Putin Backs Trump in U.S., but Faces Tough Questions at Home

Once a year Putin makes a show of opening himself up to questions, and a few are posed by brave, critical journalists. Thursday they put him on the spot.

Jorge Silva/Reuters

MOSCOW—The world inside the Kremlin is very different from the world outside its walls. On the outside,  say in the United States, investigators might find incriminating evidence of collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign staff  and Russian officials. And they have no question about Russian interference.

But inside the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin would still insist, as he did Thursday, that the evidence was “invented by people who are in opposition to Trump.” Putin says he believed that by criticizing Trump, Americans have harmed their own state, and weakened the power of the elected president.

That is how President Putin and his team at the Kremlin see opposition in Russia, too. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, assured journalists on Thursday that Putin’s political competition “has not ripened yet.”

But that is not how the many young, well-educated, progressive Russian democrats see things, as we saw Thursday when Putin met the press.

It’s an annual affair. Once a year Putin makes a show of opening himself up to questions, and a few are posed by brave, critical journalists.

On Thursday, at Putin’s 13th  end-of-year press conference, the Russian president’s expression showed just how much he did not enjoy being challenged, as he was forced to discover there were some young, talented Russians who were quite ripe enough after 18 years of his rule to present alternatives. But will they ever have a chance for fair competition?

Just a few weeks ago Tatiana Felgenhauer, a 32-year-old reporter and deputy-chief-editor at the Echo of Moscow radio station was rushed to intensive care after a would-be assassin attacked her right at her office, stabbing her in the neck with a knife.

On Thursday, Tatiana was wearing an attention-grabbing red dress and glasses in red frames when she asked Vladimir Putin a question about something Russian voters expected the president to guarantee and protect: the rule of law.

“We see two legal realities,” she said, one bad and one worse: “In one of them there is a real repressive machine, which prosecutes court cases against reposting text messages,” Felgenhauer said. She listed people under arrest, including theater director Kirill Serebrennikov and opposition activists.

“And we see a different legal reality, in which [charismatic opposition leader] Boris Nemtsov gets killed, but investigators do not question the key witness.” She also cited the case of Andrei Turchak implicated in the attempted assassination of journalist Oleg Kashin. And she raised the issue of Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, who did not even show up in court to address the important case of Aleksei Ulyukayev.”

Putin scowled as if Felgenhauer touched a nerve.

The Russian president’s answers were vague. He did not explain why police detained thousands of opposition activists during mass protests this year; neither did Putin remember why Aleksei Navalny, his key political opponent, and members of Navalny’s team had spent a total of more than 2,000 days in jail this year.

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During the press conference the president did not clarify reports by human rights groups denouncing the murders of 100 gay people rounded up in Chechnya this year.

Instead, Putin told Felgenhauer: “I agree with you, there are enough problems, but I cannot agree that we have different legal realities. As for Sechin, if there is some violation of law in not showing up at the court, the court should react to it.” And immediately the president gave the court his own point of view on the issue: “As far as I imagine, when we see public reaction, the law has not been violated.”

After the press conference Felgenhauer told The Daily Beast that the president’s answer to her question about selective justice did not surprise her.

“But even with predictable answers journalists should challenge the power, reporters should move the leader out of his comfort zone,” Felgenhauer said. “If only the Kremlin saw that there are ripe,  and not infantile, opponents and allowed more questions about the non-transparent budget and unfair election process, the press conference would have been more interesting for both President Putin and his press secretary, Peskov.”

Taking advantage of the occasion, Putin informed reporters that he would run for reelection as president next year, but not as the leader of the ruling United Russia party. Instead, he said, he will be an independent candidate.

Another lady in red was called on. The famous Russian “It Girl,” Ksenia Sobchak, who is also a presidential candidate running her own campaign, asked Putin an uncomfortable question.

With a big, glamorous smile Sobchak pointed out that the press conference was the only place for Putin’s opponents to challenge him, “since you never participate in debates.”

Sobchak was calm and self-confident. She talked about how difficult it was for her to meet with her electorate and supporters, since people were terrified of the Kremlin’s pressure.

“Is the power afraid of honest competition?” Sobchak asked.

Putin looked as if his mood was growing dark. “The power has never been scared and never will be scared,” he insisted.

Putin mocked his would-be opponent Navalny by comparing him to ex-Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who recently was arrested in Kiev after a theatrical confrontation with authorities: “Do you want people like Saakashvili to be running around our streets like in Ukraine?”

Putin accused Saakashvili and his kind of trying to organize another Maidan revolution in Ukraine—and a desire to do something similar in Moscow. “But the Russian people will never support that,” he said, and somebody in the audience, surely not journalists, applauded. “We don’t want this to be Ukraine 2.0,” Putin concluded.

Then, a Ukrainian journalist, Roman Tsymbalyuk, asked if President Putin planned to continue ignoring Russian prisoners held in Ukraine or swap them for Ukrainian prisoners. The reporter accused Russian leadership of sending forces to Ukraine. Putin brushed that question away, too, by denying the Russian army’s presence in Ukraine.  

There were more than 1,000 journalists at the press conference, with thousands of ripe questions for Putin in mind, but Peskov called on only a few. Putin’s answers might not be ripe yet.