Russian television audiences didn’t have much choice but to watch Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference on December 14 – it was broadcast on all terrestrial TV networks. After a year’s hiatus in 2022, when the success of the Ukrainian autumn counteroffensive meant there was little good news to talk about, Putin returned to the airwaves for a four-hour press conference and phone-in Q&A session in which he answered pre-approved questions and boosted his candidacy for next year’s elections.
There were reportedly 600 journalists present, the vast majority of them from Russian news outlets. Viewers were treated to Putin as the “man of the people”, willing to answer questions that were, on the face of it, mildly critical of the “special military operation” and the effect it had on ordinary people’s lives.
Questions that came in via text were displayed on a screen in the press conference room, such as: “Tell us, when will our lives get better?” and “Hello, How can one move to the Russia that they talk about on Channel One?” – which appeared to be a reference to the pro-government state broadcaster.
But the event was clearly heavily stage-managed and designed to reflect a leadership that is fully in control of events and confident in both winning the war in Ukraine and a further six-year term of office in next year’s elections.
A country at war
The war, or the “special military operation”, as it is still euphemistically known, was a dominant theme throughout the four-hour event. Putin told viewers that Russia is making advances on all fronts and that “there will be peace when we achieve our goals. They haven’t changed. Denazification of Ukraine, the demilitarisation of Ukraine.”
Putin reiterated his constant theme of Ukraine as a nation of ultra-nationalists, raising the memory of Stepan Bandera. Bandera’s organisation collaborated with the Nazis during the second world war to fight Soviet occupation of Ukraine, and took part in the wholesale murder of Jews and Poles. In the context of renewed Russian aggression, his legacy has become ever more hotly contested.
It has long been a key point of propaganda for Putin – as has his argument that Ukrainians and Russians are essentially one people: “What is happening now is an immense tragedy; it is like a civil war between brothers who stand on different sides [of the conflict].”
Putin also addressed the question of mobilisation, arguing that since so many people were volunteering to fight, another wave of mobilisation would be unnecessary: “There are 1,500 volunteer fighters being recruited every day throughout the country. So, together with the volunteers there will be about half a million people by the end of this year … So, what do we need mobilisation for? There is absolutely no need for it today.”
The economy and sanctions
Putin was very bullish about the health of Russia’s economy, with unemployment falling to 3% and real wages apparently growing by 8% after allowing for inflation, which is reportedly running at 7.5%. Many analysts have linked this apparent resurgence in the Russian economy with massive increases in military spending, or “military Keynesianism”, which has significantly boosted Russia’s industrial output.
While admitting that inflation was a problem (Putin apologised to one pensioner for the high price of eggs), Putin remarked that economic growth as measured by GDP had rebounded from 2022, when it fell by 2.1% to a positive 3.5% this year, “it means we have recouped the losses and have taken a significant step forward”.
Putin also made a great deal of what he referred to as “sovereignty”. His understanding of the term seems to be Russia’s isolation from the norms of the international system. “For a country like Russia, existence, mere existence, is impossible without sovereignty. Without sovereignty, Russia would cease to exist, at least in the form it exists today and has existed for a thousand years.”
As usual the west – or western elites – were painted as the source of all international tensions, with European countries (apart from Hungary and Slovakia, which both have pro-Russian governments) painted as Washington’s lapdogs, doing America’s bidding.
He also accused Nato of going “beyond the statutory goals of this organisation, the North Atlantic bloc” by turning its focus towards Asia. Russia and China, meanwhile: “are not doing anything of the kind. Yes, we are engaged in military, economic and humanitarian cooperation, but we are not creating any blocs”.
He also linked what he described as the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism to Russophobia, at times blaming the western media for fomenting anti-Russian sentiment.
As the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, many people question whether – and why – the Russian people acquiesce to the war in Ukraine. With dissent criminalised, Putin’s approval ratings appear to remain high, according to recent polling by the respected Levada Centre.
And with almost complete control of the news media in Russia, a new generation of schoolchildren being taught a Kremlin-sanctioned view of history, and plans for veterans to train schoolchildren, Putin aims to ensure it stays that way.
Asked what he would say to the Vladimir Putin who came to power in 2000, he said: “I would say: you are on the right track, comrades. What would I warn him against? Against naivety and excessive trust in our so-called partners.”