Trump, Hacking and Doping: The Highlights of Putin's Marathon Press Conference

Putin's presser
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual news conference in Moscow, December 23 2016. The leader has been called upon to back a new talent show intended to help unearth entrepreneurs. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marathon end-of-year press conference has finally come to a close, effectively drawing the curtain on Russia’s political year. The three-hour event was, as usual, a show of the Russian leader’s endurance and his charisma, as well as a display of just how much his viewpoint is in demand, both in Russia and internationally.

The number of journalists attending the event was a record 1,434—nearly three times the number in 2001, when the event was first held. The format was much the same, however, with media representatives from major outlets including the BBC and the NBC lined up with local press from all corners of Russia’s vast landmass, some holding placards with such puzzling questions as “Where does the river Volga flow?”

Crucially the event does not allow for any follow-up questions—something one journalist from news channel RBC tried to overcome with sheer persistence. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was not having it: “This is not a dialogue,” he said.

From the outset, the presser went straight into prescient issues, with the Russian economy, Crimea, doping, a possible new arms race with the U.S. and the fall of the “old (political) elites” in the West all topics raised within the first hour.

The discussion gave barely a nod to the situation in Syria or Ukraine—on the latter, Putin  answered only two questions, in one go. As usual, the most serious topics were raised by state media. There were a handful of questions, however, about such important matters as chess and homeless dogs.

The event was largely defined by the questions Putin evaded, such as the query about his biggest mistake in office and the quips Putin doled out to journalists and Peskov alike. The characteristic bursts of applause and laughter could have tricked some viewers into forgetting that the event is nominally a press conference, not a one-man show, but Putin’s zingers kept the event rolling past the three-hour mark and he cut a much more relaxed figure than at many previous instalments.

So, onto the jokes. The Russian president played “good cop”, accused Peskov of acting like a “dictator” when the spokesman told a journalist not to speak out of turn. When asked if he foresaw early presidential elections, his riposte “in which country?” got a fair few laughs from the audience. He even prodded Peskov with a smile after the spokesman chose another reporter from “the Kremlin pool.”

Here are some of the other—more serious—highlights from Putin’s annual press conference:

On Russia’s strength “The Russian Federation was stronger than any potential—and this is the key word—aggressor. 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. I have no problem repeating it. I also said why we are stronger. This has to do with the effort to modernize the Russian Armed Forces, as well as the history and geography of our country, and the current state of Russian society.”

On the U.S. Democratic Party “The current U.S. Administration and leaders of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside factors. Two electors did decide not to vote for Trump, and four for Clinton, and here too they lost. They are losing on all fronts and looking for scapegoats on whom to lay the blame. I think that this is an affront to their own dignity. It is important to know how to lose gracefully. In my opinion the party which calls itself democratic has evidently forgotten the initial meaning of this name—that is obvious.”

On meeting Donald Trump “He must first form his administration in a calm atmosphere. Meetings without preparation are not useful. The main question, of course, will be the theme of the normalization of our relations. Trump himself has said that they could not be worse, so together we will think about how to make them better. If Trump invites me to the United States, of course, I will go."

On state-sponsored hacking allegations As the U.S. president-elect rightly said, who knows who these hackers are? The main thing, in my opinion—is the essence of the information that hackers have given public opinion. They did something they have compiled, have cooked? Why not. The best proof of the fact that hackers have revealed the true information, that is? After hackers showed manipulation of public opinion within the Democratic Party, one candidate against another, against Mr Sanders, the head of the Democratic National Committee resigned. This means that it is recognized that hackers have shown the truth.”

On a new arms race “The prerequisites for a new arms race was set up after the United States pulled back from the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Treaty,” he said referring to an agreement signed in 1987 between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “It’s obvious. When one of the parties unilaterally withdrew from the treaty and said it will create for themselves an anti-nuclear ‘umbrella’, the other party must either create the same ‘umbrella’, something we are not convinced should be done—bearing in mind its questionable effectiveness—or to create an effective means of overcoming this missile-defense system and improving strike systems, which is what we are doing, and doing it successfully.”

On democracy in the U.S. “The problem, above all, is the archaic electoral system of the United States. It is set up in a way that preserves state preference. Why is it done this way, you will have to ask American voters? Maybe it is done especially in order for citizens in different states to have and preserve these preferences. That is the American people’s business, not our own.”

On his spokesman’s chair being higher “He who sits higher, sees further ahead. It is an old Chinese proverb,” the president said, as Peskov directed where the microphone should go. The quip fell a bit flat compared with previous efforts.

On doping in Russia “There has never been a state-sponsored system of doping,” Putin said. “We have, like every other country, problems with doping. We must admit it and, recognize it, to do everything to avoid any doping. In this regard, we must work closely with the International Olympic Committee, WADA and other international organizations. The activities of any anti-doping agency, including WADA, should be transparent, clear and verifiable, and we should be aware of the results of its work,” he said. “Why is everything done behind the closed doors? We do not understand this,” he said. “Everything must be open.”

On spanking children “Look, it is better not to spank children and not call it a tradition. (But) I, as you, am against completely skewed juvenile justice standards. I promise you I will carefully watch and analyze (the law). Unceremonious interference in the family is something that is unacceptable.”

On relations with Turkey after the shooting of Russia’s ambassador “I will honestly say that I was skeptical towards that theory that our plane was shot down without the say-so of Turkey’s highest leadership, but with that of people who strive to harm Russian-Turkish relations,” he said. “But now after the attack on the ambassador was conducted by a member of the special services, I am beginning to change my opinion as it seems that anything is possible and the infiltration of destructive elements in state structures, including law enforcement and the military, is profound. Does this hinder the development of Russian-Turkish relations? No, it cannot hurt them.”

On banning media from using the term Islamic State “Can I ban you from doing anything?” Putin asked the journalist who asked about the restriction. “I think it’s just absolutely futile. Although I would prefer if Islam is not mentioned alongside terror. You’re right.”

On calling early presidential elections “In which country? (Laughter) I will tell you know it is possible but it is not advisable.”

On the reason to run for a fourth term, and the reason not to run: “You provocateur (Laughs) "The answer is the standard one: when the time is ripe, I will look at what is happening in the country, in the world, and on the basis of what we have achieved, what we can achieve, my participation or non-participation in future presidential elections of the Russian Federation will be decided.”

On hiring close associates to head regions, instead of locals “My goal is Russia’s flourishing. To achieve this, we need competent people. Overwhelmingly the number of Russians who work in each region come from that region. They are an absolute majority. But there are cases when you need to infuse fresh blood.”