Wednesday 13 November 2019

Even with a roasting, there is still no melting the ice-cool Mr Putin

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses for pictures with call-centre employees after the live broadcast of the nationwide call-in in Moscow. Photo: Reuters
Russian president Vladimir Putin poses for pictures with call-centre employees after the live broadcast of the nationwide call-in in Moscow. Photo: Reuters

Adam Withnall in Moscow

NOBODY does a roasting quite like the Russians, and after four hours and a reported three million questions, Vladimir Putin's annual marathon TV inquisition is over for another year.

So what did we learn about the man the West loves to hate and Russians love to love?

Mr Putin fielded a number of questions relating to the Ukraine crisis and Russia's relationship with neighbouring countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan, nations which dance to the federation's tune.

Mr Putin said his only interest was ensuring that people of Russian origin living in these countries were treated well, and said that like the rest of the world he wants to improve integration with bordering states. Referencing relations between the US and Canada, Latin American states and the EU, he took issue with the fact that when Russia tries this, it gets accused of building an empire.

Asked about the issue of Russian nationals going to fight for the so-called Islamic State (Isil), the president insisted that there was no "direct threat" of them returning to attack Russia at this time.

He also took the opportunity to have a swing at Washington, saying that US foreign policy - in particular the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein - had led to a rise in extremism in Iraq where "there had been none before".

Things turned a bit silly when one caller said she and some other women wanted to buy one of their friends a pet dog for her 40th birthday, but that her strict former-military husband did not like the idea.

In a slightly sexist intervention that's unlikely to help anyone, Mr Putin appealed to the retired colonel: "Boris, please, let your wife get a dog. It's a good deed and will strengthen your family."

Asked about Russia's position in the world, one caller asked who exactly were the nation's allies. To this, Mr Putin said he agreed with a quotation from the 19th century Russian emperor Alexander III, who said: "Russia has just two allies, its army and its navy."

His shortest response to a question came following a rather fawning reference to his extraordinary personal popularity ratings, which top 80pc despite the country being in recession. Q: "Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! Have you ever thought about cloning yourself? There are no other officials who the nation trusts!"

Mr Putin: "No."

On the issue of the assassination of the prominent opposition leader just a few hundred yards from the Kremlin itself, Mr Putin described the incident as "tragic and shameful".

Mr Putin said he would intervene with the Moscow mayor over suggestions that flowers left in memory of Mr Nemtsov were being bagged up and removed by officials.

But he said that, despite the fact five Chechens have been arrested over the shooting, investigators may never know who masterminded the killing. When asked a second time about this point, Mr Putin declined to comment further.

Despite official estimates that the Russian economy will shrink by between 3pc and 5pc this year, Mr Putin remained upbeat on the nation's prospects. He admitted that he saw no immediate end to Western sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis, but pointed to the ruble's recovery as a sign of investor confidence and said Russia could be back growing again within two years.

"If we preserve a stable situation in domestic politics, preserve the current consolidation of society, we shouldn't fear any threats," he said.

He stood firm on his Ukraine position, insisting that Moscow is not directly arming and reinforcing the separatist rebels.

Despite Nato and rights groups reporting otherwise, Mr Putin said: "I will tell you openly and straightly. There are no Russian troops in Ukraine."

Ukraine officials claim Russia has deployed its special forces to destabilise the volatile region. An 11-page document contains images of soldiers in eastern Ukraine wearing similar uniforms and brandishing Russian weapons.

One of the only hiccups in the smoothly-run programme was when an emotional video message was aired, showing a woman whose home had been burned down in the recent Siberian wildfires crying and begging for help.

One question sent via a reporter in the field came from a hotel-owner in western Russia, whose business lies near the border with crisis-stricken eastern Ukraine. She said she and her family were "terrified" about violence spilling over into Russian territory - but an almost-smiling Mr Putin shrugged off her fears.

"There will be no war," he said, adding that the "few shells" that had fallen on Russian soil since the conflict began were nothing to worry about. (© Independent News Service)

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