He was much too nervous and rude in answering uncomfortable questions for it to be otherwise. At first, Putin made a playful statement that he was not a European leader, since other leaders did not consider him to be one. He then joked about Donald Trump, alleging that like the imperialists in the Soviet times, one can blame even bad weather on the American president after the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. He admitted that Russia would be happy if NATO collapsed, and called the block a tool of American foreign policy. Putin then asked why NATO increased military spending if it was not going to attack anyone. What did people in America think, Putin asked, when they advised representatives of European countries not to go to Russia for a conference on combating terrorism? Let us note that he talks like that while Russia supports terrorists in the Donbas.
However, as soon as uncomfortable questions began, Putin’s playfully assertive manner of speaking immediately disappeared. Megyn Kelly voiced the US intelligence agencies’ conclusion about Russia’s interference in the course of the most recent US presidential election. Putin grew furious: “I have read those reports. There are only assumptions and conclusions.” What about the specifics? Addresses, safe houses, passwords and so on. Moreover, Putin believes that independent sources of information, like those pointed out to him by the American journalist, do not exist at all. All have long been bought. His assessment is clearly based on the state of the Russian media, which have not been independent for a long time.
Also, while recognizing the role of the US as the only superpower, Putin proudly declared that Russia enjoyed the privilege of sovereignty. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel and other Western European leaders have limited sovereignty in his opinion, while sovereignty of Russia, China, India, and a couple of other countries, like North Korea and Iran, is unlimited. The Russian leader went on to mention the “Washington Obkom” [a pejorative term used in Russia to describe the US influence. – Ed.] which allegedly directed NATO’s activities.
Kelly’s remark that the hackers who interfered in the US election used Russian IP addresses which function as Internet fingerprints made Putin, who is not that knowledgeable in information technology (IT), react very emotionally, but ignorantly: “What fingerprints? Hoof prints? Horn prints? Technology experts can invent anything and put the blame on anyone... Do you know how many such experts are there? They will set up things so that your own children will send it from your home. Your three-year-old girl can launch such an attack in this way. There are experts in the field of these technologies able to think up anything and then blame anyone for it. This is not evidence. This is an attempt to shift the blame from the guilty people to innocent ones. And the real problem is not with us, but rather within American politics,” that is, with opposition to Trump.
People who are better versed in all things IT laughed out loud at such arguments of the Russian president. Then he was told that even Trump had said that Russia was behind the hacking attacks. Putin, remembering that the best defense is a good offense, fought back by accusing Western journalists of interfering in Russian domestic politics: “Look at your colleagues, what they are doing here. They are all over our domestic politics, they are sitting on our heads, dangling their feet and chewing a bubble gum.” Well, he clearly likes Russian journalists he fully controls far better! And then the dam broke, and a stream of curses flowed from Putin’s mouth: “They spout such nonsense! Are you completely out of your mind, or what? It is just hysteria! We must stop this useless, harmful chatter!” (about Russia’s interference in the elections). In another jab, Putin accused the Americans of allegedly spending five billion dollars on supporting the opposition... in Ukraine.
Talking about sanctions, the Russian president said that they jumpstarted the development of certain sectors of the nation’s economy, including high-tech ones. He was in no danger of being called out on his lies, so why not? Still, he called on the West to lift the sanctions, because they did some damage. That is where the shoe pinches. Russia’s foreign exchange reserves are about to run out, Putin strongly hoped to influence Trump through the interview, but Kelly’s questions led the conversation away from the target.
Putin admitted that Russia could not comply with the Minsk Agreements – of course, because of the Ukrainian authorities’ intransigence. When asked about the war in the Donbas, he told Kelly: “It was you who made this mess!” (So you now need to clean it up).
The remaining answers were examples of whataboutism. When asked why he supported the “bad man” in Syria, Putin said with fake sincerity: “We are defending not so much Assad as the Syrian statehood. Did Assad make mistakes? Yes, and probably a lot of them. However, what about those people who oppose him, are they angels or what? Who, then, is killing people there, executing children, who is cutting off their heads? Now to the people who were killed or injured due to the use of weapons, including chemical ones. This is false information, we are absolutely convinced as of now that this was just a provocation. Assad did not use those weapons. All this was done by people who wanted to blame him for this.” For Putin, if information is inconvenient, it is always false.
In conclusion, the Russian president expressed his readiness to help fight poverty in Africa, even though Kelly asked him about poverty in Russia. To that question, Putin responded in a sublime and bureaucratic way: “We cannot wait too long, therefore the state should redistribute resources in its own way, with its tools, in order to support those in some straights, in a difficult life situation. We have a lot of such tools. For example, we support low-income families to enable them to pay utility bills.” He also told Kelly she would qualify for maternity capital, if she were a Russian citizen. It looks like he prefers helping Africans to helping Russians.
I recently rewatched the wonderful TV series Brigada and noticed how Putin, while speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, looked much like the series’ character Sasha Bely when the latter spoke on TV during his Duma campaign. It is clear who is the Russian president’s role model. Effectively, Putin’s only message there was “Shut up!” The Russian audience will, of course, take it well. Meanwhile, the American one, whose sympathy Putin was trying to win, will be unlikely to do so.
Boris Sokolov is a Moscow-based professor