Putin Praises, Defends Trump and Revs Up Own Re-election Bid

In his annual marathon press conference, the Russian president buttered up his American counterpart and cut loose from the party he once led.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 14 (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 14 (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Relations between the United States and Russia may have sunk to lows last seen in the Cold War, but Russian President Vladimir Putin ended the tumultuous year by extending an olive branch to his American counterpart on Thursday at his marathon annual press conference.

At times amiable and chipper, but also cutting and acerbic, Putin spoke for almost four hours in a crowded Kremlin hall to over 1,600 Russian and foreign journalists. He denied Russian collusion in U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign and echoed Trump’s own assertions that his opponents had created the story for their own gain.

“All of it was invented by people who oppose President Trump to undermine his legitimacy,” Putin said. (U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the election.)

Putin added that political infighting in Washington “showed a lack of respect to voters who cast their ballots for him.” The 65-year-old Russian leader also heaped praise on Trump’s economic achievements and said the United States was obsessed with “spymania” when it came to its relationship with Russia.

The Kremlin-backed English-language channel RT asked if Putin and Trump are on a first-name basis. Putin smirked and said he believed they are.

The peace offering is the latest twist in a Russia scandal that has engulfed the administration since even before Trump took office. Relations have swung like a pendulum ever since, from Russian lawmakers quaffing champagne and erupting into applause when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ceded defeat, to disappointment in Trump’s “weak” leadership several months later, then horror at his seeming tolerance for Nazi symbols, to Trump’s outpouring of enthusiasm last month for Russia’s help in solving geopolitical crises.

Despite the outreach, America didn’t get off scot-free. Russia’s affinity for conspiracy theories was on full display when Putin suggested that Washington may have been behind Russia’s state-sponsored doping in sports, which led to Russia’s ban from the International Olympic Committee in next year’s Winter Games. Putin said that Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov was a U.S. agent and was being fed drugs by the FBI. “What substances are they giving him so he says these things?”

But the gesture toward the United States is also timely for Putin’s own political future, coming just days after he said he would seek re-election in March’s presidential vote.

Already the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin, Putin is almost guaranteed a victory in the election that would extend his 18-year grip on the country by another six years. The conciliatory tone toward Washington also comes on the coattails of a whirlwind Middle East tour that saw Putin emerge as a key stakeholder in the region. In the span of one day, Putin deftly whizzed through Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, sending a powerful message that, while Trump looks inward with his “America first” policy, Russia has clawed back a measure of clout on the world stage, returning to Moscow some of the influence it wielded during the Soviet era.

Aware of increased voter apathy and an electorate unmotivated by seeing the same man continue in power, Putin distanced himself from the ruling United Russia party he once led and said he would run as an independent candidate.

Abandoning United Russia underscores Putin’s acute awareness of the need to increase his appeal. The party, run by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has steadily dropped in popularity in recent years. Medvedev’s popularity has also sunk to record lows in the wake of revelations of his ill-gotten wealth by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader.

Putin referred to Navalny, who has been barred from running in the presidential race, only obliquely and not by name during the press conference.

“Do you want an attempted coup d’etat? We’ve already lived through all of that.… I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not want this,” he said.

Putin spent much of the press conference on domestic matters, especially the economy, rattling off statistics meant to show how the Russian economy on his watch has dramatically improved since he first took office in 2000.

Striking a patriotic note, he said the economy has now recovered from two major shocks — a sharp drop in the price of oil since 2014 and Western sanctions slapped on Russia over the annexation that same year of Crimea. (After a two-year recession, Russia’s GDP is expected to grow by 1.7 percent this year and continue on a similar trend over the next three years).

Along with distancing himself from the Kremlin-ruled United Russia party, Putin sought to portray himself as the defender of the Russian people, along the lines of Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, who were often portrayed paternally. Putin showed himself tied to the motherland by national interests unconnected to politics and corrupt officials.

That point was underscored toward the start of the press conference, when Putin questioned a female journalist holding up a sign with Cyrillic letters reading, “Putin bye-bye.”

Squinting at the placard, he asked in jest, “Is someone actually holding a sign saying ‘Putin bye-bye?’” The journalist, from the central Tatarstan region, replied that it meant “Grandpa Putin” in her native Tatar.

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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