In his annual question and answer session, Russian President Vladimir Putin tackled 81 questions from citizens of Russia, residents from Crimea, as well as representatives of the US, Germany and Hungary. Television and radio stations throughout the Russian Federation broadcasted the nearly four-hour live session, and to Kimberly St Julian, who filed this report.
According to the Kremlin, the questions answered in the program were chosen from over 2.2 million phone calls, 400,000 text messages, 200,000 messages to the Direct Line website and nearly 7,500 video questions. As a result, the event drew questions from a diverse selection of Russian citizens, with varying opinions on Putin’s domestic and foreign policy. Yet the sheer amount of information discussed during the four-hour special proves too much to cover in a brief writing so this post will provide an overview of the four subject areas Putin covered.
Putin on Ukraine
Putin spent most of his time discussing the situation in Eastern Ukraine, the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, and Russia’s chilly relations with the EU and the United States. The Russian President did not stray from his narrative of protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine and Crimea or his emphasis the illegitimacy of the Kyiv government. When asked about the current violence in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Eastern Ukraine, Putin painted a picture of chaos – placing the blame on the government in Kyiv. “The current Kyiv authorities have travelled to the eastern regions, but who do they talk to there? They talk to their appointees…They should talk with people and with their real representatives, with those whom people trust”.
One of the most telling elements of the special was when Putin was asked how long he planned the annexation of Crimea. He contends that he did not have any plans for Crimea before Russian-speaking citizens were “threatened’: “But when this situation changed, and Russians in Crimea were facing exactly that, when they began raising the issue of self-determination – that’s when we sat down to decide what to do. It was at this exact moment we decided to support Crimeans, and not 5, 10 or 20 years ago”. Putin also finally admitted that the “little green men” that have become synonymous with Russian interference in Ukraine, were in fact Russian troops.
Putin on International Relations
The Russian President also took time to answer questions about his perceptions on Russia’s changing role in international politics. Putin showed little concern about sanctions on Russia nor about the possibility of the EU decreasing its consumption of Russian oil and gas: “Oil is sold on world markets. Is there any way to do us harm? One may try. But what would be the result for those who would attempt to do it? First of all, how would this be done?”
As in his March 18 speech, Putin took time to attack what he sees as American hypocrisy in the Ukrainian crisis: “We believe it’s not our fault, because these double standards, as we call them, have always been disappointing. We see a situation in which it’s appropriate to act the way the United States did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, but it’s inappropriate for Russia to defend its interests”. While Putin stated multiple times that he wants to improve Russia’s relations with the West, his reaction to the punishment placed on Russia is nonchalant and begs the question: what more can Western leaders do to contain Vladimir Vladimirovich and his little green men?
Putin on Domestic Issues
Much of the international and Western media coverage of Putin’s question and answer session focused on his ideas on Ukraine and in the international area. However, the special also addressed dozens of questions on domestic issues in Russia. Putin answered questions covering healthcare, rising grain and food prices, gas shortages, and declining salaries for teachers, doctors and nurses, and issues with government pensions for the elderly.
Many callers feared the impact that incorporating Crimea would have on Russia’s domestic budget, as well as the heavily devalued rouble. Putin was also asked about the impact Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine had on civil liberties in Russia, including the introduction of Article 282, which makes ‘public calls’ for separatism or terrorism punishable with up to five years in prison. Putin shed light on how he felt about the liberal opposition of the Russian Federation: “Of course, we should take the opinion of the majority of people into account when taking decisions and shaping our domestic and foreign policy. But we must never disregard the opinion of the minority who have a different opinion of the developments taking place in the country and on the international state…”
These questions highlight the fact that Putin faces numerous serious economic and social issues in domestic policy. The economic issues, as much as Putin refuses to acknowledge the impact of Western sanctions, are the result of his behaviour in Ukraine and the public is feeling the repercussions.
Putin on Russian History
Putin referred to Soviet and Imperial Russian history while answering the questions of his constituents. He made waves when he used the term Novorossiya (New Russia) to describe parts of Eastern Ukraine that were once a part of the Russian Empire including the cities: Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Nikolayev and Odessa. However, he admitted that he simply could not understand the logic of the Bolsheviks ‘giving’ the territory to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1920s. While delivering his short history lessons Putin tended to forget some of the more important elements of these stories.
His discussion of the New Russia entity is important because this was the first time Putin referred to this area of Eastern Ukraine in this manner. Putin enjoys using historical memory in his public appearances, including in his March 18 speech on the annexation of Crimea. These comments provide glimpses on how he views Ukraine as a sovereign state. “The intention to split Russia and Ukraine, to separate what is essentially a single nation in many ways, has been an issue of international politics for centuries…But today we are living in separate countries. And, unfortunately, this policy of division, of pulling apart and weakening both parts of a single nation continues”.
Putin’s understanding of the Rus’ people shows through these comments, yet, it would be hasty to draw ominous conclusions from this discussion. While Putin may dream of the imperial period, Russia and Ukraine are separate states in a very different international system.
Finally, a few surprising guests participated in the broadcast. Edward Snowden’s question about Russia’s use of mass surveillance on its population reverberated throughout international media. However, in terms of domestic Russian politics, the appearance of Irina Prokhorova, sister of Russian billionaire and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, was intriguing. The leader of the liberal Civil Platform Party asked Putin about the persecution of artists and members of the opposition in Russia. Putin attempted to assuage her concerns: “However, I agree that in any case we should not slip into some extreme forms of dealing with each other’s views or cast aspersions of people for their opinions. I will do my best to prevent this from happening”. Putin also made sure to praise the work of his friend, Head of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who also made an appearance.
To close his marathon question and answer session, Putin waxed poetic about what defined the Russian people. Besides underlining the importance of being prepared to die for ones’ friends and homeland, Putin emphasized patriotism: “Hence there is a feeling of fellowship and family values. Of course, we (Russians) are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts…Our people have a more generous spirit”.
Leaders of the US, EU and Ukraine will hope that this same spirit will lead him to adhere to the conditions set forth in the Geneva agreements reached on 17 April and help in bringing peace to Eastern Ukraine.
Transcripts of Direct Line with Vladimir Putin can be found below: