From Kommersant, Dec. 15, 2023, p. 1. Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – On Dec. 14, Vladimir Putin held a press conference, which was combined with his annual Direct Line [call-in show], at Gostiny dvor. It lasted longer than the previous press conference, but Kommersant’s special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov noted a certain apathy on both sides, which was caused by circumstances that weren’t immediately obvious. However, he did manage to take everything in.

* * *

The press conference, which was the focus of heightened attention due to Russia’s upcoming 2024 presidential election, was held at Gostiny dvor. Since this was an unusual location (the press conference has never been held there before), it took quite a bit of effort to set everything up. According to Kommersant, the set-up experts were there as early as Dec. 5, and there were several dozen of them. Alas, 50 were missing by the time the press conference started. Eleven of them had been knocked out by COVID[‑19], while the rest were suffering from upper respiratory infections and the flu.

The ones that remained finished up the job. The venue looked vast, and this was a disadvantage: There was nothing to suggest the desired, almost intimate, proximity of the [Moscow] World Trade Center, where the press conference has traditionally been held. . . .

Channel 1 CEO Konstantin Ernst was also there. The project was a shared one. And, most importantly, everyone understood that this was, first and foremost, a made-for-television project.

“Yes, it’s possible people are sitting a little far away,” said Mr. Ernst. “But we will reach everyone with our lenses.”

There could be no doubt about that.

Meanwhile, everything started almost on time. Five minutes before the beginning, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov walked in and fraternally asked his colleagues to put their phones on silent.

There were no illusions: The first call rang out in the hall about three minutes after the press conference started. . . .

Following tradition, Vladimir Putin began by outlining his thoughts on the economy and social issues (as it turned out, though, there weren’t really any issues).

But moderator Yekaterina Berezovskaya, who, along with Pavel Zarubin, ran the Direct Line portion of the event, posed a question that was, according to her, one of the most frequently asked: “When will there be peace?” Well, the answer, as it turned out, was perhaps the highlight of the entire press conference.

“Peace will come when we achieve our goals – they haven’t changed,” the president said.

In other words, if I understood correctly, there won’t be any talk of negotiations or ceasefires in the near future. After all, the goals have not been achieved.

And this was an honest answer.

The president said that one of the goals – demilitarization – is already being actively pursued: “I’m not going to recall those numbers for aircraft and air defense systems right now. They were given what they were promised, 400 tanks, 420-430.*** By the way, they were given everything they were promised. Ukraine received everything the Westerners promised and then some. But we’ve destroyed 747 tanks alone since the beginning of the so-called counteroffensive. This is as of last night. Almost 2,300 armored vehicles of various classes! This is exactly what demilitarization is.”

Vladimir Putin told us that another round of mobilization will not be needed.

“I understand that this is a sensitive issue,” he said. “Look, we had a partial mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], and we drafted 300,000 people at the time. By the way, at first there were a lot sarcastic jokes, a lot of ridicule about this, and they attached a label to these people – mobiks. They’re doing a great job fighting, an excellent job! There are 14 Heroes of the Russian Federation among the mobilized. Right now, I believe, 244,000 are right in the combat zone, in the zone of the special military operation [in Ukraine]. Regiments to service equipment were formed, since it turned out that many of the mobilized soldiers are good specialists, and people are very much in demand. I believe 41,000 were discharged because of age, health and so forth.”

In other words, we drafted them first, and then it turned out that there were lots of good specialists among them. Well, that’s one way of doing it. It’s just that they hadn’t tried before.

“After that, we launched a fairly extensive campaign to bring in people on a voluntary basis to sign contracts with the Armed Forces,” Mr. Putin continued.” . . . So why do we need mobilization?! Therefore, there is no need for it at this time.”

But, still, Vladimir Putin qualified what he said: “at this time.” No one should relax.

“We have a live broadcast, a living fabric: We see right away that everything is moving quickly. Please, Dmitry Sergeyevich [Peskov],” Pavel Zarubin said, giving the floor to Dmitry Peskov.

“Thank you, Pavel,” said the Russian presidential press secretary.

We didn’t get through the press conference without getting a history of the Ukraine issue. Vladimir Putin dutifully retold it again, this time starting in 2004, not 2014, as he usually does.

“The entire southeast of Ukraine,” he said, “has always been pro-Russian, because this is historically Russian territory! I just saw a colleague raise a sign: Turkey. He knows what Turkey knows very well: the entire Black Sea region went to Russia as a result of the Russo-Turkish wars (Hi, Turkey! – A.K.). What does Ukraine have to do with this? Neither the Crimea, nor the Black Sea region (nor even Turkey – A.K.) has anything to do with Ukraine at all! Odessa is a Russian city! We know this! Everyone knows this very well. But, no, they had to go and make up some historical nonsense!”

That Odessa is a Ukrainian city is now nothing but nonsense. There are no longer any impediments to thinking this. It sounds like a verdict.

Correspondents from several American and European newspapers and televisions stations were in the hall: the BBC, NBC, The New York Times – A few warm words were addressed to them: “Under these conditions, when, I say, the US conceived and organized, and Europe stood by silently watching this or playing along, singing backup for them – how can we build relations with them?*** We are in favor of it – it’s not like we were tearing anything up. But they pretended that they didn’t know or remember anything. They only mentioned two or three times that they signed the Minsk agreements [for a ceasefire in the Donetsk Basin; see Vol. 66, No. 37‑38, pp. 3‑6, and Vol. 67, No. 7, pp. 3‑7 – Trans.] on a lark and had no intention of implementing them! These guarantees, these agreements between the government and the opposition in Ukraine in 2014 were signed just for appearances and then immediately forgotten about and trampled on!”

Along with everyone else, the foreign correspondents held aloft signs with the names of their outlets. They should have been a bit more creative. They should have written something more intriguing (like “They’re killing the Volga!”1) to attract Mr. Putin’s attention, but they didn’t really want to and didn’t really try.

1[This refers to a sign a journalist from Tatarstan held up during the press conference in reference to the shallowing of Kuibyshev Reservoir – Trans.]

Then, suddenly, a new and fresher comparison for European politicians appeared: “Many European figures behave outwardly like Gen. [Charles] de Gaulle, who took up arms and fought for France, who gathered everything the French had to resist the occupiers,” Vladimir Putin said. “But in practice, they act like Marshall [Philippe] Pétain, who, although a hero of the World War I, became a collaborator and submitted to the occupiers during World War II!”

The Russian president displayed an unexpectedly peaceful attitude toward the US.

“We are prepared to build up a rapport with them! We believe that the US is an important country that is necessary to the world (but no more than that – A.K.)! But they are only hindering themselves – not us, but only themselves – with this thoroughly imperial policy. Why? Because in the public consciousness, they must behave like an empire, and if they agree on something somewhere, if they make a concession to someone, the electorate will view this as a failure or a defect. That’s why the elites are forced to behave this way to some extent!”

Well, that clears things up. . . .

Mr. Putin was surprisingly careful when he spoke about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Who would have thought it? He only mentioned that “We, like Turkey, are proceeding from the fact that the UN resolutions on the creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem must be implemented.”

A Turkish journalist asked about the joint plans of Vladimir Putin and [Turkish] President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Russian president responded: “I think we will have the chance to meet him. I am definitely planning to. I planned to meet him recently, but I can say openly that President Erdogan’s schedule did not allow for it. Even though I was ready to fly to Turkey, and I told him this, but it didn’t work out with his schedule. He was the one with the scheduling problem, not me! It happens! But we will perhaps agree to have this visit early next year.

Well I never! The Turkish president didn’t have time for the Russian president. It turns out that these things happen. . . .

Meanwhile, questions that were not being asked by journalists in the hall were popping up on large screens in front of the president.

“Where’s [missing Aerospace Forces commander Gen. Sergei] Surovikin?”

“After victory, what will you do with the Ukrainians who hate Russians?”

“When will the real Russia look like the televised Russia?”

“Why didn’t [former Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev’s son serve in the Army? Does he have special connections?”

“When will you leave your position?”

Yes, there, on the “wall,” some people wrote from the heart, while others posted. Unbridled freedom of speech reigned there. . . .

Dmitry Peskov wanted to give the floor to a New York Times correspondent, but the president interrupted him on purpose: “First Xinhua, then The New York Times.”

When [New York Times correspondent Valerie] Hopkins was finally given the floor, she turned out to be most interested in the fate of a colleague, Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich.

“He has already been in prison for 37 weeks, and today they extended his detention again – without a trial or investigation! Paul Wheelan, who is also a US citizen, has already been in prison for five years!” A spokesman from the State Department, which believes that both men are being held illegally, recently said that Moscow rejected a serious, solid proposal to return them to the US.

They should also ask for Edward Snowden, who started all of this.

“Why not return them home?” Hopkins asked. “Perhaps find some sort of compromise with the US to return these men home? This could improve relations between Russia and the US, which are fairly complicated right now!”

“You said that your colleague***is being held in prison without a trial or investigation, and you also mentioned that his detention has been extended. But if his detention was extended, this was done under a court decision,” Putin said, shrugging. “So it’s incorrect to say that this was done without a trial or investigation.”

No, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything more to get from this (from the words “nothing at all”).

“As far as the possible return of these citizens to their homeland is concerned. You said: ‘Why not return them home?’ Well, how about they don’t commit crimes in Russia?”

This, as it turned out, was neither here nor there.

“But this is all rhetoric,” the president continued. “It’s not that we refused to return them. We’re not refusing. We want to make arrangements, and those arrangements must be mutually acceptable and should satisfy both sides.”

This is apparently what’s called a “signal.”

Meanwhile, I, for one, started to notice that the Russian president was responding with less and less interest. He was starting grow bored. Even a question from the French television station TF‑1 about French President Emmanuel Macron couldn’t perk him up (“At some point, the French president ended our relationship. We didn’t end it, I didn’t end it. He did! If there is interest, please, we’re ready. If not, we’ll survive.” – A.K.).

Meanwhile, the audience was shouting after every answer, with every journalist demanding personal attention. The president asked everyone to be quieter. It seemed that people were beginning to interest him less and less. . . .

A journalist from Magadan confessed with a guileless and almost happy smile on his face: “For as long as I can remember, you’ve always been in power!”

The response about the future of Moldova and Armenia with the CIS was quite sharp: “If Moldova does not want to participate in this process, then that’s the choice of the Moldovan leadership, and so be it. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was the poorest European country until very recently. Now Ukraine holds that place of honor.*** If that’s what they want, then let them do it. For us, there’s no great value in having this country in the CIS, but we’re ready, we won’t refuse, we won’t shoulder anyone aside. If they want to work, please, we’re happy to. If they don’t, that’s their choice.*** In terms of Armenia, it is undergoing complex processes connected to Karabakh. We understand all of that. But we didn’t abandon Karabakh. Armenia was the one that admitted that Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan.*** I don’t think it’s in Armenia’s interests to end its membership in the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Ultimately, it’s the state’s choice.”

An eight-year-old girl asked if we should be afraid robots, and Vladimir Putin did not try to dissuade her that we shouldn’t. He was proving to her that no one could ever replace grandma. . . .

What was actually interesting was the response about abortion.

“The topic of abortion is very relevant in our country right now. It is of concern to our citizens,” said Yekaterina Berezovskaya. “I will read out a few messages from Moscow: ‘Please stop this brouhaha with abortions. The ban on [abortions in] private clinics [see Vol. 75, No. 47, pp. 7‑8] will only increase the burden on state hospitals, which are facing merciless cutbacks due to health care reforms.’ ‘The abortion ban will drive doctors underground and increase mortality among women. This is just stupid.’ What is your position?

“Well, is there really a ban?” asked the president with surprise.

“Not yet. But it’s possible there will be fewer private clinics – ”

“But why are they talking about some kind of brouhaha, about bans? There aren’t any!”

And there won’t be any, judging by his reaction:

“In terms of various bans, you know, this makes me recall the bans of the antialcohol campaign. We remember what this led to: It led to the use of surrogates, to increased bootlegging and to more victims of poisoning from these surrogates. And in the area you just mentioned and that we are speaking about now, we also need to tread very carefully.*** But the state would like to see this demographic problem solved by women deciding to keep their babies after learning they are pregnant. This is obvious! But, to repeat, we must also respect women’s rights and freedoms.”

After that, any talk about banning abortions anywhere should, theoretically, stop.

Labor migration, obtaining Russian citizenship – Dull, very dull. The goings-on in the hall were becoming less and less interesting to Vladimir Putin.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, we have crossed the four-hour mark,” Yekaterina Berezovskaya told him.

“We must wind it up!” the president said happily.

Yekaterina Berezovskaya also asked what he is reading.

“Right now, I’m rereading the Criminal Code,” he joked, “because some people think that our punishments are too strict for certain minor offenses, as your colleagues believe.”

And then he added: “I have Lermontov on the nightstand in my bedroom. I love him. He was a brilliant young man. I read him with pleasure.”

As it happened, I asked the last question:

“You yourself said that the world will never be the same again. Tell me, what would you say to the Vladimir Putin of 2000 if you had the chance [to talk to him]? What advice would you give? What would caution against? Do you have any regrets?”

I didn’t get to finish my question, which had a second part: “And, most importantly, what’s next after the presidential election? And what from the past, including this almost-past year, would you take into the marvelous Russia of the future? And what would you leave behind?”

I never got to ask the second part of my question because Vladimir Putin had already started answering the first part:

“What would I say?” he repeated. “I would say: You’re on the right track, comrades!”

I remember thinking that the Communists would be happy with this answer.

“What would I caution against? Being too naïve and excessively trusting in our so-called partners,” he added, saying that he had faith in the Russian people.

Being too naïve and excessively trusting – he’s never admitted to that before. But he has apparently been meaning to say it for a long time.

After the press conference, I spoke with one governor.

“We should reread Lermontov,” he said, sharing his main impression. “I suppose the other governors are thinking about the same thing now.”

Or at least put it on the nightstand in the bedroom.

Let it lie there.