Earlier in the show, Putin said the U.S.-Russian relationship lacks trust. He blamed the United States, claiming it employs a double standard by intervening in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan while criticizing Russia for, in his words, protecting its own interests.
The head of Russia’s new state-owned media company Russia Today, a man dubbed the Kremlin’s new propaganda chief, told Putin he felt suffocated by NATO expansion into eastern Europe and asked where the red line will be drawn.
Putin said there is no need to be afraid, but said that geopolitics could force Russia to act. He insisted NATO’s plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which the United States says is aimed at defending against Iran, was instead aimed at Russia. He warned the system’s deployment could spark an arms race.
He seemed to confirm suspicions that his takeover of Crimea was due in part to fears that Ukraine could become part of NATO and would limit Russia’s influence in the Black Sea, where it has a substantial naval presence.
“If NATO troops go there and deploy their assault weapons, then it will have a geopolitical significance for us and Russia will be practically forced out from the Black Sea region,” he said.
The Russian leader brushed aside suggestions that Europe might soon wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas, suggesting it would harm their economies and devalue the U.S. dollar. He warned Ukraine that, unless it repays the billions of dollars it owes for past gas deliveries within a month, Russia will begin demanding payment up front and only ship what has been paid for in advance. That may be an enormous challenge for the fledgling government in Kiev, which is struggling to pay its bills and is begging the international community for a bailout.
In a surprise move, NSA leaker Edward Snowden also submitted a question via video, asking Putin whether Russia employed mass surveillance systems similar to ones used by the U.S. National Security Agency.
The ex-KGB agent (who earlier in the show said that job taught him to be “absolutely loyal”) began his response by telling Snowden he was speaking as one spy to another. Putin denied Russia had a mass surveillance program and said any electronic surveillance was used only for law enforcement purposes. Experts on Russian surveillance, however, said Putin was vastly understating the scope of Russia’s surveillance program.
Snowden has been hiding at an undisclosed location in Russia after receiving asylum last year while on the run after leaking classified information about American spying.
Asked when Russia might have a new first lady, the newly divorced Putin responded wryly that he’ll have to help his ex-wife get re-married first.
The marathon call-in show has become a regular feature in the nearly decade and a half since Putin first became president.
Asked if he planned to remain president for life, Putin briskly responded “No” and moved on.