Editor’s Note: Vladimir Putin gives an annual year-end press conference in Moscow. In a two-part series, Jay Nordlinger is discussing parts of the most recent conference, held on December 23, 2016. For Part I, go here.
The subject of Nemtsov came up — Boris Nemtsov, the liberal-democratic politician who was murdered in February 2015. The subject was raised by a man from Echo of Moscow, Alexei Solomin:
“If I may, I asked a question at last year’s news conference, and I would like to ask the same question again. It concerns the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Are you monitoring the investigation? Do you, as a lawyer, consider the related developments convincing?” Etc.
I did not know that Putin was a lawyer. I now see that he took his degree in law at Saint Petersburg State.
In reply, Putin said that there are a lot of unsolved murders — and here is one more. He hopes that the authorities will get to the bottom of it.
I think of O.J. Simpson, hunting for the “real killer.” Or did he say “killers”?
‐Putin addressed the subject of military expenditures:
“National defense is the biggest spending item in the budget. In 2011, we spent 2.7 percent of our GDP on defense. This year, and over the last five years, we have substantially increased defense spending. This year’s figure will come to 4.7 percent of GDP.”
That’s a lot. That’s serious-minded.
“Next year, the figure will be 3.3 percent, and in 2019, 2.8 percent. We will arrive at this level of 2.8 and maintain it there over the several years to follow.”
That, too, is a commitment — serious-minded.
‐Russia is stronger than any potential aggressor, Putin said, emphatically. “This is a very important point, and not an incidental one. What does it mean to be an aggressor? An aggressor is someone who can attack the Russian Federation. We are stronger than any potential aggressor.”
‐In 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. He took this action so that the United States could make progress on missile defense.
At his press conference, Putin was very interesting on this subject. He addressed it more than once. Here is an excerpt:
“The United States paved the way to a new arms race by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This is obvious. When one party unilaterally withdrew from the treaty and announced that it would be building a nuclear umbrella for itself, the other party either had to build the same umbrella — which seems unnecessary to us, considering the questionable effectiveness of this program — or had to develop efficient means of overcoming this missile-defense system and improving its missile-strike system, which we are doing successfully. We did not concoct this. We have to respond to this challenge.”
‐Are Russian missiles able to pierce a U.S. shield?
“Yes, we have made progress in improving our nuclear-triad systems, including the means to break through missile defense. This system is currently much more effective than missile defense, it is true. Perhaps this is what is prompting the United States to improve its own nuclear arsenal.”
‐Would you like an example of Putin’s humor? A humor that is not necessarily sunny?
Nathan Hodge, the Wall Street Journal’s man in Moscow, asked, “Is there a possibility of an early presidential election next year?” Putin replied, “What country are you talking about?”
The audience — the Kremlin press pool, I gather — applauded and laughed.
‐Would you like to know Putin’s view of Aleppo? This is not for the weak of stomach:
“The president of Turkey and the president and all leaders of Iran in general played a very large role in resolving the situation around Aleppo. This involved exchanges and unblocking several areas with a Shiite majority. Perhaps this will sound immodest, but this would have been simply impossible without our participation — without Russia’s participation.”
“This is the biggest — and I want to emphasize this for all to hear — the biggest international humanitarian action in the modern world. It could not have been carried out without the active efforts of the Turkish leadership, the Turkish president, the president of Iran and all other Iranian leaders, and without our active participation. Needless to say, this would not have been achieved without the goodwill and efforts of Mr. Assad, the president of the Syrian Arab Republic, and his staff.”
Putin left many things unnoted: such as the bombing of a U.N. aid convoy, which killed 20 or 30 people.
‐And here is where Putin wins me, or at least makes a play for me. Who does he think he is, Jack Kemp? Should he be made a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute?
Asked about taxes and fees, Putin said,
“Let us begin with the 13 percent personal-income tax. Of course, you are aware that when we introduced the flat rate of 13 percent in 2001, there were lots of doubts. I, too, had many doubts. I was concerned that the budget would lose revenue, because those who earn more would pay less, and whether there would be social justice and so on.”
“The outcome of introducing a flat 13 percent personal-income tax was that personal-income tax collection has increased by a factor of seven. Those funds go to the treasury and are then distributed to address social issues. This is what social justice is all about.”
I don’t know how Arthur Laffer would put it differently.
‐And here, Putin talks like the most dedicated Brexiteer:
“Today, the number of binding decisions on EU member countries — decisions passed by the European Parliament — is more than the number of decisions passed by the USSR Supreme Soviet that were mandatory for the Soviet republics. This is a fairly high degree of centralization. Whether or not it benefits Europe, I do not know — it is for them to decide, not us.”
‐At a Russian presidential press conference, why shouldn’t the subject of chess come up?
“We should take pride in the Russian school of chess,” said Putin. “We are proud of our chess players and our chess school. You know, we have established a special chess section at the Sirius center for gifted children in Sochi, where chess classes are organized at the proper level. Naturally, this is not enough. We must promote chess throughout the country.”
‐A German journalist with RT said this to Putin: “Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s grandson, who was fighting for Stalin’s rehabilitation, died yesterday. In an interview, film director Kirill Serebrennikov said that he fears Stalin’s rehabilitation. What is your view on this issue? Is it possible for Josef Stalin’s descendants to somehow get him rehabilitated?”
Putin ignored the question. But it got me to thinking about Yevgeny D. — whom I touch on in my book Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. On Thursday, I wrote a brief article on Yevgeny Dzhugashvili. To read it, go here.
‐I will tell you something about U.S. politics: Everyone — every candidate, every officeholder — prepares for the question, “What is your worst mistake?” (and related questions). It is absolutely standard. A politician does not want to be caught flat-footed.
I was rather amazed to see that the question came up in Putin’s press conference. “Mr. President, what do you consider your worst mistake of this year, and what would you say is your worst mistake of all your presidential terms? Thank you.”
Putin: “You know, I have been repeatedly asked similar questions, and even exactly the same question, by your colleagues.”
“Every person makes mistakes. No person can live or work without making mistakes. I am not going to repeat what has already been said many times, but I will try to learn from all my mistakes and flaws so as to make fewer mistakes in the future and to work more efficiently, with others and personally.”
‐As I said in a blogpost, there was once a famous book, Listening to Prozac. We have been listening to Putin. I recall Jeane Kirkpatrick from the mid-’80s. Gorbachev had written a book (or had one published under his name). Everyone had read about it; no one had read it.
I can picture Kirkpatrick standing at a podium and holding up the book: “I have read it, and it is very interesting.”
You can learn from what people have to say. Deeds are more important, of course. But it pays to cock an ear to a person — maybe especially a Putin.
Thank you for joining me.