Top takeaways from Vladimir Putin's marathon press conference

Putin takes questions for hours from hundreds of journalists at the event.

December 19, 2019, 9:13 PM

MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin held his marathon end-of-year press conference Thursday morning, an annual event where the Russian president takes dozens of questions in front of a crowd of hundreds of journalists over several hours.

The event is a fixture of Putin's 20-year rule and Thursday was the 15th year he has held it since 2001.

Sitting on a stage in a conference hall in central Moscow, it's a chance for Putin to comment on everything from relations with the United States and nuclear arms control, to local issues like the price of groceries or a local fish factory.

It is now a mammoth state media event, broadcast on several major state channels, with 1,895 journalists having been accredited, according to the Kremlin.

The atmosphere usually has little in common with a traditional press conference. Hoping to catch Putin's eye, many journalists dress up -- as Russian santas for instance -- or create elaborate banners. This year, the Kremlin brought in new rules, limiting signs to the size of A4 paper, a response, the Russian state news agency said, to the "carnival" atmosphere of the conference.

Many Russian reporters use the occasion to try to get their local issues in front of Putin, knowing a word from him on television will prompt officials to jump into action.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 19, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 19, 2019.
Alexei Druzhinin/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, Nurisa Gabdrahmanov brought her 15-year-old son Niyaz to try to plead with Putin to help them after they were evicted from their home, she said. Gabdrahmanov, who is not a journalist, managed to somehow get inside the conference center in the hope of getting a question to Putin, but in the end it never came.

The Kremlin holds the event as a way of creating an illusion of openness around Putin, when in reality the media in Russia is heavily controlled and access to the president severely limited.

The conference is carefully managed, with the Kremlin identifying some questions beforehand. But still most are picked at random. The audience of journalists is a friendly one to Putin, frequently applauding and sometimes booing tough questions.

Putin ended up speaking for four hours and 12 minutes on Thursday -- well short of Putin's nearly five-hour record from 2008.

This year's conference focused heavily on Russian domestic issues, with Putin signalling he is engaged with Russians' troubles amid polls showing growing discontent among people with stagnant wages and a state viewed as indifferent.

But Putin nonetheless waded into international affairs, dismissing the impeachment of President Donald Trump as based on "absolutely invented reasons" and accusing Democrats of trying to use it to recast the 2016 election.

PHOTO: President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the meeting with intelligence officers on their professional holiday in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the meeting with intelligence officers on their professional holiday in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
Alexei Nikolsky/AP

Here are some of the top highlights:

Impeachment

Putin dismissed the impeachment of Trump, which happened just hours before the press conference, accusing Democrats of seeking to remove Trump over "absolutely invented reasons."

Asked by Dimitri Simes, the American publisher of The National Interest, what he believed Russia could do to maintain relations with the U.S. as Trump's term comes to an end, Putin replied, "As for continuing our dialogue until the end of Trump's president, you kind of make it seem like it's already coming to an end -- I actually am not so sure."

"It needs to go through the Senate where as far as I know the Republicans have a majority," he continued. "It's hardly like they will want to distance themselves from power on account of -- in my view -- some absolutely invented reasons," Putin said.

Putin also accused Democrats of trying to remove Trump using "other means," having lost the 2016 presidential election.

"It is simply a continuation of an internal political battle," Putin said. "And the party that lost the elections, the Democrat Party, is trying to achieve results with other ways, with other means. Bringing accusations against Trump of a conspiracy with Russia, later it becomes clear there was no conspiracy. It cannot lie at the basis of impeachment."

Putin, who has always denied interfering in the 2016 presidential election, has alleged the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller found no proof of meddling by Russia, despite the investigation providing substantial evidence of a wide-ranging Russian operation seeking to tip the election toward Trump.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump reacts while speaking during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich., on Dec. 18, 2019.
President Donald Trump reacts while speaking during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich., on Dec. 18, 2019.
Leah Millis/Reuters

Changing term limits

In Russia, Putin made headlines with an ambiguous comment where he suggested removing the word "consecutive" from the country's constitutional rules requiring that presidents only serve two consecutive terms.

The suggestion was quickly interpreted in Russia as Putin ruling out that he would seek to run for another presidential term when his current one expires in 2024.

Putin -- who is now in his fourth term as leader -- used the word "consecutive" to skirt the term limits at the end of his initial second term in 2008, when he passed the presidency to his close ally Dmitry Medvedev for four years while remaining prime minister. That allowed him to restart his terms from scratch again in 2012.

What Putin will do when he reaches his new term limit in 2024 has become an object of major speculation in Russia, raising looming questions about his succession. Experts point out that even if Putin decides not to run for president, he may instead create a new position that would allow him to remain in power.

Olympic ban

Putin again criticized the World Anti-Doping Agency's unprecedented decision to ban Russia from all major sporting events for the next four years, including the Tokyo Olympics and the soccer World Cup, as punishment for its continued coverup of doping by its athletes.

Putin attacked the ban as "not corresponding to common sense and law," saying athletes should be punished individually, not collectively, for doping.

PHOTO: In this file photo taken on Feb. 4, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin walks off the stage after delivering a speech during a welcoming event of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In this file photo taken on Feb. 4, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin walks off the stage after delivering a speech during a welcoming event of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images, File

He also repeated his position that since WADA found no problems with Russia's Olympic Committee, then Russian athletes should be allowed to compete under their flag, according to the International Olympic Committee charter.

Nuclear arms control

The last major nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia -- the New START treaty -- is due to lapse in 2021, raising alarm among experts who fear it could accelerate a new global arms race.

The Trump administration has shown little interest in renewing the treaty, following the White House's exit from the INF treaty last year. Russia has said it is eager to preserve New START and Putin reiterated that on Thursday, saying he was ready even "by the end of the year" to do so.

"We are ready right up till the end of the year to just take and extend the current New START agreement," Putin said.

"If tomorrow they will send us by post … or we are ready to sign and send to Washington, let the relevant leaders put their signatures, including the president," said Putin. "For now there is no answer to our proposals. If there won't be New START then there will be nothing at all in the world restraining an arms race and in my view that's bad."

Boris Johnson (and Dobby the House Elf)

A BBC reporter asked Putin what he thought of recently reelected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's many comments over the years about him, notably his comment once that Putin resembles the Harry Potter character, Dobby the House Elf.

Putin refused to be drawn in, saying he was used to comments from "various political actors," and noting that politicians act very differently while seeking power from when they are in power.

PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to IG Design Group in Hengoed, Britain, Dec. 11, 2019.
Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to IG Design Group in Hengoed, Britain, Dec. 11, 2019.
Ben Stansall/Reuters

He spoke in favor of positive relations between Russia and Britain following Brexit, saying he supported improved economic links. He also congratulated Johnson on his election, saying he had sensed the mood of voters "more finely."

Johnson made the Dobby comments in an article in 2015: "Despite looking a bit like Dobby the House Elf, he is a ruthless and manipulative tyrant.".

Cutting off the internet

Putin denied that the Kremlin was seeking to set up its own restricted internet similar to China after Russia passed a law this year that grants authorities broad powers to heavily restrict traffic.

"We are not moving toward the side of closing off the internet and we don't intend to do that," Putin said, saying the law was intended only to prevent Russia from being cut off from the internet by other countries in the event of a major crisis.

Assassination in Berlin

Germany and Russia have both expelled diplomats this month over the assassination of Zemlikhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen militant commander who was gunned down by a Russian assassin in central Berlin in August.

Germany has accused Russia's security services of ordering the killing.

Asked on Thursday, Putin made almost no attempt to deny that and instead appeared to say Russia would have been right to kill Khangoshvili on the streets of Berlin.

"This was an absolutely bloody murderer," Putin said, alleging Khangoshvili had been involved in an operation that killed 98 people in the Caucasus as well as a metro bombing.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Putin spoke on a variety of issues during the marathon news conference that was dominated by local issues, such as Russia's ailing health care system and federal subsidies for the regions.
Pavel Golovkin/AP

He compared Khangoshvili to ISIS terrorists currently imprisoned in Syria and asked how European countries would feel having them walk freely in European capitals.

"And you have such a bandit walking around Berlin!" Putin said.

Putin acknowledged that Russia had made no attempt to extradite Khangoshvili, saying that Russian and German intelligence services had discussed the subject and Russia had understood the request would be refused.

Journalist scandal

An extraordinary scandal broke out in Russia this summer after a prominent independent investigative journalist was arrested on crudely fabricated drug charges. After an unprecedented outcry among Russian media, which even included some state outlets, and unusual protests on the streets, the journalist, Ivan Golunov, was released and the case against him closed.

Five police officers responsible for overseeing the fake case against Golunov were suspended and put under investigation, but recently the cases have seemed to languish and there were doubts whether they would be held accountable.

Putin said Thursday that criminal cases will be now be brought against all five, signaling that the authorities have decided to respond to pressure from Russia's liberal society.

The cases were opened Wednesday night, just ahead of the presser, Golunov's lawyer later told Russian media.

Golunov's colleagues believe he was targeted for investigating a corrupt FSB officer, but his case quickly became seen as emblematic of the dangers facing journalists in Putin's Russia.

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