National Security & Defense

Listening to Putin, Part I

Putin at his year-end press conference in Moscow, December 23, 2016 (Reuters photo: Sergei Karpukhin)
What the Russian president told the press

In Moscow, Vladimir Putin gives an annual year-end press conference. This year’s session made some news in America. For example, Putin said that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats ought to learn how to lose an election with dignity. Donald Trump tweeted his agreement. “So true!” he said.

Putin himself does not need to learn how to lose an election with dignity because he never faces genuinely competitive elections. Also, he has been known to bump off his political opponents — which Boris Nemtsov could tell you if he were alive.

He always warned that Putin would kill him. He was murdered in February 2015.

The Kremlin has published a transcript of the December 2016 press conference, and it makes for interesting reading: here. Is it a faithful transcription? Also, is it a faithful translation into English? Is Putin made to look more articulate, more informed, than he was? And did he know of the questions in advance?

None of these things can I tell you. I can tell you this: Judging from the transcript, Putin is very articulate, very informed — commanding. He is also humorous. Deft. A very good performer in these settings.

How about the press corps? It is a mixed bag. Some of the reporters, or questioners, are openly sycophantic. Sample: “Let me start by thanking you on behalf of our readers for all you are doing to strengthen our defense capability and for the fight you are leading to restore and bolster our country’s sovereignty.”

Some questioners want to know such things as, “What would you have us call the new bridge in Crimea, Mr. President? What name do you prefer?” Some of them want to tell the leader that they fear that his subordinates are not carrying out his orders.

I am reminded of an old line, an old lament — an old expression of wishful thinking: “If only the Czar knew.”

Some of the questioners try to be more Catholic than the Pope — more anti-Western, for example, than Putin. One man said,

“Is it possible to open environmental departments at the embassies of the Russian Federation so that they could articulate Russian domestic policy for external consumption? I believe that the West is no longer concerned about the environment and engages in anything from manipulation to wars and revolutions around the world. … By contrast, Russia is taking the environment to the forefront.”

Putin had to tell the dear fellow that he did not think the West was so bad. He stuck up for Western efforts on the environment.

Then there are what you might call normal questions, good questions — neither hostile nor fawning nor weird: just ordinary and good questions. Here is one from a Polish journalist:

“Recently, it has been said that Poland is moving away from the European Union. There are similar trends in other European countries. From your perspective, is a weak Europe more convenient, more beneficial for Russia? Is Russia using all these disagreements, conflicts, and problems within the European Union to its own advantage, or is that not the case?”

Finally, there are pointed and tough questions, as from a Ukrainian reporter who said, among other things, “Do you understand that, if you retire someday, Ukrainians will still view Russians as occupiers?”

Putin’s press conference had a highly ceremonial nature. For example, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, would announce a veteran questioner as “one of the most esteemed members of the Kremlin press pool.”

Questioners are aware of how few chances they get. They will say, for example, “I asked you this question last year, Mr. President. I would like to ask it to you again.” Or, “I asked you a question at this conference in 2014, Mr. President. Are you able to give an answer?”

From Putin’s words, you can learn. It pays to listen to him. I would like to highlight some moments in this marathon — almost four-hour — session.

‐One questioner was Yevgeny Primakov. No, not the famed spymaster, and foreign minister, and prime minister. He is deceased. A man with the same name. Whether there is a family relation, I don’t know.

Primakov told Putin this: “At his farewell news conference, Barack Obama, who is still your colleague, said that 37 percent of Republicans sympathize with you, and that, hearing this, Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”

Forget that Obama’s last press conference would come later. Putin gave an answer to warm any populist’s heart:

“It seems to me there is a gap between the elite’s vision of what is good and bad and that of what in earlier times we would have called the broad popular masses.”

He continued in a self-effacing mode:

“I do not take support for the Russian president among a large part of Republican voters as support for me personally, but rather see it in this case as an indication that a substantial part of the American people share similar views with us on the world’s organization, what we ought to be doing, and the common threats and challenges we are facing.”

Here’s more:

“It is good that there are people who sympathize with our views on traditional values, because this forms a good foundation on which to build relations between two such powerful countries as Russia and the United States.”

One thought occurs to me (among many): Jailing your political opponents, to say nothing of killing them, is not a traditional American value.

More from Putin:

“I’m not so sure who might be turning in his grave right now. It seems to me that Reagan would be happy to see his party’s people winning everywhere, and would welcome the victory of the newly elected president, so adept at catching the public mood, and who took precisely this direction and pressed onward to the very end, even when no one except us believed he could win.”

At this point, there was applause. Were Putin and his men the only ones who believed in Trump’s victory? That is an interesting proposition.

Again, Putin:

“The outstanding Democrats in American history would probably be turning in their graves, though. Roosevelt certainly would be, because he was an exceptional statesman in American and world history, who knew how to unite the nation even during the Great Depression’s bleakest years, in the late 1930s, and during World War II.”

Here comes a rap on Obama:

“Today’s administration, however, is very clearly dividing the nation.”

Perhaps the Russian president could get a gig as a commentator on American television?

‐He also addressed the issue of hacking — the hacking that occurred during the U.S. presidential election. He made several statements that are consonant with Republican talking points. These will seem very familiar to you.

“Some hackers breached e-mail accounts of the U.S. Democratic-party leadership,” Putin said. “Some hackers did that. But, as the president-elect rightly noted, does anyone know who those hackers were? Maybe they came from another country, not Russia. Maybe somebody just did it from his couch or bed.”

You recall what Trump said during a debate with Hillary Clinton. “Russia, Russia, Russia,” he complained. Everyone was fingering Russia as the source of the hacking. “Maybe it was. It could also be China. It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

Putin did not specify weight. He continued,

“I think the most important thing is the information that the hackers revealed to the public. Did they manipulate the data? No, they did not. What is the best proof that the hackers uncovered truthful information? The proof is that after the hackers demonstrated how public opinion had been manipulated within the Democratic party, against one candidate rather than the other — against Candidate Sanders — the Democratic National Committee chairperson resigned. This means she admitted that the hackers revealed the truth.”

How does he know this? How does he know about Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the banalities of American politics? Doesn’t he have a big country to run? Political opponents to jail, torture, or kill? Territory to annex? Countries to invade?

Amazing.

‐The press secretary, Peskov, said, “Perhaps we could take a question from the TV channel RT, which the West accuses of every mortal sin.”

And here comes the RT guy, Ilya Petrenko:

“I would like to ask about democracy in the context of the recent election in the United States.” Heh. “American politicians, perhaps more than any others, love to talk about democracy. They say democracy is what makes the American people exceptional. Sometimes they say that some countries lack democracy, and they then have to share their democracy with these countries.

“But after this election, these same people who had proudly borne the banner of ‘American democracy’ suddenly started saying that they had been betrayed …

“What is happening? What has gone wrong with democracy? In general, is democracy a good thing?”

Putin said that “there are problems” with democracy. “This is something we have long been saying, but our American partners always dismissed it.” Huh. “The problem lies above all in the United States’ archaic electoral system,” continued Putin.

“You would have to ask the American lawmakers why the system is as it is. Perhaps it was done deliberately so as to let people in particular states keep hold of their privileges.”

Putin then made a statement of modesty: “This is the American people’s own affair, however, and not our business.”

But he could not help himself: “It is very clear that the party which calls itself ‘Democratic’ and will remain in power until January 20, I think, has forgotten the original meaning of its name.” Etc.

I have never in my life been a defender of the Democratic party — at least the Democratic party after McGovern. But any democrat (note the small “d”) would happily defend it against the likes of Vladimir Putin.

‐Reading the long, long transcript of this press conference, I noticed a pattern. Or maybe more like a tendency. Putin tends to finger foreigners as the source, or a source, of Russia’s problems. He is not crude about it, usually. But he knows how to fold it in: how to include an accusation of foreign nefariousness in his remarks.

As you may have read, many Russians have died when drinking assorted products in search of an alcoholic fix. Putin said, “Several individuals, some of them citizens of a foreign state, organized the production of liquids for cleaning bathtubs and …”

He was also asked about the Russian doping scandal — the use of proscribed drugs by Russia’s top athletes. Without naming him, Putin discussed Grigory Rodchenko, the head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, who fled the country in fear of his life.

“Where did he work before that?” asked Putin. Where did Rodchenko work before heading the anti-doping agency? “In Canada.” Aha!

“He came to Russia and brought all kinds of nasty stuff with him … It is hard to imagine that he managed to cross the Canadian or U.S. border carrying banned substances without being detected. You know what it means. Many of you have crossed the U.S. and Canadian borders. There are very strict controls there. He traveled back and forth many times to bring this nasty stuff here.”

Etc.

Speaking of et cetera: There is a lot more to say, a lot more to highlight, but I think we have had enough for one day. I will resume, and conclude, tomorrow.

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