to put him on a chain.”
Trivia: Dmitry Medvedev, the one-time President and now Prime Minister, is a bit of a bear: his surname could be translated as “bear’s”.
Blushes and titters abound as Mr Putin moves swiftly from agriculture – a good harvest – to mortgage rates. He is then asked by a reporter, who claims her aunt wants to know, whether he has time for a personal life (subtext: do you have a girlfriend?). “Everything is just fine, please don’t worry,” he says.
“A friend of mine, a dignitary from Europe, asked me recently: do you have love in your life? Well yes, there is someone I love, and people love me back. I have very good relations with Lyudmila [Putina, his ex-wife]. I see my children regularly too, but not as often as I would like.”
Mr Putin, 62, has been linked to Alina Kabayeva, a former gymnast and MP.
Reporters entering the conference were ordered to give up their water bottles. Mr Putin’s dislike apparently extends to Coca-Cola which he says may be a health threat. He says he does not know if it is “a harmful drink, but many experts say it is so for children”. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It did not immediately respond to Mr Putin’s claims.
Mr Putin is asked if he made a mistake in pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who spent 10 years in jail. When told he was planning to run for president, Mr Putin replies: “President of which country?”
Cue nervous laughs.
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