Monday 17 June 2019

Putin eager for Brexit to go ahead with UK main investor in Russia

Making his point: Vladimir Putin conducts his annual press conference. Photo: Reuters
Making his point: Vladimir Putin conducts his annual press conference. Photo: Reuters

Alex Luhn

Vladimir Putin called for an end to the deadlock in UK-Russia relations during his massive annual press conference yesterday.

"In my mind, UK-Russian relations are at a dead end and it's in the interests of both sides to get out of this dead end," the Russian president said at a gathering known for pageantry and colourful quotes.

He added that the UK was Russia's top direct investor last year, putting £22bn (€24.34bn) into the country.

Although he had not discussed partnerships with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Putin said business communities in both countries were holding productive talks.

The president also advised the UK should go through with Brexit, saying "otherwise it wasn't really a referendum".

However, Mr Putin, whose approval ratings have fallen after a turbulent year, skirted the single question asked about Russia's role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

He termed the story propaganda and was not pressed to explain why he had called the suspects in the Salisbury poisoning "civilians", after documents and interviews with neighbours showed the pair to belong to military intelligence.

Asked about America's withdrawal from Syria, Mr Putin welcomed the announcement. "Let's not forget, the presence of your troops there is illegitimate," he said.

More than 1,700 journalists were accredited to attend what state television called the "main media event of the year". This number was a new record, as it is most years.

But Mr Putin prefers to focus on the economy and domestic issues at his press conferences, answering questions from far-flung regions that rarely gain national attention.

Each year the event has a whiff of medieval pageantry. Reporters try for a question in a last-ditch attempt to make Mr Putin aware of a local problem, not unlike when Russians would wait in line for a chance to appeal directly to the tsar.

The Kremlin this week asked journalists not to bring posters larger than A3 format so as not to obstruct the television cameras. This year, a journalist from one energy-producing region brought a vial of oil.

State television began a countdown to the press conference 24 hours in advance and covered even minor details about the preparations, such as the different chairs that were being considered for Mr Putin and his press secretary to sit on during the marathon event.

When asked about the Wagner Group (a Russian paramilitary organisation) mercenaries reported to be operating in Syria and their patron Yevgeny Prigozhin - known as "Putin's chef" for serving the president during state dinners - the Russian leader insisted he had nothing to do with them.

Mr Prigozhin has been sanctioned for interfering in the US election with his "troll factory" and was recently filmed taking part in a meeting between Russian military chiefs and Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar.

"All my chefs are in the federal guard service, they are from the military. I don't have any other chefs," he said.

As for Wagner, if "they're not violating Russian law, they have the right to sell their services anywhere on the planet".

Three journalists were killed while investigating the Russian mercenaries' presence in the Central African Republic in July. Mr Putin said they had entered the country under the guise of tourists and were assassinated by local groups.

Mr Putin said he had spoken with Mrs May on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina, and argued Russia's trade with Britain was increasing in spite of Brexit.

"As for the effects of Brexit, I think it's minimal, but it will influence the world economy and us indirectly," he said.

Mr Putin, whose troll factory put out pro-Brexit tweets on the day of the vote, said the UK should go through with Brexit, "otherwise it wasn't really a referendum".

"It's their affair, but in any case they're interested in markets, in partnerships," he said.

"I didn't talk about this with the prime minister, but we are talking about this with our friends and colleagues from Great Britain, especially in the business sphere." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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