MOSCOW— -- Vladimir Putin has given his annual marathon call-in show, where ordinary Russians have the chance to put their questions to him live on-air.
The event, where Putin sits in a studio before a bank of telephone dispatchers receiving the questions, blends the State of the Union and Oprah Winfrey, with the Russian president fielding questions on subjects ranging from the Syria crisis to the price of cabbage, to whether he can help persuade a husband to buy his wife a dog.
The event lasts for hours, and Russian state TV said it had received 3 million questions for Putin this year.
Putin’s record is four hours and 48 minutes, but he finished today at a relatively modest three hours and 40 minutes.
Below are some of the highlights.
On Obama and Libya
In rare words of praise for President Obama, Putin described him as a "strong man" for recognizing his administration had made mistakes in Libya. Obama recently told “Fox News Sunday” that "failing to plan for the day after" the fall of Libya's then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi was the "worst mistake of his presidency.”
Putin said today, "Firstly, it once again confirms that the current U.S. president is a decent man, because to say such a thing is not easy. And that's very good that my colleague possesses the courage to make such statements."
"Barack, as a senator, criticized the administration for its actions in Iraq. But, as president, he allowed a mistake to happen, he has said it himself, in Libya. Not everyone can do that. They snap at him from different sides over that but only a strong man could have done that."
When asked whether he regretted Obama’s leaving office, Putin said, "We all go sooner or later, probably. It's pointless to regret."
He added, though, that he believes Obama, with whom he has had frosty relations, had fulfilled his responsibilities well and "responsibly."
On the Clintons
A caller asked Putin, “Who is worse for Russia: Clinton or Trump?”
Putin, after a slight laugh, skirted the question, and retreated into a lengthy criticism of U.S. foreign policy attitudes, warning America against “imperial ambitions.”
He returned to Clinton later, however, while defending Russia’s political scene as not the only one with problems. U.S. politics is dominated by just two parties and political dynasties had appeared there, he said.
Referring to Hillary Clinton’s desire to follow her husband as president, Putin used a Russian proverb: “As we say, husband and wife are the same Satan,” he said, laughing.
The expression is well-known and means husband and wife are the two sides of the same coin, though with a slight negative connotation.
On the ‘Panama Papers’
The 11 million leaked documents from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca include files showing one of Putin’s oldest and closest friends was at the center of an elaborate offshore scheme that allegedly allowed members of the Russian leader’s inner circle to enrich themselves. The friend Sergei Roldugin is a cellist who met Putin in the 1970s.
In the call-in, Putin said “strange as it may seem, they didn’t publish unreliable information” on the leaks but said that there was nothing there showing any wrongdoing.
Instead, Putin claimed his friend Roldugin had actually spent all the money he earned through deals connected to the offshore accounts on buying rare musical instruments. He had “even gone into debt” to buy them, Putin said, adding he had spent more than he’d earned through the accounts.
The “Panama Papers” investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) showed that the offshore accounts controlled by Roldugin had handled $2 billion, and estimated he was making a minimum of $6 million a year.
Putin went on to suggest that the Panama Papers investigation carried out by over 100 media outlets was part of a wider U.S. conspiracy against Russia before parliamentary elections in the autumn. He suggested that the German paper that first launched the investigation was controlled by the U.S. bank Goldman Sachs, a claim the paper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, immediately denied.
“We know that U.S. intelligence is involved,” Putin said. “The closer we get to the elections the more these types of dumps there will be.”
Putin blamed rebel groups for a surge in violence around the Syrian city of Aleppo that has threatened to undermine peace talks for Syria and break apart a ceasefire that has largely held in the shattered country. Putin said the rebels were trying to regain ground lost before the ceasefire.
“The Syrian army doesn’t need to improve its position,” Putin said. “They don’t need anything better.”
Russian aircraft continue to support troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, despite a partial withdrawal last month. Russia’s military has claimed terrorist groups are massing around Aleppo and has promised an offensive against them in the near future.
A woman caller told Putin she understood that his former wife, Lyudmila, had recently remarried and wondered whether he himself wouldn’t soon marry again and “give Russia a first lady.”
Putin joked he thought that might affect oil prices, but declined to answer.
The Russian leader said work was more important right now, but added, “Maybe one day I’ll be able to satisfy your curiosity.”
On doping in Russian athletics
Russian sport is in the grips of a major crisis, with its track and field teams suspended from the Olympics over a systemic doping cover-up, while dozens of Russian athletes have also tested positive for the recently banned drug, meldonium, the substance that led to tennis star Maria Sharapova’s provisional suspension.
Putin said he did not believe that meldonium use was doping and noted a decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Wednesday to change guidance on cases involving the drug, which seemed to open a way for some athletes to avoid bans for it.
“Meldonium was never doping and it doesn’t have an effect on results,” Putin said, saying it seemed to him WADA was beginning to accept that.On the track and field ban that could see Russia miss the Summer Olympics in Brazil this summer, Putin said he understood Russian athletes were in a “very difficult position,” but Russia “would fight for a fair decision.”
An 11-year-old caller asked Putin, “How do you view porridge for breakfast?”
Putin replied: “I eat porridge with pleasure. Every day.”
But asked whether his parents had forced him to eat it as a child, Putin said, “I generally don’t do what I don’t want.”
Another young caller from central Russia asked Putin what he would want if he had three wishes?
Putin said it was best not to rely on fairy-tale characters
“Do you remember there was a little song in the Soviet times, “No one will help us. Not God, not a tsar, not a hero,’” he said, adding that it was best not to wait for miracles.
On Russia’s economy
Most of the questions put to Putin focused on Russians’ worries about their economy, which has been hammered by collapsed oil prices and Western sanctions. A slump in the value of Russia’s currency has made household products often twice, sometimes three, times as expensive.
Some callers complained to Putin they had gone without pay for months, while others asked why medicine was now so expensive.
Putin said he understood their difficulties, but told them Russia’s economy was already looking up and predicted it would grow by 1.4 percent next year.
“We have grounds for optimism,” Putin said.
Russia is in its second year of recession, and the World Bank expects its economy to contract this year again. A recent poll by Russia’s Levada center found only 45 percent of the country felt they were headed in the right direction, the lowest in two years.
Asked by an interviewer, “Everyone is saving at the moment-- what are you saving on?” Putin jokingly said “Time,” before continuing the three hour-plus call-in.
Putin blamed Ukraine’s government and lack of will among the United States and European countries for the failure to resolve the continuing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
“Why do they harp on at us every time, that Russia needs to fulfill something? Everything that we ought to have fulfilled, we’ve fulfilled!” Putin said.
But he added he supported a Ukrainian proposal for more international monitors to be sent to the conflict zone and for some of them to be armed.
Although a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has largely held, fighting has been flaring up again recently between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russian rebels, who are backed by Moscow. The conflict is mostly deadlocked at the moment, with neither side actively seeking to fulfil conditions of a peace agreement agreed last year.
On which of his enemies he would save
A 12-year-old girl asked Putin who he would choose to save first from drowning, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan or Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko, both heads of countries with which Russia has pointedly difficult relations.
Putin replied, “If a person is determined to drown, it’s impossible to save them.”
Among the 3 million questions Putin was supposedly sent, some were in the form of text messages, projected on to screens around the television studio where he spoke. One asked Putin whether he could intervene to help with the poor Wi-Fi service in the sender's neighborhood.
On this occasion, Putin didn't have time to answer.