Putin warns US over Iran in annual call-in show

The annual where Putin fields questions from Russians is a fixture of his rule

Speaking during his annual phone-in event, Putin said that he was concerned by the shooting down of an American drone by Iran this week and worried that the U.S. had no ruled out using military force against Tehran in the ongoing crisis between the two countries.

“I will say it straight, it would be a catastrophe, at a minimum for the region,” Putin said, adding it could lead to a new mass exodus of refugees.

The Russian leader also said that he believed Iran was still complying with its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal agreed with the U.S. under the Obama administration. In the past week, Iran has threatened to increase its enriched uranium stockpile beyond limits set by the deal, in a bid to force European countries to help it manage sanctions re-imposed after the the U.S. withdrew from the agreement.

Russia is also a party to the deal and, like the other European countries, supports its continuation, provided Iran remains compliant.

The comments came as Putin answered dozens of questions during the “Direct Line” show, a marathon telethon where the he takes questions from ordinary people and that has become an annual fixture of Putin’s rule. This year, state television said it had received 1.5 million questions from Russians. The event went on for more than 4 hours.

In previous years, Russians have asked Putin to help with fixing pot-holed roads, getting pension back-payments to choosing a new puppy. A response from the president on television can cause regional officials, worried about embarrassing the president, to leap into action.

This year, the questions -- and Putin’s prepped answers -- focused on everyday difficulties, with the president signalling he understood Russia’s economy was struggling and that increasing growth ought to be the country’s top priority.

Putin blamed some of the problems on Western sanctions, saying they had cost Russia $50 billion and claimed that the country’s economy was beginning to grow again.

Putin said his focus was putting the economy “on new rails” and wanted to use large national projects to achieve that.

The heavily choreographed show is the embodiment of the system and the image Putin has sought to cultivate in his two decades in power: one founded on the idea that only he is capable of solving Russians’ problems, big or small.

It also plays on a much older Russian tradition, of ordinary people petitioning the tsar to solve their problems.

One such demonstration this year came when Putin announced that two orca and six beluga whales had been released from a so-called “whale jail” in Russia’s far east. Dozens of whales were being held in unsanitary conditions in tanks by poachers who intended to illegally sell them. The case has attracted global attention but had also been notable for authorities’ seeming inability to solve it, even after the Kremlin signalled the animals should be released.

Putin also seemed to make a careful acknowledgment of the existence of popular anger that has sparked up in recently in a series of largely local issue protests that have captured wide attention on the Russian internet. Last month, there have been unusual protests in several towns near Moscow over plans to divert the city’s garbage there and in June authorities were forced to make a rare reversal in dropping charges against a prominent investigative journalist, who police had tried to crudely frame by planting drugs on him.

Putin made reference to both and other high profile incidents, acknowledging the problem but downplayed them, saying of the garbage that it was a long-time problem, and noting it was partly because Russia was now a “consumer society.”

In a carefully calibrated moment, Putin was asked what was he ashamed of. He replied by telling a story from his travels in the early years of his presidency when he met an elderly woman, who he said had fallen to her knees in front of him and handed him a paper petition.

Putin said he had given the paper to an aide, but it had later been lost. “I will never forget it, and I am ashamed about it now,” Putin said, his voice shaking. He said he tried to resolve any problems that Russians asked him.