Vladimir Putin is studiously late for meetings with world leaders. Yet when it comes to an appearance on live national television, the Russian president always arrives on time.
On Thursday at noon, Putin started his year-end press conference punctually before almost 1,400 journalists in a Moscow business center. The event has become an annual ritual designed to show that the president listens, knows, and has everything under control. In the past, the possibility of spontaneity at the mammoth press conference was a refreshing change from the Kremlin’s otherwise tightly scripted media events.
This year Putin put on a tired show. Critical questions have always been part of the format, but the president stumbled and repeated himself. Even reporters from state media seemed impatient with Putin’s bromides, asking if Russia wasn’t becoming another Venezuela, if there were the resources for military operations at a time of low oil prices, and whether the Kremlin had a real plan for Syria or was just winging it. Putin had no intention to break his own record of a four-and-a-half-hour long press conference in 2008. He placed his watch in front of him and called it a day after three hours and 10 minutes.
In any country it’s important when the chief executive speaks with journalists. In Russia, where Putin has come to embody the state, his utterances to the press have become absurdly important. Nobody cares what the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, or the leader of one of the government-sponsored opposition parties thinks. In fact, they all take their cues from the president as well. In the absence of a political process, Putin’s word is as good as the law.
State-run Channel One began its coverage of the news conference with a pre-game warmup in which it interviewed journalists from Russia’s far-flung provinces on what they would ask if called. About an oil refinery, said one. About how to stop Siberian men from seeking opportunity elsewhere, said another. The president has been studying documents for days and can answer any question, the presenter explained. After the press conference was finally over, Channel One went straight into a detailed recap of the highlights, not even pausing for a commercial break.
Putin’s ubiquity and his approval ratings of 85 percent may create the appearance of a cult of personality. The annexation of Crimea last year, told in the greater narrative of Russia under siege, shored up flagging support for a third-term president. But the reliability of opinion polls in a closed system is just as much a mystery to Putin’s critics as to his supporters. In a world of fake news and imitation politics, nobody knows what Russians really think of Putin — or how deep their loyalty to the Kremlin lies. In the best case, poll numbers only give a fuzzy snapshot of a moment: George W. Bush also had his 90-percent peak after 9/11.
Because Putin has concentrated so much power in own his hands, journalists parse his words as if he were the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Everyone — friend and foe alike — is trying to get into his head. Whatever you think of him, the pronouncements of a man in control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal matter.
Last year, as Russia surprised the world by occupying the Crimean peninsula, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told President Barack Obama that Putin had lost contact with reality and was “in another world.” At Thursday’s press conference, Putin struggled to reconcile his world with life outside the Kremlin bubble.
The opening question was on how Russia would overcome its economic difficulties amid falling energy prices, sanctions, and a devalued ruble. Putin replied that the sharp drop in the oil price wasn’t his fault and the worst of the crisis was already over. He rattled off economic indicators from a sheaf of papers as if to prove that hardship was a subjective feeling not supported by hard, cold facts. His central message was that there was no need to change anything, especially not any government ministers who were doing their best.
Putin was repeatedly asked about the mundane business of jobs and pensions and interest rates, but what animated him were questions of foreign policy. Turkey is bad because it shot down a Russian warplane and kissed the Americans in a certain place, he said. The United States, although it messed up in Iraq and sees the whole world as its jurisdiction, isn’t so bad anymore. Putin even found it safe to admit that Russian operatives were carrying out military missions in eastern Ukraine.
Questions on nepotism and malfeasance flustered Putin. He defended Sepp Blatter, who has been suspended as the head of the world soccer association FIFA amid a corruption investigation. Blatter is a “very respected person” and deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to international understanding, Putin said. Under Blatter, FIFA awarded Russia the right to host the world soccer championships in 2018.
The most difficult moment for Putin came when Yekaterina Vinokurova, a reporter for the Yekaterinburg-based news site znak.com, confronted the president over the cronyism that has become the hallmark of his 15-year rule. She specifically mentioned General Prosecutor Yury Chaika, whose sons were accused of links to the mob in an investigative report by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. Vinokurova complained that allegations of official wrongdoing never lead to investigations but are met with counter-accusations that muckrakers work for the U.S. State Department. Many journalists in the hall applauded.
Putin shot back that GDP had nearly doubled in his tenure and the military was standing tall again. Then he lost his nerve. “As for Chaika,” Putin stammered, pausing awkwardly. “As for Chaika.” He paused again, then looked down at a sheet of paper on his desk, searching for an answer. When he regained his balance, Putin told an old Soviet joke about a fur coat — nobody laughed — and reassured Vinokurova that the Presidential Control Directorate was following up on reports of nepotism.
The enrichment of the ruling clique is becoming one of Putin’s biggest vulnerabilities. Had he left the presidency after two terms, Russians would undoubtedly remember him now as the country’s best leader for overseeing eight straight years of unprecedented economic growth.
The paradox of Putin’s rule is that the longer he clings to power, the clearer the hollowness of his legacy becomes. But even if he wanted to retire, too much is at stake for his inner circle for him to step aside. Putin’s term runs out in 2018. He is eligible for a fourth term, ending in 2024.