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Putin’s shortened horizons

At his year-end news conference in December 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin had plenty of reason to preen. Russian opposition to Western intervention in the Syrian conflict had won sympathy in many parts of the world. Ukraine, at that point, appeared firmly in Moscow’s orbit, and his vision of a Eurasian Union rivaling Europe looked a realistic prospect.

Putin’s hold on power, moreover, seemed so supreme that he had just pardoned jailed opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A journalist attending the function even presented the Russian leader with a teddy bear.

Fast forward a year, and the picture is not so rosy. Putin’s annexation of Crimea has galvanized the West and pushed Kiev toward the European Union. The Russian economy, meanwhile, is in shambles, partially the result of sanctions imposed on Moscow because of its meddling in Ukraine, and also a result of the Russian currency’s shocking free fall.

Putin’s 2014 news conference ended a bit after three hours – one hour shorter than its equivalent the year before. Here are some main takeaways from the event.

On the economy

Falling oil prices have led the ruble to fall 45 percent against the dollar this year. Putin struggled to offer anything more than a reassurance that the currency and Russia’s economy would bounce back. “Rates of growth may be slowing down, but the economy will still grow and our economy will overcome the current situation,” he said. “I believe about two years is the worst case scenario. After that, I believe growth is imminent.”

Putin blamed the economy’s predicament largely on “external factors,” a reference to both the plummeting oil prices and the toll of Western sanctions. Putin said Western sanctions on the country’s defense, oil and gas and banking sectors account for about “25 percent” of Russia’s current difficulties.

“Maybe we might have taken certain decisions more quickly,” Putin admitted, “but I still believe that the strategy the central bank is pursuing at the moment is quite adequate.”

On the Ukraine crisis

Putin stuck to his guns on Russia’s role in the conflict taking place across the border in Ukraine. He denounced the supposed “coup” that ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February and framed the separatist insurgency being waged by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine – with, many suspect, direct help from Putin’s government – as an uprising against Kiev’s harsh rule.

When questioned about his annexation of Crimea, the strategic Black Sea region dear to many generations of Moscow’s rulers, Putin rounded angrily on supposed Western hypocrisy. “Taking Texas from Mexico is fair, but whatever we are doing is not fair?” he asked, directing his comments at the United States.

Putin invoked his usual muscular Russian nationalism. Much of his rhetoric over the past year has centered on the glories and sacrifices of both Russia’s imperial and Soviet past. He said the West wanted the Russian bear to “just eat honey instead of hunting animals,” and continued with the metaphor: “They are trying to chain the bear. And when they manage to chain the bear, they will take out his fangs and claws.”

It’s language that may play well to a conservative base, but not on the international stage. Russia’s critics among the champions of the liberal international order in Brussels and Washington dislike Putin’s militarist bluster.

On internal dissent

According to The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, a number of publications known to be critical of the Russian president never got a chance to ask Putin a direct question, proving that Putin still frowns upon dissent. But when he was asked about earlier remarks he made about a “fifth-column” of traitors in Russian society, Putin demurred. “My goal is to unite society, not divide it,” he said.

Still, the magnanimity of 2013 – when he released Khodorkovsky – was absent.

A Reuters reporter started asking a question: “How high are the risks of a coup d'etat in Russia? You blame things on external forces, but off the record, people even in your entourage, they blame you.”

“Give me their names,” Putin interjected, with a grin.

On Putin’s love life

The Russian president’s private life is the subject of intense speculation, but little certainty. After a decades-long marriage, Putin announced his divorce from his wife Lyudmila last year. Rumors have swirled since of Putin’s entanglement with various younger women, including former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

Putin brooded over the subject of love in a speech in November, which my colleague Adam Taylor discussed in an earlier post. “The meaning of our whole life and existence is love,” he said at the time. “It is love to the family, to the children, to the motherland. This phenomenon is complicated, it lies at heart of any of our behaviors.”

At the news conference, Putin said he had a “warm relationship” with his ex-wife. And that he had found romance: “I have love in my life. I love and am loved.” A concerned world breathes a sigh of relief.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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