Vladimir Putin was characteristically belligerent during his annual phone-in with the public on Thursday, warning against the prospect of a third world war and dismissing the prospect of any withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria.
“Einstein said the fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones,” the president said, during the marathon televised session. "The understanding should restrain us from taking extreme steps on the international arena.”
Mr Putin's "direct line" is an annual tradition of the Russian political calendar, and a heavily managed spectacle. This year even the studio audience was done away with; in its place a Blankety Blank-style screen of governors and ministers.
It was a visualisation of Russia’s new feudalism: The bad boyars of the ruling class ready to be admonished by the good tsar, in front of a live audience.
In other respects, the phone-in went as in previous years. There was the usual economic preamble, with Mr Putin listing the country’s achievements. Russia had entered a period of sustainable growth, he said, with excellent inflation figures, and impressive levels of direct investment – although the last point is debatable.
There followed a number of problems with Putin outlining the solutions: high petrol prices (the oil companies will fall in line); a family unable to receive a plot of land as permitted by law (governor told to sort it out); a hospital falling down from disrepair (governor and minister admonished); a rural school being closed down (decision reversed); mortgage discounts not extended to families with four children (discounts promised.)
On domestic problems, the president attempted to appear earnest and sincere. But on international issues, he demonstrated his trademark swagger. He doubted the British version of events surrounding the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal – "If they were poisoned by military-grade poison, why did they not die?" He compared Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to Bashar Assad. He rejected the possibility of an amnesty for Ukrainian director Oleh Senstov – now in the third week of a hunger strike in a Russian prison. And he said there was no prospect of a withdrawal from Syria. "No number of military exercises is comparable with battle experience," he said.
Mr Putin warned Ukraine against unspecified "provocations" during the World Cup, which starts next Thursday. “I hope that things will not come to that," he said. "If this happens, I think it would have very serious consequences for the Ukrainian government in general.”
America, not unexpectedly, came in for particular criticism. Europe was now coming round to his warnings about US hegemony, he claimed. Russia's response – an array of new "invincible" nuclear weapons – had already undergone fundamental testing, the president adding: "They will be delivered to the army as planned."
With one of the two moderators of the exercise a press secretary of the president's 2018 presidential campaign, the questions were less soft-ball than no ball – “I would like to wish Vladimir Vladimirovich good health” went one. But one feature of the show that never fails to surprise are the text messages, supposedly sent in by viewers and displayed live at the bottom of screens. It is not clear if they are as unfiltered as advertised, or used to create an illusion of plurality, but they certainly raised eyebrows.
“Why is there money for tanks, bombs, planes, machine guns and no money for people?”; “You’re so long in power. You don’t think we have a monarchy?”; and "Why are bananas twice as cheap as apples, are we a banana republic?" were among the highlights.
“Of course, there is a filtering of questions, and the president is only asked questions that have prepared answers,” Andrei Kolyadin, a spin doctor and former Kremlin adviser, told The Independent. "The aim of the show is to show that the state can solve problems."
But while the phone-in is designed primarily as PR, it also has an aspect of governmental control, says Mr Kolyadin.
“Governors know they need to look out for the signals and precedents,” he says. “It is a stressful event for them. I know that several of them worked with psychologists before the show.”
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