Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual “meet the people” press conference on December 17 that was largely aimed at the gallery as an annus horribilis comes to an end.
After very briefly giving his traditional macroeconomic wrap, with which he starts every year’s speech, the conversation rapidly moved on to the coronacrisis and stayed there for well over the first hour.
Putin had some good news to report on the macroeconomic situation as Russia’s economy has only contacted by 3.6%, according to the official estimates, and Putin rightly pointed out that this one of the best results amongst the Developed Markets (DMs).
Many factors have gone into this surprising result but it's not actually a number that Russia should be too proud of; as the Russian economy remains underdeveloped services play a smaller role in wealth creation, which have been particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, so the impact on the Russian economy has been less than in more advanced economies.
Putin was able to crow about government efforts in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19) too. Despite the scepticism that surrounds the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and the question marks raised over both the veracity of the trial results and Russia’s official numbers on the spread of the virus, the bottom line is Russia has produced a vaccine very quickly that seems to work.
And the mass inoculations were rolled out on December 7 – the first country in the world to start a mass immunisation programme – that should start to pay dividends with falling infection and mortality rates in February.
“Russia is among the world's top three nations in terms of COVID-19 testing, and, importantly, at the forefront of the production of a coronavirus vaccine. A massive vaccination programme is due to start ahead on schedule, from 1 January,” Putin said.
"Russia is the first country in the world, which has invented, we could say, and started to produce the vaccine of both the Gamaleya scientific institute and the Novosibirsk-based Vector centre. And we have a good vaccine [that is] both safe and effective – over 95% and higher – and specialists say its level of protection reaches 96-97%,” Putin added.
Nevertheless, the purpose of these press conferences is to facilitate direct contact between the Russian people and the president to give the impression they have a channel to communicate with the president directly. This is a continuation of an ancient tradition where Russians used to write to the Tsars with their complaints and the Tsars went out of their way to publically address some of these problems for the PR benefits such largesse brings.
As the years have passed the nature of the press conference has changed and the domestic focus has grown in importance, while the international aspects have faded steadily.
This correspondent attended these pressers in the noughties and the international press corps used to be out in force, with the Kremlin making sure that issue of the day questions, posed by the international correspondents from the world’s most famous publications, were included in the itinerary.
These days, international affairs issues are still covered, but the international press corps is no longer a presence in the audience in the way it used to be.
That is a reflection of Russia’s changing relationship with the West. In the noughties Russia was still attempting to thrash out a working relationship with the West and seeking foreign investment. But things started to change in 2007 when Putin gave his now famous Munich security conference speech, warning the West not to ignore Russia’s national interests. As the West did exactly that, Putin started his modernisation of the army effort in 2012 that sacrificed Russia’s prosperity as every spare kopek was poured into military procurement. The economy began to stagnate as growth fell to zero in 2013 and real income growth has been flat ever since.
The agenda has changed. Today the largest part of the military’s modernisation has been completed and the Kremlin appears comfortable with its ability to at least prevent the US from even attempting to threaten Russia militarily.
The attention has now turned back to repairing the damage to prosperity that Putin did with this campaign and that has led to the 12 national projects that were launched in 2018. These press conferences are a showcase for all the programmes included in these programmes; hence the increasingly inward looking nature of the press conferences.
The Russian state-owned press agency listed some of the main points he made during his marathon press conference, including the following:
On if Russia is “white and fluffy”
The international press corps is still invited to the presser and the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg asked Putin if Russia does not bare some of the responsibility for some of the bad relations that plague Russia’s foreign relations these days, or if it is actually “white and fluffy,” using a common Russian idiom that means “honest and innocent.”
"Now, about us being white and fluffy. Compared to you, yes, it is a fact, we are white and fluffy because we agreed to release from an unequivocal Soviet dictate those countries and nations that wanted to develop independently. We heard your assurances that NATO won’t expand to the East but you didn’t keep your promises," the Russian leader responded.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, the historical record now shows clearly that at least half a dozen senior European diplomats and heads of state promised Gorbachev there would be no NATO expansion eastwards as proven by documents released in 2018.
The president noted that those were not written guarantees but verbal promises, yet emphasised that none of them were kept as a result.
Putin then continued to compare Russian policy with the actions of the Western countries over past decades. "Did we withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [which the US unilaterally withdrew from in 2002, one of the major Cold War security arrangements]? It wasn’t us who did that. And we are forced to respond by creating new weapon systems that curb threats. Then our colleagues withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [another Cold War missile treaty that US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018]. Was it us who withdrew? No, that was our American partners. Accordingly, we said that we won’t produce and deploy such weapon systems as long as American weapons don’t arrive in Europe. Yet nobody responds to this, nobody reacts. Then they withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty [ditto that allowed both sides to fly over the other’s territory to assure against military build up fears]. What are we supposed to do then? I don’t want to ask you this question but what are we supposed to do after this? Just let it be? So you, as a NATO country, will fly over us and report everything to the American partners and we will be deprived of this opportunity regarding American territory," he said, addressing Rosenberg.
"Why do you think that we are idiots? Why do you think that we cannot see some obvious things? There are some other issues that cause our concern. We are forced to react to them," the Russian leader added.
On the Navalny case
Putin said that Alexei Navalny, who is currently undergoing medical treatment in Germany, has the support of US intelligence agencies but it’s not a reason to poison him.
"The patient at a Berlin hospital has the support of US intelligence agencies in this case. If so, it’s a curious fact and intelligence agencies should keep an eye on him. But it’s not a reason to poison him, why would anyone do that?"
“As if we don’t know that [the US special services] trace locations? Our security services know this of course... Our security services keep on eye on him, but that doesn’t mean we have to poison him.”
“We did not poison him, who needs him? If someone wanted to poison him, they probably would have finished the job.”
On Russia-US relations under Biden
Putin hopes that at least some problems in Russian-US relations will be solved under Joe Biden’s administration.
"We presume that the newly elected US president will understand what is going on – he is a person who has experience in both domestic and foreign policy. We expect that all problems, which emerged, or at least some of them, will be ironed out under the new administration," Putin said.
Putin added that the key to US foreign policy will be the team that Biden appoints to deal with Russia. Analysts speculate that the Russian team will have a tougher stance on Russia than the Trump administration.
On amendments to the Russian Constitution
Putin said the amendments to the Russian Constitution were adopted at the right time, when the situation became ripe.
"Everything is good in due time. The fight against price hikes should be conducted in due time. The same goes for amendments to the basic law. It was impossible to do a lot of things earlier," Putin said.
According to the president, some things were impossible to do before, including cementing social guarantees in the Constitution. This includes adjusting pensions for inflation and equalling the minimum wage to the minimum subsistence level, he said.
Putin added that the fundamentals of the Constitution remained unchanged.
He also said there would be more parties participating in the September 2021 Duma elections and that up to 16 new parties would be accredited.
“Up to 16 parties can take part in the election campaign next year. They have very different points of view, but at the same time practically each of them acts from a patriotic position. All have one goal: the well-being and development of the country.”
“Our political life is changing and it is up to the people to choose who they want to represent them,” Putin said commentating on the new parties.
“Was it worth it or not to amend the Constitution? I have a universal rule. You need to ask yourself: Will this be for the good of the country? If it is, then it's worth doing. I have not yet decided if I will run again in 2024. To do it or not to do it, I will see. Stable development of the country is my priority.”
He also pointed out that following the constitution changes that the Duma will have more power than before.
On Russia's GDP contraction
GDP contraction in Russia equals 3.6%, which is less than in all leading European countries and the US, Putin said.
"GDP contraction is 3.6% as of now," he said, adding that it is less than in almost all leading EU countries, where GDP contraction was up to 9% in a number of states. Moreover, the Russian economy is faring better than the US economy, the president noted.
Russia’s industrial production had "slipped" by 3% by now mainly due to the oil price, he added. "Due to the OPEC+ deal, we have cut production, which affected [Russia’s] total results," Putin explained.
On Nord Stream 2 project
The project for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is economically profitable for Europe and, in particular, for Germany, Putin said.
Putin also expects that the new US administration, led by President-elect Joe Biden, will respect the interests of Europe.
The Russian president expressed confidence that construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will be completed.
"There are around 165 km left," he said. ‘That's it, it is almost completed. I think we will finish the work," Putin said
On the arms race
The arms race began with the United States’ pullout from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, according to Putin.
"It has already begun. This is obvious. Everything began after the US pullout from the ABM treaty," Putin said.
On election interference
Putin trolled America, saying that ten of the American states don't allow election observers by law. “That doesn't happen here in Russia. We are more transparent than them. I have never interfered in the election of the great nation called America.”
“Russian hackers never meddled in US elections, these are wild guesses meant to disrupt bilateral relations,” Putin added.