MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he doubted President Trump would be able to improve relations between their two countries because Trump was being held back by his political opposition.
“There are things that he would want to do but hasn’t been able to so far, like reforming health care or other goals. For instance, he spoke about improving relations with Russia,” Putin said in remarks carried on national television. “It’s clear that, even if he wanted to, he’s not in a condition to do that because of some clear restrictions” created by his opponents.
“I don’t know if he still wants [to improve relations with Russia], or if it’s totally exhausted, but I hope he still does,” Putin added.
It was another dose of the world as Putin sees it, as he sat down with more than 1,600 journalists packed into a Moscow convention hall. Equal parts news conference and political carnival, the annual event provides a sounding board for Putin. The discussion is always broad, though it often lacks depth. Journalists can ask sharp questions, but they rarely have a chance to ask follow-ups.
Addressing the International Olympic Committee's decision last week to ban the Russian Federation from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, Putin said the investigation that revealed a state-sponsored doping program in Russia was driven by an attempt to undermine his expected reelection in 2018.
“The scandal is being ramped up in connection with the Russian domestic political calendar,” Putin said. “No matter what anyone says, I am certain, and I know that it is very much so.”
At moments, he showed flashes of anger, such as when discussing Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Rusada anti-doping lab in Russia, who later gave information on the country’s athletic doping program to investigators and journalists after fleeing to the United States.
“It was a mistake” for him to be put in charge of the lab, Putin said. “I know who did it.”
Focusing on domestic politics, Putin said he would like to see greater competition. But he said it is not his job to build up the opposition in a country he has ruled for 18 years, and likely will rule even longer as the election looms.
He said that his campaign would be largely focused on improving the Russian economy and that he would run as an independent, distancing himself from United Russia, which he founded and built into the ruling party.
“The simplest thing for me to say is that it isn’t for me to foster opponents, although I should unexpectedly tell you that I think that our political sphere, like our economic sphere, should be competitive,” Putin said.
Putin, Russia’s de facto leader since New Year’s Eve 1999, has held a marathon news conference once a year in December for the 13 years he has been president (taking a break for the four years he was prime minister).
The conference was attended by reporters from across Russia and the world, many of whom waved large signs in the hope of being called upon. “Give the Floor to Children,” read one. Another sign, a larger-than-life Russian passport, was held by an attendee hoping to liberalize border crossing rules between Russia and Estonia.
It was a marathon test of Putin’s ability to parry, brush off or simply dodge even the most hard-hitting questions with a poker face, eliciting applause
Radio host Tania Felgengauer, who is recovering from a stabbing attack by a listener after her station, Echo of Moscow, was criticized harshly by state-run television, asked Putin why Russia seems to have a legal double standard. She cited the case of Igor Sechin, chairman of Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, who was allowed to ignore a subpoena in a high-level corruption trial in which he is a witness.
“All Russians are equal before the law,” Putin blithely responded. As for Sechin, he said, “the courts will decide.”
The hall appeared to have more than its share of Putin loyalists. When a journalist tried to ask a question about alleged human rights violations in Crimea, Russian voices tried to shout him down. (Putin told them to let the journalist finish the question, then blamed Ukraine for the conflict in which Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.)
The Kremlin has announced that Putin will not participate in debates with other presidential candidates, prompting one of his potential challengers, Ksenia Sobchak, to accredit herself as a reporter from the Internet TV channel where she is a host.
“Why are the authorities afraid?” Sobchak asked Putin, citing the Kremlin’s refusal to debate opponents and the decision to bar anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny from joining the race.
Putin, who never mentions Navalny by name, responded that only candidates who have something positive to offer should run for office.
Putin last week said he would run for a new six-year term in a March presidential vote that he is expected to win easily.
“Whenever we speak about the opposition, it is important not just to make noise on squares or privately speak about how the regime is against the people. It is also important to offer something that will make life better,” Putin said. “People are discontented with lots of things, and they are right to be discontented. But whenever people compare and look at what the opposition, especially the extra-systemic opposition, has to offer, they have big doubts.”
A survey published Wednesday by the independent Levada Center suggested that 61 percent of Russians intended to vote for Putin, up from 54 percent in a similar poll conducted in late November.
Two candidates who have traditionally played the role of runner-up garnered single-digit support in the poll: ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 8 percent and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with 6 percent.
Only 1 percent said that they would vote for Sobchak, the TV host who has made headlines as a candidate "against all." Sobchak attended the news conference as a journalist for the opposition Internet channel TV Rain.
Anti-corruption crusader Navalny, who has been excluded from the elections because of a criminal conviction he says was politically motivated, was not named in the poll.
As state-run television counted down the minutes to the news conference, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed the competition. "There are a lot of worthy people" who have announced their candidacy, but "no one is ready to be a worthy opponent" to the Kremlin leader, he said.
Peskov also said that Putin would not take part in campaign debates against "candidates who know they have no chance."