What To Watch For When Putin Meets The Press

File Photo of Vladimir Putin at Podium with United Russia Logo, Gesturing

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Robert Coalson – Dec. 22, 2021 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/31621269.html)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s end-of-the-year press conference, on December 23, comes at a time of intense tensions between Moscow and the West, with Russia massing forces near its border with Ukraine and calling for “security guarantees” that would block NATO enlargement and drastically restrict the alliance’s activity across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, rolling back the results of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse 30 years ago this month.

At the same time, the authorities in Russia are engaged in a major crackdown against independent media, civil-society groups, and political opponents that has seen dozens of organizations and individuals tarred as “foreign agents” and sharply restricted. Many people have faced imprisonment and other punishments, and several have left the country to avoid potential prosecution on political grounds.

Putin has held the press conference — one of three lavish and carefully orchestrated public events held most years, including his state-of-the-nation address to parliament and his Direct Line call-in question-and-answer program — every year that he has been president since 2001. Since 2004, each press conference has been at least three hours long, with the longest coming in last year at 4 1/2 hours.

Although the reporters present were invited by the Kremlin and the exchanges with the president will be closely controlled, some topics will be difficult for Putin to avoid altogether — and some he may be eager talk about. Here are five key topics he seems likely to address.

Ukraine And European Security

In recent weeks, the United States, NATO, and Kyiv have raised the alarm over some 100,000 Russian troops deployed near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea, with U.S. officials saying Moscow is planning for a possible military offensive that, if it happens, could come within weeks.

Putin has said he does not want a war but has been adamant that if new fighting breaks out at or near the site of the existing conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, it will be the fault of Kyiv and the West. He has made baseless claims about U.S. and Ukrainian deployments to support that argument.

The military buildup has become the backdrop for Putin’s push for the United States and NATO to give Russia sweeping “security guarantees” that would drastically alter the post-Cold War order, barring NATO from expanding further to the east and leaving Ukraine and several other countries as buffer states with limited sovereignty when it comes to military affairs.

At a defense forum on December 21, Putin blamed the West for all the current tensions in Europe, asserting that “at every step, Russia was forced to respond somehow,” and adding, “Today we are at the point where we are forced to somehow resolve things.”

At his press conference, Putin could repeat or expand on his litany of complaints against NATO and the United States. He has a long record of blaming the erosion of international security exclusively on the West and portraying Russia has an aggrieved victim.

He could comment further on the proposals that Russia issued publicly, in the form of draft treaties, on December 17. Several of the Kremlin’s proposals were immediately dismissed by Washington and NATO as “unacceptable,” particularly efforts to give Moscow a veto on NATO expansion and to negotiate European security directly with the United States without the participation of European allies and partners.

But U.S. officials have said that some are worth discussing and that talks are likely to take place in January, so Putin could use his press conference to preview Russia’s negotiating posture, issue new warnings, or make other remarks about the matter.

At the same time, he could lament the collapse of key nuclear-weapons agreements in recent years and express support for invigorated arms talks with Washington. Or he could focus on boasting about Russia’s latest high-tech weaponry. Or he could do both.

The Clampdown

Domestically, the Russian authorities have been conducting a crackdown on independent media, civil-society organizations, and political opponents that is unprecedented in post-Soviet times. Organizations tied to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny have been banned and many of his key supporters have been prosecuted or pressured to flee the country. Navalny himself has been imprisoned in the wake of a near-fatal 2020 nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on security agents acting at Putin’s behest.

International and domestic critics have accused Putin’s government of abusing vaguely worded and haphazardly enforced “anti-extremism” laws to stifle dissent and persecute political opponents.

Dozens of individuals and organizations have been added to Russia’s various so-called “foreign agents” lists and either shut down or burdened with restrictions. Currently, the prestigious Memorial International rights group and the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow are fighting closure in the courts.

Although the crackdown is arguably the most important domestic Russian story of 2021, it cannot be ruled out that Putin will avoid speaking about it at all. If he does comment on it, it is all but a sure bet he won’t mention Navalny by name.

Elections Past, Election Future

In September, Russia held elections to the State Duma, its lower house of parliament. After the opposition was thoroughly squelched and the rules substantially revised, the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party emerged from the campaign with 325 seats in the 450-seat chamber, giving it a so-called constitutional supermajority.

Putin might use the occasion of the press conference to praise his much-criticized Central Election Commission chairwoman, Ella Pamfilova. Russia-watchers will be listening carefully to see if Putin tips his hand about what the ruling party’s constitutional supermajority might be used for as his current term moves toward its conclusion in 2024.

In the spring of 2020, the Kremlin pushed through a raft of hundreds of constitutional amendments, including one that allows Putin, who will turn 70 next October, to seek two more presidential terms and possibly remain in the Kremlin until 2036.

In November, Putin repeated that he hadn’t decided whether he’d run again in 2024, but added that “the very existence of this right [to run] is already stabilizing the domestic political situation.” He also offered rare praise for U.S. President Joe Biden for confirming that he intends to seek reelection in 2024, when he will be nearly 84.

In Russia and abroad, audiences will be watching closely to see if Putin sheds any more light on his intentions.

The Politics Of COVID

Like the rest of the world, Russia has spent the last two years battling the coronavirus. In recent weeks, COVID-19 fatalities in the country have been running at over 1,000 per day, according to official statistics that have been criticized as understating the situation.

Also like the rest of the world, Russia has developed a fairly strong movement against vaccine mandates and other pandemic-induced restrictions. On December 17, the Duma passed in the first reading a hotly contested bill that would allow local authorities to require QR codes proving vaccination status to be presented in public places. The bill stops short of introducing a national mandate, and the Duma dropped a QR-code requirement for passengers on public transport.

Local initiatives to require proof of vaccination status on public transport and elsewhere have met with strong, sometimes violent resistance in regions around the country. A QR-code requirement in Moscow in June and July was quietly scrapped after just three weeks, purportedly because vaccination rates were climbing.

Some analysts have speculated that the Kremlin is spooked by the resistance and wary of activating a new round of mass protests.

During his press conference last year, Putin praised government officials at all levels for their handling of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if he is asked a question about this issue this year and, if so, to hear how he responds.

How Much Is That Sausage In The Window?

Putin’s press conferences traditionally feature a lot of questions about the economy. They give the president a chance to impress audiences by rattling off strings of numbers that are difficult to verify, and to take local officials to task for problems that are affecting the budgets of families nationwide. He can also be expected to field questions on quality-of-life issues like rising prices, wage arrears, and problems with health care or schools.

The questions might have a particular urgency this year. The government reported inflation at 8.4 percent in November, the highest figure in nearly six years. A leading driver of inflation has been price rises for foodstuffs, particularly fruit and vegetables. The state statistics agency, Rosstat, has said living standards in Russia now are on average 10 percent lower than they were in 2013.

Government officials sometimes try to pin some of the blame for such economic woes on Western sanctions imposed in connection with such events as Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 or U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Fact-checkers are quick to counter that Western sanctions against Russia have been targeted against individuals and companies, while so-called “countersanctions” imposed by Moscow have blocked the importation of broad categories of Western consumer goods.

Putin also often uses this event to preview new social programs and subsidies. This year, though, with no election in the near future, there may be less of this. However, he might use the event to refine the social agenda for the new Duma and the government.


 

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