Would US President Barack Obama save his Russian counterpart if he discovered him drowning? Students of US-Russian affairs, poring over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s four-hour live-televised question-and-answer session for insights into the state of bilateral relations, may have found Putin’s response mildly reassuring.
“I can’t say that I have a special personal relationship with the US president, but I think he’s a brave and decent man; he would do it,” Putin replied to the question posed by a six-year-old girl.
It was one of many peculiar moments in this annual broadcasting marathon, as Putin fielded dozens of generally uncritical questions from citizens across Russia. He told viewers about the need to get his ex-wife remarried before he can think about getting himself a new wife, about his favorite film (Chapaev, a 1934 Red Army biopic), his favorite vodka, where he would most like to live if he had the choice (St Petersburg), and his views on annexing Alaska, sold to the US in the 19th century (not worth the bother because it’s too cold).
The session was dominated by Ukraine. Several of the gentle, carefully stage-managed interventions from the public, which came from studio audiences across Russia or were e-mailed in, were clumsily prefaced with words of gratitude for the recent annexation of Crimea. A crowd in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, filmed by videolink, simply chanted “Thank you! Thank you,” making the questions almost inaudible.
Putin used the occasion to set out a complex message on Ukraine that mixed aggressive cold war rhetoric with a few cursory declarations of his readiness for conciliation and compromise. He reminded millions of viewers that the east of Ukraine had once been part of Russia, referring to the region by its czarist name “Novorossiya” or “New Russia,” and hinting that it had been a mistake to let it go.
“Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times — they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows,” he said.
He said that Russia needed to protect the rights of ethnic Russians there: “We must do everything to help these people defend their rights and independently determine their own destiny.”
He warned that Russia’s upper house of parliament had granted him the right to intervene militarily, adding: “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right.”
He denied repeatedly that Russia had sent troops into eastern Ukraine over the past few days.
“It’s all nonsense: There are no special units, special forces or instructors there,” he said.
However, he admitted that Russian units had been involved in wresting Crimea from Kiev’s control last month, something Moscow had denied at the time.
“Our servicemen stood behind Crimea’s self-defense forces,” Putin said. “They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally. There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion.”
The only moment he lost his composure was when US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was granted asylum by Russia last year, appeared by videolink to ask (in English) whether Russia had implemented a mass surveillance program of the sort he exposed in the US.
There was no simultaneous translation; Putin said he was unable to understand American English and waited awkwardly for an explanation.
He eventually responded: “Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for an intelligence service; we are going to talk the same language.”
He said Russia did not have a comparable program.
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