Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual end-of-year news conference -- the marathon event during which he fields questions from hundreds of journalists for hours on end -- to laugh off accusations from the U.S. government that Moscow had hacked America’s presidential elections and to attack the outgoing Obama administration as “losing on all fronts."
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Putin was speaking at the event Friday in Moscow, where around 1,500 journalists gathered in an auditorium to try to pose a question to the often inaccessible Russian leader. The event usually lasts for hours, with Putin’s record standing at 4 hours and 40 minutes, and touches on virtually all of the major topics on which Russia finds itself in the news.
Close to the Russian New Year holidays, the event often has an oddly festive atmosphere, with giggling journalists holding huge -- often absurd -- placards meant to get Putin’s attention. One placard today read: “Are there dive bars around the Kremlin?” Another showed Putin as Superman.
With relatively few chances to put questions to Putin, those present will often ask for him to intervene in a local problem. Today, a journalist from an independent media outlet asked Putin to look into the case of one of their colleagues currently jailed and whose case Putin had promised last year to examine, the journalist said.
Putin said he wasn’t sure what had happened. “I’ll look again,” he said.
This year was a relatively long session for Putin, coming in at around 4 hours. It ended with the Russian leader saying he would enthusiastically accept an invitation from Donald Trump to visit the U.S. should the president-elect invite him.
Below are some of the key points Putin covered:
On Donald Trump
At last year's press conference, Putin made his first comments on Donald Trump, telling an ABC News reporter then that Trump was “very colorful” and the “absolute leader” in the Republican primaries.
Now, Trump is president-elect and Putin appeared very satisfied with the prospect of a Trump administration, making some of the most friendly comments he has made about an American president in years. He expressed confidence that Russia and the U.S. will see an improvement in relations under Trump.
“Indeed, Mr. Trump in the course of the election campaign spoke about how he considers it correct to normalize Russian-American connections, and said it definitely won’t be worse, because it can’t get any worse. I agree with him. And so, together we’ll think how to make it so it’s better,” Putin said.
Asked if he would accept an invitation to visit the U.S. if Trump were to invite him, Putin replied enthusiastically, “If he invites me, I will go.”
A Russian journalist asked if Putin about the idea that Ronald Reagan -- famous as a Cold War warrior -- would be “spinning in his grave” if he knew Trump had won. Putin said he didn’t think Reagan would be upset, saying he would instead be pleased that a candidate who “so finely felt the mood of the American people” had won.
“No one believed it,” Putin said of Trump's election, then joked: “Except for me and you."
On Nuclear Arms Race
Putin responded calmly to Donald Trump’s Tweet on Thursday that the U.S. needs to greatly strengthen its nuclear capabilities, calling it “nothing unusual." However, the Russian leader acknowledged that Russia was strengthening its own nuclear arsenal in order to ensure that no country could pose a threat to it.
Trump wrote his Tweet on Thursday seemingly in response to a comment by Putin to military officers that Russia had to modernize its nuclear weapons to “reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems."
Today, Putin said he wanted to emphasize that meant only to be able to defeat “an aggressor." Putin though blamed the U.S. for pushing Russia into developing the system by withdrawing from an arms control treaty in 2002 and developing a missile defense shield in eastern Europe.
Both the U.S. and Russia are already engaged in the large-scale modernization of their nuclear arsenals and arms control experts have recently sounded the alarm that the world could see a new build-up of apocalyptic weapons as nuclear powers seek to modernize their aging arsenals.
Those alarms are now likely to get louder. Even as Putin was speaking, Trump told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" that he was ready for an arms race.
“Let it be an arms race,” Trump said. “We’ll outmatch them at every turn and we’ll outlast them all.”
Before Trump’s comments, Putin said that Russia would keep modernizing its deterrent but argued Russia has no pretensions to challenging U.S. nuclear power.
“We aren’t arguing with that. We’re just saying we are stronger than any aggressor. If someone wants to launch an arms race, it’s not us,” Putin told the audience, before heavily criticizing the U.S. arms policy.
On Accusations Russia Hacked the US Elections
Putin laughed off the accusations from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the U.S. elections by hacking Democratic Party organizations in an effort to have Donald Trump elected.
“The losing side always tries to put the blame outside,” Putin said.
“And they are losing on all fronts,” he said referring to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.
“If we look, then the Democratic Party lost not just only the presidential elections, but it also lost in those for the Senate, in those for Congress -- what, is that also ours? Is that also my work?” Putin said to laughter from the audience.
Putin echoed Trump’s denials of the claims of hacking, which have been made by the U.S. Intelligence Community and which the Obama administration says it has raised directly with Moscow. Trump has said he does not believe the allegations that the hackers were controlled by the Russian state.
"As the president-elect said perfectly correctly, who knows what was with the hackers?” Putin said. “Maybe they were based in a different country, and not in Russia. Maybe it was someone laying on a sofa, in bed, who did it.”
Putin said instead of accusing Russia, the Democrats should be concerned with what was in the documents released by the hacks, noting that Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had resigned after leaked emails showed DNC workers trying to undermine Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
“That means the hackers showed the truth,” Putin said. “They needed to apologize” to people, he said. “Instead they started shouting about these hacker attacks.”
On Syria and Aleppo
Putin hailed Russia’s involvement in the retaking of the Syrian city of Aleppo, which fell last week to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as U.N. officials and Western leaders condemned the appalling violence used to capture it from rebels fighters.
Putin called the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from the devastated city “the greatest international humanitarian operation in modern history."
Tens of thousands have fled Aleppo, which Russia helped put under siege by relentlessly bombing the city for months, indiscriminately targeting hospitals, according to international observers. Last week, rebels in the city finally surrendered and were bused out by Russian troops, leaving government troops to declare victory.
“This may sound immodest, but this would have been impossible without Russia’s participation,” Putin said.
Putin said the next steps for Syria was a “complete ceasefire” across the entire country, to be followed “straightaway” by the start of negotiations to find a political solution to the war. Putin said the talks should be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
Russia and Turkey, which has been backing rebels, have proposed Astana as a new location for the discussions, removing them from Geneva, where they were previously held and thus potentially pushing the U.S. further from the table. Today, Putin said Assad had also already agreed to the move.
It remained unclear if talks were possible -- previous efforts have repeatedly failed, with Assad showing little interest in negotiating and rebels demanding he step aside before any deal could be made.
On Doping in Sports
Despite the publication this month of another damning independent report providing yet more evidence that Russia had run a huge cover-up scheme that allowed its athletes to dope, Putin unequivocally denied the accusations.
“This is just impossible, and we will make it so that this never will be, and there never has been any kind of state system,” Putin said.
As Putin spoke though, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced it was bringing disciplinary proceedings against 28 Russian athletes who had tested positive after their drugs tests from 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were re-analyzed.
Russia’s entire track and field team was barred from the summer Olympics in Rio over the doping scheme and the country has now been stripped of a number of international competitions. Officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency has suggested Russian athletes should potentially miss the 2018 Winter Olympics if Russia does not acknowledge the cover-up.
However, Putin today again dismissed the findings against Russia, denigrating one of the whistle-blowers who provided key evidence that revealed the cover-up, Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping program.
“Do you know where he worked before that? In Canada,” Putin said. “And then what did he do? He came to Russia and ... kept bringing in all sorts of filth."