putin-cc-270312-lo-00By Marc Bennetts

MOSCOW--Russian President Vladimir Putin offered both praise and biting criticism of US foreign policy at his annual press conference in Moscow Thursday, a carefully stage-managed event that is a key element in state media’s fawning portrayal of the ex-KGB officer.

Speaking for almost four hours, Mr. Putin, 66, said President Donald Trump’s intention to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, could result in the collapse of the international system of arms control.

Mr. Putin also warned that what he said were the Pentagon’s plans to develop non-nuclear ballistic missiles could inadvertently trigger World War Three.

“Just try to figure out while it’s flying, if it is nuclear or not,” he said, adding that such a situation could lead to “the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet,” he said.

Mr. Putin hailed, however, Mr. Trump’s unexpected announcement to withdraw all US troops from Syria, saying that Islamic State had been dealt a serious blow in the war-torn Middle East country. “Donald is right, I agree with him,” the Russian president said. He also said presence of US troops in Syria was illegal because President Bashar-al-Assad had not given the green light for their deployment.

State television had aired an on-screen countdown for Mr. Putin’s press conference, which was held in Moscow’s very own World Trade Center. More than 1,700 journalists were accredited for the event, which coincided with Russia’s national holiday for security service officials.

Russian journalists vied for Mr. Putin’s attention with colorful signs and other eye-catching objects. Journalists, many from the country’s remote provinces, were holding up a golden boxing glove, a large artificial hand, a photograph of a bare-chested Mr. Putin fishing, a cardboard television, a balloon, and a Russian flag. Journalists jumped excitedly to their feet after each of Mr. Putin’s answers, causing Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman who moderated the event, to appeal for calm.

Foreign media outlets were allowed to attend but only a handful were permitted to pose questions. Russian media largely avoided sensitive issues, such as a fire in a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Siberia, that took the lives of 64 people, the majority of them children, in March. The deadly blaze was blamed on the failure of local authorities to enforce fire-safety regulations, and triggered days of angry protests in the city.

There were likewise no probing questions about allegations by Britain that the Kremlin sent military intelligence officers to attempt to kill a former Russian double agent with the novichok nerve agent in England in March. Mr. Putin has said the two men accused by Britain of trying to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are civilians. The United States was among a number of western countries to expel Russian diplomats over the incident, sparking tit-for-tat measures from Moscow.

The editor of The Insider, a Russian website that helped expose the would-be assassins as GRU military intelligence agents named Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, was barred from entering the press conference.

On Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent suspected of attempting to influence Washington’s policies toward Moscow, Mr. Putin said there was “no reason” to jail her. Ms. Butina pleaded guilty last week to a charge of trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) on the orders of a top Russian official.

“I can say for sure that she didn't execute any state tasks, whatever she may have said under the threat of 12 to 15 years in prison,” Mr. Putin said. “I don't understand why they imprisoned her, there was no reason. We'll see how it ends. We are not indifferent to this.”

Mr. Putin also offered some unexpected, and likely unwelcome, support for Theresa May, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, who is resisting increased calls to hold a second referendum on the country’s planned exit from the European Union in March. The Kremlin has been accused of trying to influence the initial referendum in 2016 that saw a slim majority of voters elect to leave the EU.

“The referendum happened,” Mr. Putin said. “What can she do? She should fulfil the will of her nation, as expressed at the referendum. Or it isn’t a referendum.”

Security guards removed two signs accusing the Kremlin of corruption from Dmitry Nizovtsev, a supporter of Alexei Navalny, the prominent Kremlin critic. The security guards refused to provide an explanation for the confiscation of the signs ahead of Mr. Putin’s appearance on stage.

Mr. Putin’s annual press conference, the 14th since he took power in 2000, came at the end of a year that has seen his approval ratings slump over controversial five-year increase in the national pension age. He defended the controversial decision, which sparked nationwide protests, saying rising life expectancies and an ageing population meant the unpopular move was inevitable.

Despite rising poverty triggered partly by western economic sanctions, Mr. Putin attempted to paint a rosy picture of Russia’s economic prospects. He said Russia’s gross domestic product was set to grow by 1.8 percent this year, while industrial output has grown at 3 percent.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, said that Mr. Putin’s annual press conferences and television call-ins were an important part of his attempt to present an image of a leader “in touch with the country.”

“Demand for a strong leader among Russian voters is going down, so it’s more important to appear as a concerned leader, a leader that cares for people,” Mr. Gallyamov said. “That’s why he has to continue, although it’s already turned into a ritual without much meaning.”

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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