MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday sat down with 1,700 Russian and foreign journalist for his annual marathon question-and-answer session that lasted, as these things usually do, about four hours. Though Putin seemed bored at times when reciting domestic statistics on agriculture production, he livened up whenever talk of nuclear war came his way.
These are the moments when Putin, increasingly focused on foreign policy and Russia’s place in the world, is in his element. And though his answers are predictable and stick to already obvious Russian talking points, they serve as a useful calibration of where the Russian president’s head is at — or, at the very least, what impression he currently wants to convey.
Asked if he wanted to rule the world, Putin joked that he would, but that there is only one place where politicians aspire for global hegemony: Washington, D.C., citing the U.S. defense budget. He added that Russia only wishes to carve out a respectable seat at the table, one in which Moscow has equal standing with other major powers.
Putin had a lot more to say, however, on issues relating to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and nuclear weapons in general, U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that American troops will withdraw from Syria, and the recent clash between Russian Coast Guard and Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea.
INF and nuclear war
Early into the news conference, a Russian journalist began his question by recalling how, in his Soviet youth, citizens were taught to fear nuclear war. “Are you no longer afraid?” Putin asked, warning that the modern world has grown accustomed to underestimating the threat of nuclear war despite growing risks of nuclear exchanges.
One of those risks is “the collapse of international arms control after the U.S. withdrawal from the relevant treaties,” Putin said, referring to Washington’s recent announcement that it would withdrawal from the INF Treaty as well as the 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty — a move that has irked Moscow ever since.
“We had to respond [to the ABM Treaty] with creating a new type of weapon to overcome these anti-missile systems,” Putin said. “Now we hear that Russia has the advantage ... but this is all about parity when it comes to our arsenals. Now they are taking another step and withdrawing from the INF Treaty, so what is going to come of that?”
Putin said Russia will be forced to respond to any intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe with deployments of its own. “We have to ensure our security,” Putin said, “and for that they will complain about us having the advantage.”
Putin also lamented the lack of negotiations on extending the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021, and again warned that Russia will do whatever is needed to ensure its national security in the face of future American nuclear developments — specifically singling out calls for tactical nuclear weapons and non-nuclear ballistic missiles.
“We know how to ensure our safety,” Putin said, “we can do that. But for humanity in general, this is a bad thing because it leads us to a very risky place, and there’s this trend to lower the threshold for actually using these weapons.
"I believe humanity has the necessary common sense and desire to survive so as to avoid these extremes.”
Syria and Trump
When asked about Trump’s plans for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Putin was nothing but supportive and agreed with the U.S. president’s assessment that the Islamic State group has been defeated. However, the Russian president cast doubt on whether or not Trump would follow through, noting how the U.S. has announced several withdrawals after 17 years in Afghanistan.
“I do generally agree with the U.S. president,” he said, “We have made some major advances against terrorists in Syria, though there is a danger those groups might now infiltrate neighboring countries like Afghanistan and their countries of origin — which poses a threat to all of us in Russia, Europe, the U.S. and the Central Asian countries.
Putin noted that it would be proper for the U.S. to leave Syria since it is there illegally, without invitation from the Syrian government in Damascus — as Russia was — nor authorization from the United Nations Security Council. He added that Russia has not yet observed signs of an American withdrawal from Syria.
Putin expressed confidence that the conflict there was drawing to a close and that a political process will soon begin in earnest.
As for whether or not Russia needs the U.S. military in Syria to facilitate that process, Putin said: “I do not think we do.”
Concerning the recent clash between Russian Coast Guard and Ukrainian naval forces in the Black Sea, which has sparked fear of broader conflict between the two, Putin was nonchalant, passing off the incident as another staged provocation by Ukrainian leaders intended to bolster support for President Petro Poroshenko leading into March’s presidential elections.
Putin denied allegations that Russia has moved to assert unilateral control over the Kerch Strait — the narrow waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine and Russia claim joint territorial waters. He said the rules and regulations governing the strait are unchanged and that the Ukrainian naval ships knowingly attempted to violate those rules.
“When it comes to military vessels, they have to be in touch with the Coast Guard,” Putin said, since it controls who passes through the strait and when — couching it as a matter of navigation protocol.
“We have an agreement from 2003,” he said, becoming perhaps the first Russian official since the incident to mention the formal agreement between Russia and Ukraine declaring the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters. “We are ready to honor these agreements and not take unilateral actions.”