It’s the most wonderful time of the year. When a reclusive figure comes bearing gifts, when the air is full of familiar golden oldies, and when time itself seems to stand still. I am talking, of course, of Vladimir Putin’s annual marathon press conference this week.
Stretching for hours – four-and-a-half in this case – these carefully choreographed events have in the past been opportunities for Putin to present himself in a variety of roles: the omnicompetent chief executive; the caring father of the nation; the stern defender of the Motherland. This one was much the same, but somehow the magic has been slipping away.
The coronavirus precautions probably didn’t help. A handful of picked pool journalists got to be in the same room (after sitting out a fortnight in quarantine), but for the rest he was a disembodied presence on a big screen. Considering the sense that he was to a large degree simply rehashing old talking points, one began to feel that this could as easily be a work of CGI, a ‘deep fake’ video representation run by an artificial intelligence force-fed all his past press conferences and programmed to recycle them at will.
The trouble for him was that the journalists – even most of the tame ones from the government or government-friendly media – didn’t seem to be as on-message as in the past. There were questions about coronavirus responses, the state of the economy, even the poor relations with the West. Putin leant heavily on a familiar formulation in his replies: things are tough, but they are worse elsewhere.
Of course, he’s not totally wrong. The economy looks as if it will weather the pandemic better than feared, with a ‘snapback’ in 2021. Despite the counter-productive hype, Russia’s own Sputnik V vaccine looks as if it is a serious contender, and vaccination has already started. The poverty rate is lower than it was in 2000, when he came to office.
But Putin’s problem is that this is no longer enough. The anarchic misery of the 1990s, when a handful of oligarchs were stealing the country, while most lived in hardship, has receded into history. As for national comparisons, not only is no one ever truly comforted by the thought that others may be having it worse, a country that Putin keeps presenting as a world leader ought to be doing better.
There were the usual instances of sycophancy, but with fewer people willing to dance to his Christmas greatest hits mixtape, Putin’s only response seemed to be to crank up the volume.
The latest revelations that poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny was shadowed by a team of Federal Security Service chemical specialists? The allegations were cooked up by US intelligence. (And Navalny remains Putin’s Voldemort, the man whose name he will not, cannot utter: 'the patient from the Berlin clinic' was today’s circumlocution.)
The continued undeclared war in south-eastern Ukraine? It’s for Kiev to make concessions. Hacking the US 2016 presidential elections? Never happened. Allegations about Chechen warlord-ruler Ramzan Kadyrov? They’re absurd, cooked up by the West because he is so loyal to Russia.
In response to a question from Steve Rosenberg of that infamous BBC, about who was to blame for Russia’s worsening relations with the West, he snapped back with a litany of Western slights and failings. 'In comparison to you,' he concluded, 'we are soft and fluffy.'
Softness and fluffiness was in short supply, though. Beyond a pro-forma hope that Joe Biden 'understands what is going on' and will want to improve relations, there were no hints of conciliation, no signs of moderating the increasingly aggressive, confrontational tone Putin’s Kremlin has of late been adopting, both at home and abroad. Nor of any self-reflection: his regular side-swipes against local administrations and even his own cabinet strike an increasingly wrong note after twenty years of Putinism.
But having dispensed so much coal, Grandfather Frost – the Russian Father Christmas – remembered that this was also meant to be the season of good cheer. At the very end, Putin announced a one-off 5000 ruble payment to every family with a child under 7. That’s fifty quid. Ho ho ho.