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‘Let’s turn this page’ Putin talks tensions over Ukraine, prison torture, and Santa Claus in annual marathon press conference

Source: Meduza
Sergey Karpukhin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Vladimir Putin held his yearly marathon press conference for the seventeenth time on Thursday, December 23. Around 500 journalists were invited to attend; the Russian president fielded 55 questions in just under four hours, taking few questions from the foreign press and no questions from the “foreign agent” media outlets present (Meduza included). Putin commented on a number of pressing issues, including tensions with the U.S. and NATO over Ukraine, this past year’s crackdown on dissent, systemic abuse in the Russian prison system, and, in the holiday spirit, his feelings about Santa Claus. Meduza sums up the key takeaways here. 

On tensions over Ukraine 

Commenting on reports that Russia is planning to launch an attack against Ukraine, Putin said that any actions would depend “on the need to ensure our own security.” “We made it clear that further NATO expansion to the East is unacceptable,” he underscored. “Is Russia putting missiles near the United States’ borders? No! It’s the United States coming to the doorstep of our home with missiles.”

At the same time, Putin wouldn’t offer any guarantees vis-à-vis Ukraine, arguing that the West must give Moscow immediate security guarantees and not “talk it over for decades.” Recalling the proposals Russia recently presented to the U.S. and NATO, Putin welcomed the “positive reaction” so far. “[Biden] asked for proposals, we sent them. I hope that we will discuss them and move forward,” he said. According to Putin, the U.S. and Russia will hold talks on the matter in January. 

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On the topic of the war in eastern Ukraine, Putin condemned the leadership in Kyiv for refusing to comply with the Minsk agreements and for refusing to negotiate with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (the territories in the Donbas controlled by Russian-backed separatists).

“The Minsk agreements, in substance, imply an autonomous Donbas. Elections need to be held, an amnesty needs to be held. But Kyiv isn’t doing any of this — instead, it’s returning troops,” Putin said, alleging that Ukraine is planning to retake the region by force. “Instead of responding to the people’s demand for peace, President Zelensky fell under the influence of radical elements, as they say in Ukraine, Nazis.”

On the crackdown on ‘foreign agents’ and ‘extremists’

Asked about the crackdown on the media and civil society organizations over the past year, Putin replied that Russia “can only be destroyed from within.” “And who did this [in the past]? Those who were serving foreign interests,” he stressed.

Putin then went on to recall that the United States came up with a law on “foreign agents” back in the 1930s and that it’s still in place. “The difference is that there [in the United States] if you don’t stop your activities, you face criminal liability, up to five years in prison,” he underscored. “We have nothing like that. We don’t prohibit the work of these organizations. [...] Our law is much more liberal.”

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On Alexey Navalny

Referring to imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny as “the man who was allegedly poisoned,” Putin claimed that due to a supposed lack of international cooperation, Russia still doesn’t have grounds for opening a criminal investigation into the poisoning.

“Give us at least some evidence of the poisoning. There isn’t a single piece. [...] I personally made proposals to the president of France, the chancellor of Germany: Let our specialists come, let them take samples, give us at least some grounds to initiate a criminal case. [But] no, nothing,” Putin said. “So there’s no need to talk about this. Let’s turn this page.”

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On torture in Russian prisons

Television host Ksenia Sobchak asked Putin about a recent prison torture scandal and allegations that penitentiary service officials, some of whom were the recipients of state awards, were responsible for systemic abuse. 

Putin replied that much like in other countries, there are problems in the Russian prison system, adding that these issues needed to be worked on “calmly.” He also assured that an investigation into the torture allegations is ongoing, adding that there are “17 criminal cases.” “In prison colonies and pre-trial detention centers there are people who committed crimes, but these are our citizens — they must be treated like people,” he asserted.

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On Santa Claus

Called upon to ask Putin a question, a journalist from newspaper Krasny Sever seized the opportunity to find out the Russian president’s stance on a controversial figure — Ded Moroz (Santa Claus). In response to the burning question “Does Father Frost fulfill your wishes?” Putin said he has always had a good relationship with Santa and that he’s grateful to him for the opportunity to be president of Russia. 

Questions left unsaid

Notably, Putin didn’t comment on Russia’s most controversial draft legislation of the year — the bills that would make QR-code vaccine proof mandatory for accessing many public places and certain types of transportation (the former passed the first reading on December 16, while the latter has been put on hold). 

In addition, the three “foreign agents” that were invited to attend the press conference — Meduza, Dozhd television, and RFE/RL’s Russian Service — weren’t allowed to ask a single question. (Putin also took very few questions from the foreign press.)

Immediately after the event wrapped, Meduza’s correspondent Svetlana Reiter asked Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov why the “foreign agent” media outlets weren’t given the opportunity to ask questions. He replied as follows:

“A lot of people weren’t able to ask a question. [Their] turn didn’t come. And even representatives of the presidential pool didn’t get the floor. There can’t be any priorities for ‘foreign agents’.” 

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Text by Eilish Hart

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