The Slatest

Putin Defends Trump, Disses Lenin in Marathon Four-Hour Press Conference

The Russian president looks pensive, holding a closed fist against his chin as he listens to questions from reporters.
Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin held forth for more than four hours Thursday at his annual end-of-the-year press conference. (You can watch the whole thing with English dubbing via RT, here, if you want to do that to yourself.) It’s a distinctly Putin-esque tradition. Every year, an auditorium full of hundreds of reporters—some international, others from small regional outlets that would never get access to the president otherwise—compete for his attention by holding up signs with either topics they think he’d like to discuss, or just ego-flattering memes:

Putin was asked how U.S.-Russian cooperation would be affected by Donald Trump’s impeachment, to which the president responded with a short lecture on the separation of powers. “You phrase your question as if Trump’s presidency is coming to an end,” he said. “[The impeachment bill] still needs to go through the Senate where Republicans as far as I know have a majority. It’s unlikely they will want to remove from power a representative of their party based on what are, in my opinion, completely fabricated reasons.”

Echoing U.S. Republican talking points, the Russian president said there was no evidence of “collusion” with Russia or “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, continuing: “The Democratic Party lost the previous election and they want to achieve their goals with other means.”

Putin was also asked about widespread speculation that he will change the Constitution of Russia to stay on as president past 2024, when his current six-year term will end. The Russian Constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms. Putin said that the constitution is a “living document” that should “reflect the will of the people.” He said he would be open to removing the word “consecutive” from the document.

On paper, this would rule out Putin running for another term: He’s already served four, with a brief interregnum under caretaker President Dmitry Medvedev. But that is almost certainly not the end of the story. (Putin dodged another question about whether he could become the president of a proposed “Union State” between Russia and Belarus.) In any event, he already showed during the Medvedev period that he doesn’t need to hold the office of president to be the most powerful man in Russia.

Putin was also asked about the World Anti-Doping Agency’s recent decision to bar Russia from the next two Olympics as well as the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In an extremely Trumpian response, Putin said: “In no legal system in the world, has anything like this has ever happened in the history of mankind. … The overwhelming majority of our athletes are clean, and then why must all of them suffer? Our figure skaters are just little girls. What do they have to do with doping? But they are able to do things on the ice that nobody, almost nobody, can do.”

He also took a question on climate change from a reporter who remarked on the conspicuous lack of snow this December in the Russian capital. Putin has mused in the past that 2 to 3 degrees of global warming might benefit Russians since they would have to spend less money on fur coats. He’s started to take the issue slightly more seriously amid this year’s widespread wildfires and floods. During the press conference he maintained, as he has in the past, that “no one really knows the reasons” for climate change but also noted correctly that Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet, that the risks of climate change are “very serious” for Northern Russian cities built on permafrost, and said “We must make every effort to ensure that the climate does not change dramatically.” Beyond more investments in hydropower and natural gas, he didn’t really elaborate on what those efforts should entail.

A surprising amount of the press conference dealt with topics from Soviet history. Putin was asked about critical comments he has made in the past about Vladimir Lenin, and he stuck by them, saying the Bolshevik leader was “not a statesman” and that he “blundered in building a new state” by creating the Soviet Union as a confederation of ethnic states rather than a centralized state. “The borders were cut in the wrong way,” Putin said, blaming Lenin for much of the chaos that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.

This is somewhat surprising rhetoric in a country where many still revere the founder of the Soviet Union and contrasts with Putin’s more generous attitude toward the legacy of Joseph Stalin. For what it’s worth, Putin said it didn’t think it was necessary to remove Lenin’s body from its mausoleum on Red Square.

Despite the raucous atmosphere the whole event, as usual, felt very stage-managed by the Kremlin. But there was one moment where it seemed to go off-script: When Putin called on a reporter holding a sign reading “family”—one of the traditionalist president’s favorite topics—it turned out to be a BBC Russia reporter with a question about Putin’s family.

The Russian president almost never discusses his family, including his ex-wife, their children, and his (rumored) girlfriend. He hasn’t even acknowledged being the father of his two daughters, even as they’ve been building public profiles—and seemingly considerable fortunes—for themselves in enterprises with close links to the Russian state. His younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, a former competitive “acrobatic rock ’n’ roll” dancer, is the director of a science and technology investment foundation, with a board of Putin insiders, that earned $7.6 million last year. Older daughter Maria Vorontsova is a shareholder in a firm developing a major new medical center near St. Petersburg, also backed by Putin’s political allies.

Farida Rutamova, the BBC reporter, asked the president:

These two women in business are assisted by your old friends, officials, state companies. We see that these two women were often shown on TV. Everyone already knows their names. This is such an open secret. My question is: When do you acknowledge that they are your children, and when will they become public, open to society, like the children of other world leaders?

Putin dodged the question, refraining from acknowledging that the two women are his daughters and speaking in vague terms about their business ventures. That’s likely to be the last we hear on the matter—at least until next year’s press conference.