Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in his annual call-in show, ‘Direct Line,’ in Moscow on June 20, 2019. (Alexey Nikolsky/Pool/Sputnik/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing simmering domestic discontent, took to national television Thursday with one of his trademark messages: I feel your pain, but I’m the only one who can ease it.

In his annual call-in show, Putin fielded questions — at least some prescreened — from citizens across the country concerned about low incomes and poor medical care. He responded as he has in the past: Yes, things are hard, but the Kremlin is working to make them better. 

Asked at the top of the show whether life in Russia had gotten harder, Putin said, “This is indeed the case.” Lower oil prices had indeed contributed to a shock to the Russian economy.

But then came Putin’s twist. Incomes were starting to grow again, he claimed, and the government was taking measures to improve households’ bottom line.

The raw numbers suggest Russia’s economy is, in fact, climbing out of a hole. The International Monetary Fund predicts modest growth in gross domestic product of 1.6 percent this year.

But other measures show Russia is still gripped by corruption and fiscal mismanagement. The civil society watchdog group Transparency International ranked Russia in the bottom third of countries, saying that “cronyism remains a cornerstone of Russian social and political processes.”

Putin offered a rare show of emotion at the end of the program, in what seemed to be an attempt to connect with a frustrated populace. It also echoed the state media refrain that Russia’s problems are the fault of outside forces or of lower-level officials — never Putin himself.

The question to Putin was if he ever felt shame. He told a story from his early presidential travels in Russia’s regions about an elderly woman who fell to her knees in front of him, apparently pleading for help, and handed him a slip of paper.

“I took it, gave it to an aide, and it was lost. I will never forget this,” Putin said, his voice cracking. “Even now, I’m ashamed. Everything that gets to me gets in my hands — I try to work through everything in full. Sometimes you can’t solve problems. . . . But the thing is that it was lost.”

'When I say it'

In another segment, reporters for state TV were shown fanning out across the country to investigate claims of long lines at medical clinics. They showed a new dentist chair in a small village and a town hospital with modern equipment.

But hospital officials and patients told the reporters that it was hard to attract skilled workers to rural areas. 

“There are lots of problems, but in general the sector is developing,” Putin said, referring to health care. Promising that he would make sure things keep improving, he added: “It’s one thing when a minister says it. It’s another thing when I say it.” His health minister then chimed in by video link to reinforce the message. 

Putin’s annual “Direct Line” call-in show has been a core element of his image-making since 2001, sometimes lasting more than four hours. Russians are invited to send in questions to the president. He responds to dozens of them — often about granular, local matters, accompanied by on-the-ground TV reports. His immediate directives to officials to look into those problems paint a picture of a president who is attuned to regular Russians’ lives. 

Putin looks out for the common man, the message goes, even if lower-level officials don’t. Pro-Kremlin media outlets showed photos of Putin preparing for the call by studying an inches-thick stack of paper while wearing a casual zip-up jacket. 

On the broadcast Thursday, the hosts said their operators were receiving 900 calls per minute with questions for the president. More than 1.5 million questions were submitted in all, the Kremlin said. There was even a smartphone app allowing Russians to record their question by video. 

Putin touched on geopolitics, but it was largely a sideshow. He urged Russians not to worry about international sanctions, claiming that the European Union had suffered more from its sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis than Russia did.

He also promised to examine the cases of 24 Ukrainian sailors and other Ukrainians behind bars in Russia, but only in conjunction with the cases of what he said were Russians wrongfully imprisoned in Ukraine. 

Trump's 'treason' tweet

Asked about a New York Times report that the United States had mounted a cyber-incursion into Russia’s power grid, Putin said he had seen President Trump’s reaction to the article accusing the newspaper of “treason.”

“I don’t understand how we are supposed to interpret this,” Putin said. “Does this mean they published existing, real information or that they put out a fake? In any case, we need to react somehow and understand what this is all about.”

Responding to another question, Putin said that he was prepared to meet with Trump but that the U.S. president faces domestic head winds in improving ties with Russia. Trump has said he expects to meet Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Japan next week, but the one-on-one hasn’t been officially confirmed.

“If the president wants to take steps in our direction, wants to talk about something, there is a massive amount of limits from other centers of power, especially now that the current head of state will be looking at the demands of the election campaign,” Putin said, repeating a frequent gripe in Moscow about U.S. checks and balances tying Trump’s hands.

Putin’s annual appearance comes at a critical time for the Russian president after two decades in power.

His approval ratings have fallen over the past year to about 66 percent, according to independent pollster Levada Center — impressively high for most world leaders but still the lowest level since his first year in office. The glow of Putin’s domestically popular annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 has faded, analysts say, and the government’s sharp increase of the retirement age last year cast a spotlight on Russia’s sputtering economy. 

In recent weeks, the challenge to Putin has been highlighted even further with Russians showing their readiness to take to the streets. In the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, a spontaneous outpouring of anger over the construction of a cathedral in a beloved city park led to an intervention from Putin and suspension of the plans. In Moscow, the authorities freed a journalist arrested on drug charges after outrage from colleagues and celebrities who said he had been framed. 

As he has done repeatedly in past months, Putin tried to show that he was sensitive to criticism that Russia’s police and security agencies were abusing their power to eliminate business and political opponents. He told Alexander Khurudzhi, a representative of business executives who are behind bars, that the practice of keeping suspects in pretrial detention needed to be curtailed. 

“One of the biggest problems today is that people are being kept in detention endlessly,” Putin said. 

Jailed American

However, neither Putin nor Khurudzhi mentioned Michael Calvey, an American investor based in Moscow whose detention in February triggered intense criticism from international business representatives. Calvey was released to house arrest in April, but several colleagues of his remain in jail.

In a show of how even the potential of Putin’s attention can move mountains, a segment from Russia’s Pacific coast reported that beluga and killer whales captured for sale by businesses were starting to be freed Thursday, coinciding with the possibility of negative coverage on the call-in program. The “jail” for roughly 100 whales in Russia’s far east has drawn extensive coverage and concern from environmentalists. 

“It’s the miraculous effect of the ‘Direct Line,’ ” a TV reporter on the show intoned after describing the two killer whales and six belugas headed for freedom.