Russian colours don't run, Putin tells annual Q&A session

Russian colours don't run, Putin tells annual Q&A session
By bne IntelliNews December 17, 2015

In a three-hour Q&A session with the press on December 17, President Vladimir Putin took a defiant stance towards those who would intimidate Russia, dared Turkey to bait his missile shield in Syria, and said low oil prices and "so-called sanctions" are not stopping the Russian economy returning to growth.

He also admitted for the first time that Russia has some military personnel in East Ukraine, a point repeatedly denied in the past two years.

"The peak of the crisis in the Russian economy has passed," Putin said at the annual event attended this year by some 1,400 journalists, citing government forecasts of 0.7% GDP growth next year, 1.9% in 2017, and 2.4% in 2018.

Central bank reserves stood at a healthy $364bn, and despite its financial squeeze, Russia also paid off 13% of its external debt, the flipside of the "so-called sanctions" imposed on it, Putin noted. "Of course, it would be good if we had access to external financing markets and this money stayed inside the Russian economy and helped us develop, but then again, refinancing is also bad."

However, the 2016 federal budget is now in question because of decreasing energy prices, Putin said, noting an overly optimistic $50 per barrel oil price figure used in its calculation. "Most likely we'll be forced to review something here."

Despite battling a sore throat during the event, Putin was relaxed and joked as he and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov took what appeared to be mainly random questions from publications from across Russia, as well as the US, Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey.

Returning to a now stock platform for sketching out Russia's new assertive stance in the world arena, Putin again called Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane in November a stab in the back, and asked why the Nato member country would do this.

"If the Turkish leadership decided to lick the Americans in a certain place, then I don't know if the Americans really need this," he said, drawing ripples of laughter and applause. "Did they think we would run away? No of course, Russia is not a country to do that!” Putin said of the political and economic confrontation that flared with Ankara over the incident at the border to Syria, where Russia is waging an air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and Syrian opposition forces battling President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has on the contrary increased its presence in the region, Putin said, citing sophisticated air defense systems deployed there since the downing of the Su-24 bomber on November 24, and daring Turkey to violate Syrian airspace: "Let them fly there now!" he challenged.

Russia is also sticking to its guns that Assad should not be simply removed as the US has demanded, Putin continued, stressing that only the Syrian people can decide who will lead them. On the whole,  Russia accepted the United States initiative to resolve the Syrian conflict, he said, "including on working out a resolution of the UN Security Council".

Pointing out that French President Francois Hollande proposed trying to unite efforts of the Syrian army and part of the armed opposition to defeat IS forces, Putin said, "We have partly managed to do it."

On Ukraine, Putin for the first time acknowledged a Russian military presence on the ground in the Donbas conflict zone, making the distinction between "regular troops" and other types of military.

"We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks, including in the military sphere," Putin said when asked by a Ukrainian reporter about two captured Russian military intelligence officers currently on trial in Ukraine. (Other Russian servicemen have been taken prisoner in East Ukraine, while the Defence Ministry in Kyiv claims there have been up to 8,000 Russian troops there).

"Regrettably, we predict a worsening of economic relations with Ukraine as of January 1," Putin added. "We will have to make a decision we will no longer be doing business with Ukraine as a member of the CIS free trade zone." He stressed that Russia is not going to impose any sanctions against Ukraine, but that Kyiv will no longer enjoy the privileges and preferences it used to.

He also spoke scathingly about members of the new leadership that came to power since last year and which Russia views as having been put in place and manipulated by external forces, meaning the United States.

"What did they tell Ukraine? We will not just control you, we will also send people from neighbouring republics who will rule you, in key positions, because you are unable yourselves," Putin said, referring to foreign-born members of the political establishment, most notably former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Appointed in May as Odesa region governor by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Saakashvili is viewed as a possible replacement for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. "They couldn't find 5-10 people among a population of 45 million. It's simply spitting in the face of the Ukrainian people," Putin said.

Other questions involved individual cases of claimed injustice, including from a newspaper in the Far East, which asked for Putin to look into the jailing of a journalist for reporting on corruption during the delayed construction of the Vostochny space centre. Another journalist from Kaliningrad elicited a promise from the president that there would be a thorough investigation into an incident where a cadet of the FSB domestic intelligence service ran over and crippled a pedestrian, without any charges being brought against him.

Despite numerous questions about wages and pensions, Putin did not make any sweeping statements, apart from saluting the country's elderly for stoically enduring economic hardship. The number of Russians who live in poverty reached 20.3mn in January-September, or 14.1% of the total population, according to official data. With the subsistence level, which serves as a poverty measure, set at a low RUB9673 ($140), this suggests that real poverty case numbers are higher still.

Putin said the pension age is likely to be increased for women from the current 55 to 60 years, but in six month increments, so that the process is gradual.

In the only question about his largely veiled personal life, Putin declined to confirm or deny press reports that one of his daughters, named as Yekaterina Tikhonova, had been put in charge of a major revamping project for Moscow State University. Putin said he would not comment on his daughters, apart from to say that both were educated, reside and work in Russia, where they determine their own lives.

"I’m proud of them, they continue studying and they work," the president said. "My daughters speak fluently three European languages" and "They do not just speak, they use them at work."