Vladimir Putin was his usual overbearing self today at his annual three-hour news conference in Moscow, swatting away questions he didn’t like and hyperventilating against the West to excuse his economic failures. However, there was a tense moment when a prominent anti-Putin activist and television journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, asked the Russian president whether he was fomenting hatred against others among Russians using state television propaganda. She specifically asked him why the state media hasn’t retracted a July story it ran falsely accusing the Ukrainian military of torturing and crucifying a three-year-old Russian boy in a public square.
“Why did you give her the floor?” Putin snapped at the moderator. He then proceeded to ignore the question. Ms. Sobchak clearly gets under his skin. One reason may be that she is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, who as mayor of St. Petersburg gave a young Vladimir Putin his start up the political ladder in the 1990s. He is clearly unwilling to jail Sobchak, but at the same time doesn’t want to give her legitimacy.
The connection between the late Sobchak and Putin continues to haunt Russian politics. Just last week, a fierce Putin critic named Yury Shutov died of a heart attack at a Siberian prison. In 1998, Shutov accused Putin of blackmailing Anatoly Sobchak to secure his job in the mayor’s office. In 2006 Shutov was sentenced to life in jail for organizing murders of local businessmen, a charge he vehemently denied.
In response to another question on Ukraine, Putin denied the presence of Russian mercenaries in that country because he claimed that any Russians “voluntarily” taking part in the conflict there weren’t be being paid — so they couldn’t be mercenaries.
On the issue of his control of the Russian media, Putin denied any “campaign” was being conducted against his opponents in the Russian media. Instead he turned the question around, claiming the West was persecuting allies of Russia. His prime local example was Latvia’s ban on some pro-Kremlin pop stars who often use offensive lyrics. He then attacked the U.S. for “legalizing” torture of its opponents after the 9/11 attacks.
Never let it be said that Vladimir Putin’s favorite defense isn’t a strong offense.