MOSCOW — As he watches Europe’s confrontation with President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be enjoying an “I told you so” moment.
“In essence, these are sanctions,” Putin said of the tariffs. “What, did they ‘annex Crimea,’ as many of our partners say?”
Putin went on: “Our partners probably thought that these counterproductive policies would never affect them. . . . No one wanted to listen, and no one wanted to do anything to stop these tendencies. Here we are.”
One of the show’s hosts responded, “They got what they deserved.”
Putin’s 16th call-in marathon, which lasted 4½ uninterrupted hours, provided a window into the president’s mind-set — and a prime display of the stagecraft that the Kremlin deploys to boost Putin’s image and promote his worldview to Russian households. During the broadcast, state TV correspondents fanned out nationwide to deliver live footage of Russians showing their leaky floors or describing the sorry state of their small-town hospitals. After hearing a complaint, Putin often turned to one of Russia’s scores of state governors who were at the ready in live video feeds.
“You need to find out who these officials are,” Putin told Governor Sergey Zhvachkin after the head of the Tomsk region blamed a mother’s problems obtaining land for her family on poorly informed officials.
The videoconferencing element was a new addition to the yearly call-in show. It was the latest example — on the heels of last month’s elaborately choreographed presidential inauguration and Putin’s opening of a new bridge to Crimea — of the Kremlin’s work to hone the theater of Putin’s made-for-TV presidency. Although polls show that Putin remains popular, the fact that he first became president 18 years ago means the Kremlin needs to ward off any public fatigue with the leader.
Putin didn’t fire any of his governors on live television, as some Russian journalists had speculated he might. But the leader’s lectures to officials that they must do better to resolve people’s daily problems helped deliver the underlying message, which many Russians accept, that any difficulties they face in their lives are the fault of Putin’s subordinates rather than the president.
Putin also used the interview to cast himself as a pragmatist who wasn’t always going to take a hard line on foreign policy or civil rights.
In response to a question calling on him to enact sanctions against Latvia for allegedly mistreating ethnic Russians there, Putin said he wanted to resolve the situation with talks and not with any measures that would make matters worse. Asked by a young blogger whether the government had plans to shut down Instagram and YouTube, Putin insisted that it does not.
There were no questions about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, but Putin brought up the subject. One of the hosts asked him to tell a joke. Putin mentioned seeing a German news headline declaring, “Donald Trump pushes Europe into Putin’s arms.”
“So, we influenced the U.S. elections, and he gifted us Europe in return?” he asked. “Utter idiocy. You can’t describe this as anything other than a joke.”
Seconds later, Putin was asked what piece of advice from his father would he like to pass on to his grandchildren.
“Don’t lie,” the Russian president said.