Russians submitted over 2mn questions for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual live question-and-answer session on June 30, where he played the good tsar, listens to petition and fixes problems.
The event headlined “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” is a carefully stage-managed event and a regular fixture on the calendar. But it has in recent years become more important for the Kremlin, even as its content has become more boring as increasingly the Kremlin uses the event to project carefully prepared policy statements on Russia’s biggest domestic issues.
The live press conferences with representatives from around the country and a large part of Moscow’s foreign press corps has given way to social media chats and pre-recorded messages sent in from smart phones.
These days, access to the studio is closed and all the questions are carefully screened beforehand. Even the ticker that showed live tweets and social media posts as they came in has been canned after embarrassingly blunt questions and stinging criticisms appeared on screen during the course of the broadcast.
The foreign policy section has shrunk too. In the noughties when there was still a chance of a “reset” between East and West Putin entertained the international press and his comments could move the market in real time. These days Putin’s foreign policy comments are designed as messages. This year Putin dwelled on the recent events in the Black Sea and suggested the UK’s HMS Defender was in the Crimean waters as a provocation in cahoots with the US to spy on Russia, “but we sent them some information we thought was appropriate.”
However, the list of questions is illuminating, as they highlight the public policy issues the Kremlin has to deal with and it is the public, not the Kremlin, that is setting that agenda.
Putin is well aware of this and said Russia is a global storehouse of natural resources that must be used “wisely,” but people are its main “gold” reserve.
"Russia is undoubtedly a storehouse, a global storehouse of various mineral resources, this can and must be used wisely, and this is also our huge competitive advantage," the president said. "Our main gold reserve is not these $600-odd billion that have been accumulated in the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry; the main gold reserve of Russia is the people. This is not mere rhetoric, I am not saying this to please anyone, I am sincerely convinced that this is what it is," the Russian leader stressed.
With real incomes in decline for about eight years the Kremlin is under pressure to deliver on some change or face rising social tension. Predictably most of the questions dealt with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, healthcare and incomes. The Kremlin noted that the most popular questions concerned vaccination and the fight against COVID-19.x`
Ukraine and Russia are one people
Probably the most controversial thing Putin said during the whole three and half hours he was on air was that the Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.”
It is possible that he was referring to the Slavic “Rus” as an ethnicity that was born in Kyiv, commonly regarded as the cradle of the Slavic people, but Putin has been widely accused of not considering Ukraine to be a “proper” country and dismissing its statehood as a folly. And his comments during the show did nothing to debase those claims. He went on to dismiss the idea of meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy because he is a puppet of the Western powers.
"What's the use of meeting with Zelenskiy when he has given full control of his country to outside management?" Putin said. "Key decisions are being made in Washington, and Berlin and Paris to some extent. I'm not refusing to meet with Zelenskiy, it's just necessary to understand what there is to talk about."
He went on to say that he was not against meeting Zelenskiy, who was welcome to come to Moscow any time.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba shot back on Twitter: “Ukrainians & Russians are two separate nations. We could live as good neighbours had Russia not attacked Ukraine in 2014, killing thousands of people, occupying our lands. Full responsibility for the abyss between our nations lies with Putin who launched the aggression.”
“The big reveal: Putin claims he got the #SputnikV juice and not Chumakov or any Western jab,” tweeted bne IntelliNews contributor and Russia veteran reporter Jason Corcoran.
Putin was very slow to get vaccinated, leading to speculation that he has some sort of medical condition, but when he finally did get inoculated it was done in camera and he didn't name the vaccine he took.
However, when asked during the show he admitted to getting Sputnik V. When asked why his injection was not televised, Putin suggested that he was not injected in the arm without giving details.
"As for me, when I did this and this took place in February, there were actually two [vaccines] in circulation: EpiVacCorona from the Novosibirsk-based Vector Center and Sputnik V, as you know. Both of them are good," the Russian president assured.
"I proceeded from the fact that I needed to be protected as long as possible, and I made my decision to get the Sputnik V jab," Putin said.
More importantly Putin said he did not support mandatory inoculation, which has been ordered by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin for 60% of service industry workers in the capital, but did stress that everyone needs to get the jab to get the pandemic under control.
"I've never supported mandatory vaccination. I still think so,” Putin said, putting some distance between himself and Sobyanin.
Earlier this year Putin predicted that Russia would reach herd immunity in September but Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov walked the timetable back the day before Putin’s talk show, saying that target will now be missed.
New coronavirus infections have spiked in the last weeks and topped 20,000 per day this week – their highest level since the pandemic began. The threats of mandatory inoculations have had an effect, with long lines suddenly appearing in front of immunisation centres in the last week, to the point where demand is now outstripping supply. After ignoring the vaccines for months, so many Russians have rushed to get a jab that Russia is already starting to fail to meet its export obligations.
About 23mn Russians have been vaccinated against COVID-19, with no tragic outcomes after inoculation being registered, Putin said, and also admitted that some of his entourage have been infected with light cases.
"By now, more than twenty million – twenty-three million, as far as I know – have been vaccinated. As we see, everything is all right. Thank God, no tragic situations have been reported in Russia after vaccination, like after the use of AstraZeneca or Pfizer," he said, taking a sideways swipe at Sputnik V’s main rivals.
This year’s Live with Putin is especially important, as the country will go to the polls for a parliamentary election on September 19. Putin said that he will vote for the United Russia as the Kremlin tries to rally support for its flagging party, which has seen the level of trust in the party crash in the polls.
"Even if not very popular decisions, but crucial for the people and the future of the country, are to be made, United Russia members agree to do this to a certain extent to their own detriment. This work by the United Russia Party creates a very firm basis, a solid foundation of Russian statehood, in the sense the decisions the country needs will be guaranteed," Putin said when asked why he supported the ruling party.
"It is because I was an architect and founder of that party, and I naturally support it. Today's conversation and the answer to your question indicates that I am going to support it in the election campaign," Putin said in an effort to share some of his own popularity with that of the party.
Alongside the State Duma elections there will be direct elections of the heads of nine Russian regions (in three others the top executive officials will be elected by the local legislatures) and 39 regional parliaments.
Crimea naval incident
Putin said the decision of HMS Defender to sail into the Crimea 12-mile (19.2-km) exclusion zone was a provocation, but denied that it could have trigged a world war.
"This is, of course, a provocation, which is absolutely clear. What did these provocateurs want to show and what goals did they seek to achieve? First of all, it [the provocation] was comprehensive and was staged not only by the British but also by the Americans because the British warship ventured into our territorial waters in the afternoon, while early in the morning, at 07:30, a US strategic reconnaissance plane took off from a Nato airfield in Greece, from Crete, I believe. I later received a report on that. We saw and observed it clearly," the Russian leader said.
"You said the world teetered on the brink of a world war. No, of course not. Even if we had sunk that ship, it would still be difficult to imagine that this would have put the world on the brink of WWIII, since those who are doing this, they know that they cannot emerge victorious from this war," the president said.
A new war wouldn’t make Russia happy either, the president added. "But we at least know what we are fighting for. We are fighting on our territory for ourselves, for our future," the president stressed.
"The question is – why was it necessary to stage such a provocation? What was this all done for? For the sake of emphasising that these people don’t respect the choice of the Crimean people to join the Russian Federation, that they don’t recognise something there? Well, okay, carry on with not recognising this. But why stage such provocations?" the president asked.
While the rest of the world has not recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the move remains every popular in Russia, where the Crimea is universally considered to be Russian territory since Catherine the Great first annexed the territory in 1783.
Putin pointedly referenced Russia’s troop build-up along Ukraine’s border in April that brought international condemnation, downplaying the incident, but went to complain about the Nato’s “Sea Breeze” exercises currently under way in the Black Sea.
Stepping back from current affairs Putin weighed in on his favourite theme, saying the day of superpower hegemonies is over and that no one nation can dominate world affairs any more.
"The period of the unipolar world has gone," Putin said. "Whatever sanctions may be used against Russia, no matter how they may try to frighten us, Russia is developing all the same and its economic sovereignty is increasing. The defence capability has reached a very high level and surpassed many countries of the world by many parameters. It has also outperformed the United States by some parameters."
After being traumatised by the hyperinflation of the early 1990s, inflation remains one of ordinary Russians’ main concerns, and surged at the start of this year.
"Our inflation increased, it was somewhere in around 4%, now it has risen to 5.9%, almost 6%. And, of course, the goal is to suppress it. That is why the Bank of Russia slightly raised the key rate so that there was no excess money supply in the economy. I hope that this inflation will return to the target indicators – to 4%. This year we will hardly be able to achieve this, but I think that we will be able to reach the 5% level," Putin said.
On June 29 CBR governor Elvira Nabiullina said that inflation had “significantly exceeded the target levels”, and after dipping briefly the public’s expectation for higher price rises was rising again now. She will almost certainly hike rates again at the July central bank meeting, but she warned that she could hike them by a full 100bp.
Putin has already very publically ordered administrative controls to curb the price rises in staple goods like pasta, wheat, cooking oil and sugar, but the president held out hope that as the summer agricultural season gets under way agricultural prices will fall on their own.
"There will be vegetable harvest soon. I hope that this will affect prices," he said. "Last year we produced potatoes, for example, over 19mn tonnes. This year there will be about 22mn tonnes. I hope we have more than enough," he said.
At the same time, the problem of the internal provision of Russia with chicken meat or pork is completely fulfilled, Putin noted. "We even export a lot," he said, recalling that last year exports of agricultural products reached a record figure of over $30bn.