Beyond Moscow

Putin Speaks Out

Mala Jay

Unlike other world leaders, Vladimir Putin of Russia seldom gets the media coverage in India that European leaders like Macron, Merkel and May or American presidents like Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton have always got. Even Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been attracting much more news attention of late than earlier.

It is not as if Indians are disinterested in Russia, its leader and its role. To quote India's Prime Minister: "Even a child in India, if asked to say who's India's best friend, will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis".

The feeling is mutual. According to a BBC World Service Poll, 45 percent of Russians view India very positively, with only 9 percent expressing a negative view. Similarly, a 2017 opinion poll by Moscow-based private think tank said that Russians identified India as one of their top five "friends" (the others being Belarus, China, Kazakhstan and Syria).

Apart from which official bonding between Moscow and New Delhi have for long been based on strong economic, diplomatic, strategic, military and cultural ties, which continued as a "special relationship" even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Why then did Vladimir Putin's five hour long annual recent press conference in Moscow go largely under-reported in the Indian media? Could it have been because the topics covered were not India-specific?

Not really, because when Prime Minister Theresa May of UK faces a no-confidence motion on her country's convoluted and questionable exit from the European Union, every twist and turn is front page news in India. Each time Donald Trump tweets about his domestic political opponents or talks about building a wall on the border with Mexico, video clips appear on Indian television.

What is happening on the world stage is not irrelevant to India and the position global leaders take on burning issues will sooner or later have an impact on India, directly or indirectly.

Having said that, here is a summary of some of what the Russian president said during his 14th annual interaction with the press. Incidentally, the marathon question-and-answer session was attended by a record number of journalists from Russia and also a large foreign media contingent.

A question was asked that people in the West see Russia as a threat—does Putin want to rule the world?

Putin: The people who wish to rule the world are based in Washington, not in Moscow. The notion that Moscow wants world domination is a ploy used to foster unity in the West. Russia's foreign policy is aimed at defending the interests of the Russian people.

A question about hip-hop dancing in Russia, which is currently a domestic political issue after several concerts were banned by local authorities.

Putin said bans make no practical sense and only make things worse. Banning parts of culture was stupid. He said he personally believed art was supposed to give people an incentive to become better. He opposes things like advocating drug abuse or using profanities, which some performers do, but says offering a better alternative is the way to do it.

Putin says he has a lot of respect for young people. There were war heroes as young as 19. There are young volunteers, scientists. So why would anyone not respect a young hip-hop performer just for being young?

A question about Putin's contacts with British PM Theresa May and the effect that Brexit may have on Russia. Putin said he and May said a few words during the G20 summit in Argentina. Brexit will have little direct impact on Russia, but its effect on Europe will have an effect on Russia.

He added: Relations between Moscow and London are at a dead end. But British companies do want to do business in Russia. And there is huge potential for investment and trade.

Putin offered his sympathy to May and her Brexit debacle. "There was a referendum, what she can do but implement the decision taken?" He added he should not talk about it not to be accused of interfering in Britain's domestic affairs.

A question about US sanctions against Russia—Is Russia prepared for more sanctions and how did those already in place affect the country?

Putin says Russia has been living under some sort of foreign sanctions all its history. Sanctions are part of international competition. When Russia becomes stronger, it faces more sanctions. The Russian economy has adapted to sanctions. Sanctions hurt those who impose them too.

A journalist says there is mistrust among Russian people towards the country's government and the president and blames low-level officials for misrepresenting government policies. Then asks about making smaller the gap between the incomes of Russia's wealthiest and poorest people.

Putin says a failure of the government on any level is a collective failure of the government. As for officials, who say and do stupid things, people have faults and some simply are not doing the job where they can thrive, Putin believes. The situation will improve in time.

Wealth inequality does exist in Russia as in other nations. Trump's victory is to some degree attributed to his addressing this problem during the campaign.

A journalist attracted Putin's attention with a placard saying "KGB and children". The question is about social justice and nostalgia about USSR. "Can socialism be restored in Russia?" Putin doesn't believe so. The Russian society has changed too much to turn back into what it was during Soviet Union.

But the goal of making wealth distribution more just, supporting people struggling with poverty, providing national healthcare and education—those elements of socialism are part of Russia's policies.

Going back to pensions, Putin defends the necessity to change how the pension system works in Russia. If it were not done now, Russia will still have to rise the retirement age several years later, because it is dictated by the demographic situation in the country.
A question about nuclear war—that some media are now printing stories about how a nuclear war between Russia and the US may happen.

Putin says the threat of nuclear war is indeed seen less serious by people living today than during the Cold War. But it did not become less acute in reality. The US forced Russia to develop new nuclear weapon systems by withdrawing from a treaty that banned national anti-ballistic missile technologies. Russia now has advantage, but it was its response to a change in balance. Now the US is withdrawing from the INF, and Russia will respond. "They should not squeak later", Putin said. "We know how to ensure our safety." But the situation is certainly lamentable because it raises the stake for the entire humanity.

Putin also warned against developing tactical nuclear warheads and conventional long-range ballistic missiles—both are dangerous because they increase the threat of an incidental nuclear war.

Correspondent from Chicago Tribune asks about Trump's announcement of withdrawal of troops from Syria and his claim about defeating ISIS. "Are you concerned the troops will stay in some form, probably as contractors?"

Putin: Trump is right that ISIS suffered a major setback, but there is still danger that the surviving fighters would manage to travel elsewhere. As for the withdrawal—the US has been 'withdrawing troops' from Afghanistan many times, and they are still there. Russia has not noticed any practical steps for withdrawal. The Syrian conflict is moving towards a political resolution and Russia is doing everything it can to hasten the process, using its influence on Damascus. But the UN is now suddenly stalling the work on writing a new Syrian constitution. American troops should not be in Syria and have been there illegally. If the decision to withdraw them was taken, that's the right decision.

Russian and American military specialists have managed to overcome the differences between the two countries and work together on anti-terrorism efforts. That's a success, Putin said.

Putin responds to criticism from the Communist Party, which wanted to preserve the retirement age, saying their populist experiments resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and that if they were given a free hand, Russia would be much smaller today.

A news website asks about reports of torture in Russian prisons, which sparked outrage in the country this year, and a high-profile case of a mass murderer, who enjoyed a comfortable life in his jail cell.

Putin says any crime happening in a prison is unacceptable and should be punished. The media have played their role by exposing the cases mentioned by the journalists. Accountability to the public is essential for the penitentiary system, he said.

Putin is asked about the veracity of data used to monitor the economic situation in the country and whether it is manipulated to make things appear better than they actually are. The president says it's a legitimate concern, because officials often fail to explain where they take their figures from and what they mean. The statistic itself may be faulty too. But explaining how it correlates with personal experiences of individuals is very important.

A question about Russia's effort to reduce the role of the dollar in its economy and the global economy. Putin says the US currency has a greater role in Russia than globally, because oil and gas is traded in it. Moscow is reducing its dollar-nominated reserves.

The so-called dedollarisation in Russia only affects how organisations interact with each other and will not affect the right of the people to own and trade dollars.

Ruble's role is slowly increasing in Russia's trade with its neighbours. The desire to turn away from the dollar is partially motivated by US record of imposing financial restrictions on other nations. But the Russian currency will require to be less volatile and needs backing of a stronger financial infrastructure to make a significant gain as an international currency.

The question comes about the Big Game—Russia's historic confrontation with the British Empire in Central Asia—and whether the rules of the game have changed since. Putin again mentions Russia's cooperation with the US over Syria as an example of how Moscow and its Western opponents may find common ground despite all differences.

Trump's 'make America great again' goal would benefit from more trade with Russia, Putin noted. But it's doubtful that with the current domestic situation in the US he would be allowed to take a radically new approach towards Russia.

There are problems in the West now, as indicated by both the targeting of Trump by people, who disagree with his election and the situation with Brexit, which some people say should be cancelled despite the results of the popular vote for it, Putin added.

A question about agriculture and the slowdown in its growth. Putin acknowledges there is a slowdown, but it's not a reason for concern at the moment. He disagrees that Russian farmers are too shielded from competition, saying the ban on food imports was imposed only on the nations, which put sanctions against Russia.

A question about France's fuel tax protests and the situation with fuel prices in Russia.

People have the right to protest, but it should stay within the law, says Putin. The French events may have a connection with fuel prices, but those were only a trigger for an outpour of long-accumulated public anger. Taking a stance on the French response would not be correct.

The comparison of fuel price situation between France and Russia shows they are different. The French government took a decision to increase fuel taxes to fund a switch to renewable energy. Russia's growth of fuel price was natural, and the Russian government acted to counter this process to a certain degree. And its only temporary—in March the deal between the government and oil firms expires, so the future will depend on the market situation.


Vol. 51, No.35, Mar 3 - 9, 2019