MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin upped his trolling on Thursday when he spoke to the Russian people during his annual hours-long live Q and A session.
With a smirk and a glint in his eye, Putin jokingly offered the former FBI Director James Comey, a “human rights defender,” a home in Russia. “If he faces pressure, then we are happy to offer him political asylum too.”
Commenting on Comey’s recent revelations that he passed on memos of his conversations with President Donald Trump to members of the press, Putin remarked, “How, in that case, does he differ from [Edward] Snowden?” The American whistleblower was granted asylum by Moscow and has been living in an undisclosed location in Russia for the past four years, an issue that irks the United States.
In Comey's explosive hearing last week before U.S. Congress, the former FBI director accused Trump of firing him in order to undermine the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. He also maintained that Russia did indeed interfere in the election, but did not say how. Russia largely downplayed the testimony, casting it as a witch hunt that was not particularly important. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony earlier this week was given almost no attention at all in Russia.
During Putin’s four-hour marathon, which was broadcast live across the country, he was asked which of the world’s leaders had the strongest handshake. In a possible swipe at Trump, whose tug-and-grip handshake has become infamous, Putin answered: “Handshakes don’t determine the strength of the leader, his or her dedication to their country does.”
Ties between Washington and Moscow are at their worst in decades, as the erstwhile Cold War foes continue to clash on the crises in Syria and Ukraine, as well as over reports of Russian interference and potential collusion in the U.S. election.
Trump was clearly Russia’s preferred candidate, and Putin was hoping that the American leader would lift economic sanctions imposed on the country over its role in the Ukraine conflict, including the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Though Russia would be hard-pressed to admit the economic damage that the sanctions have caused – Putin insists on just the opposite, that they have improved their economy by boosting domestic production – more sanctions will likely put further strain on Russia’s economy. The world’s largest energy supplier is already suffering from a large dip in the price of oil, its key export.
Trump and Putin are expected to meet for the first time next month in Germany at the G20 summit, however that meeting will likely be clouded by the Senate’s decision Wednesday to impose new sanctions on Russia, this time over meddling in the elections.
Without making reference to the latest round of sanctions, Putin said he was “ready for constructive dialogue” with the U.S. in order to settle on a range of problems, including terrorism. “I know the mood of the Russian people, we do not view the U.S. as our enemy,” he said.
According to state TV broadcasters, the 64-year-old president, who has ruled the country for 17 years, received some 2 million questions from the country, by way of email, phone and text. The annual event is highly coordinated and well prepared, and the questions submitted are carefully selected.
Putin made no mention of the anti-government protests organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Monday that swept across the country, severely disrupting central Moscow on a national holiday. However, in what seemed like a technical fault, messages from a disgruntled public popped up in the right-hand corner of the TV screen. “Putin, do you really think people are buying this circus with scripted questions?” one message read. Another asked, “When are you going to resign?” And “Is it true that Navalny is making a film about you?”
The latest protest movement was ignited by Navalny’s film on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, which he made in March, documenting his ill-gotten wealth. The film has been viewed 22 million times.
Could it be? Were ordinary Russians trolling the leader on state television? Moscow journalists and commentators were stunned by the unprecedented occurrence. Perhaps those submitting the controversial questions had been emboldened by the protests, which witnessed a tremendous turnout of tens of thousands across the country - and over a thousand arrests.
But despite the dissenting outbursts at the bottom of the screen, Putin was poised and very much the potentate, seated in the center of the film studio with a white thermos cup upon which was imprinted the double-headed Russian eagle.
The four hours felt like a lottery for Russia's citizens, over 20 million of which live in poverty, one-seventh of the country. Those lucky enough to speak to the president had their wishes granted. A young teacher complained her salary was too low; Putin said he’d fix it. A 24-year-old woman in Murmansk near the Arctic Circle said she was misdiagnosed and now had cancer as her region lacked specialists; her eyes filled with tears as Putin told her that he would try to help and that his father, too, had cancer. Women in Nyagin in central Russia showed Putin their ramshackle housing and their outhouse; Putin reassured them that their living conditions would improve. And for a woman in Izhevsk in central Russia, whose house was literally falling apart, Putin said he would personally come later this year and fix it.
Very much the tsar of his nation, Putin didn’t give too much away about whether or not he will run in next year’s election, currently slated for March. But what he did do was reassure his flock: "Everything will be fine,” he told them in his closing remarks, “I can confirm this.”
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