NATO, China, anti-vaxxers: Putin wraps up 2021 with a major press-conference
The Russian leader set out his opinion on everything from conflict with NATO to the anti-vaxx movement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has wound up his annual end-of-year press conference, having taken questions on the Kremlin’s policy positions at home and abroad, amid strained relations with the West, high rates of Covid-19 deaths and pressure on a range of domestic political issues.
Talks with NATO
Last week, Moscow issued a series of proposals to both Washington and NATO as part of a bid to seek assurances that the US-led military bloc will not expand closer to its borders. The demands include written guarantees that the ambitions of Ukrainian politicians to join will not be realized, with the Kremlin having long described the prospect of Western troops and hardware being deployed to the former Soviet Republic as a red line.
Just a day before, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that talks would soon take place between Russian officials and American diplomats, as early as January next year. However, Putin insisted, meetings alone would not be seen as enough. “We don’t care about negotiations, we want results,” the President blasted. “Not an inch to the East they told us in the 1990s, and look what happened – they cheated us, vehemently and blatantly.”
“Now they’re saying that they will have Ukraine as well. This means they will deploy their weapons there, even if it's not officially part of NATO,” he went on. According to the Russian leader, it is now up to the US-led bloc to come up with guarantees “immediately,” instead of continuously talking about it “for decades.”
Putin has previously claimed that Western officials had promised Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not seek to fill the space left by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, before then admitting Eastern bloc nations like Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Poland as members. However, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said no third country should stand in the way of Ukraine’s membership aspirations, and argued earlier this month that Russia has “no right” to a sphere of influence on the continent.
On Tuesday, at a meeting with high-ranking military officers, Putin warned that stationing rockets in Ukraine would allow NATO to reduce “their flight time to Moscow to seven-to-ten minutes, and if hypersonic weapons are deployed, to just five.” Russia has warned it will take steps to defend its territory from the perceived threat.
On Thursday, however, Putin said that Russia “is not angry” and that it was important to “calculate the risks of such a war, even if it is the result of a provocation.” According to him, much of Ukraine is historically “Russian lands with Russian populations that were cut off from Russia” by the fall of the Soviet Union.
“We accepted this,” he argued. “We helped new states to grow and worked with all governments no matter their foreign policy. Remember our relations with [President Viktor] Yushenko and [Prime Minister Yulia] Timoshenko? Just like today’s leadership, they were speaking about pro-West orientations. We talked with them, we had certain arguments and conflicts, about gas and so on, but we managed to engage in a dialogue and we worked with them, and were ready to go on, and we didn’t even think about doing anything regarding Crimea.”
However, Putin went on, Russia’s 2014 reabsorption of the disputed peninsula originated in the unrest and violence following Ukraine’s Maidan uprising, which overthrew the elected government of then-President Viktor Yanukovich. Crimea returned to Moscow’s control after a referendum, which virtually all other countries have not recognized, and Kiev insists that it remains its sovereign territory.
The Russian president also stated that the Maidan had sowed the seeds of unrest in the war-torn Donbass region, which has seen fierce fighting in recent months. “Should we have kept watching helplessly what was happening in Donbass? When the Soviet Union was established, they thought they were part of Russia – but [former Soviet leader Vladimir] Lenin and co. forced them to be part of another country. They established a state that never existed before,” he claimed.
According to Putin, the Russian economy “faced the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions it required… but nevertheless turned out to be more robust and more ready for these challenges than many leading ones.”
However, he said, the current rate of inflation, which sits at 8%, is too high and, had Russia’s central bank not pursued a tight monetary policy, it could easily have slid into the kind of economic chaos seen in Turkey. The financial pressures have led to sharp price rises for basic consumer goods, and central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina has warned that “if we neglect inflation now, the least-protected groups of the population will suffer.”
A poll in August by the Levada Center, which is registered as a foreign agent in the country over links to overseas funding, said that nearly two out of every five citizens had gone without food or drink due to a lack of money in the past six months. Figures published weeks earlier showed that food prices had jumped 7.4% in the past year.
Ties with China
Putin lavished praise on his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, saying the pair refer to each other as “friends.” “We have very trusting relations and it helps us build good business ties as well,” Putin added, arguing that “today, China’s economy is already larger than America’s in terms of purchasing power parity.” According to him, “by 2035-2050, it will have surpassed it [in nominal terms] and China will become the leading economy in the world according to all metrics.”
“We are cooperating in the field of security. The Chinese Army is equipped to a significant extent with the world’s most advanced weapons systems. We are even developing certain high-tech weapons together,” the Russian leader added.
However, a number of analysts have argued that the relations between the two nations stop short of the kind of military partnerships between Western nations, such as NATO. In June, Andrei Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to the East Asian country, said “I believe that a formal alliance, especially a military-political one, is not the most optimal scheme for relations between such two powers as Russia and China.” According to him, geopolitical factions frequently develop in opposition to other nations, and Moscow’s ties with Beijing “are not based on confrontation with anyone else.”
Europe’s gas crisis
Putin again rejected claims that Russia is deliberately choking off supplies of gas to Western Europe in an effort to put pressure on the EU not to block the Moscow-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The project has been completed and is awaiting certification from German regulators.
The president was asked whether there was any truth behind the allegations, which have previously been leveled at the Kremlin from Washington and a number of news outlets. “Of course, it’s not [true]. They are lying all the time,” Putin stressed. “Gazprom is delivering the volume [of gas] requested by its partners in full, in accordance with existing contracts.”
“We’re not the only suppliers to the European market. But we’re probably the only ones who are increasing deliveries,” he went on. “There were adverse weather conditions last year. A long, cold spring. Not enough gas was pumped into storages. Wind turbines didn’t work. All this has created a deficit.”
Covid-19 & vaccines
Commenting on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Putin warned that vaccine uptake in Russia remains sluggish. According to him, the level of collective immunity in Russia has reached 59.4%, which is made up of both people who are vaccinated and those who have recovered from infection. “Our neighbors talk about the need to achieve a coverage of 90-95%. We have 59.4% – which is low,” he said. However, he remained hopeful that Russia could reach 80% by the first or second quarter of 2022. Despite rolling out the world’s first coronavirus jab well over a year ago, and making the shots freely accessible, the nation’s immunization campaign has been hampered by vaccine hesitancy and skepticism. Earlier in December, Sergey Netesov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a professor at Novosibirsk State University, said that fewer than 40% of Russians are fully vaccinated, while around 45% have had their first shot – one of the lowest rates worldwide.
Putin commented on a series of recent scandals from Russian prisons and correctional facilities, after the Gulagu.net human rights group released a number of videos documenting alleged sexual and physical abuse of inmates. More than a dozen officers have been fired amid a probe into the shocking clips, and the Kremlin dismissed Alexander Kalashnikov, the director of the federal prisons system.
However, Putin argued, the issue is not an exclusively Russian problem, and it will be important to “work calmly” and “rely on a conscientious, fully-fledged investigation.” He went on to insist that all those working in the system must “understand that punishment for these offenses is inevitable.”
Asked about opposition figure Alexey Navalny, currently serving time behind bars in a prison colony, Putin said that it was time to turn the page on the issue. According to him, the Russian prosecutor’s office had not received a single document confirming claims that he was poisoned with Novichok before being taken ill on a flight to Moscow last year. He told reporters that “There is no need to talk about it. Let’s move on.”
The Western-backed activist was taken ill shortly after his plane took off from the Siberian city of Tomsk. He was taken to hospital and, following requests from his family, flown to Berlin and treated in a clinic there. His German doctors later announced that he had been targeted with the toxic nerve agent. Moscow insists that requests for samples to prove the allegations have gone unanswered.
Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in January this year, knowing that he would likely be jailed for breaking the conditions of a suspended sentence handed to him in 2014, when he was found guilty of embezzeling $415,000 from two companies. He was handed a sentence of two years and eight months.
Russia’s declining population
Putin warned that his country faces a series of major demographic issues, including increasing mortality, a drop in the average life expectancy from 71.5, to 70.1 in the past year, as well as the birth rate.
Commenting on the low fertility rate in Russia, he said that a suboptimal number of births partially stems from a change in people’s priorities in post-industrial countries, something that is being seen elsewhere on the European continent, including among women of childbearing age.
“Education, post-education, career, and then a child by the age of 30. And by then you won’t even think about having a second one,” he said. “Even demographers, people who do this professionally and all their lives, they don’t have definitive clear answers to these processes.”
In March, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said that Russia’s population was showing signs of emerging from a long-running decline. She noted that the number of women having abortions had declined by around 40%, but that the average age of first-time mothers was rising to 27-28 and seeing a gradual shift towards 30.