Trump would improve ties with Russia if his foes would let him, laments Putin

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At his annual press conference on Dec. 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped President Trump would keep his campaign promise to build better U.S.-Russia relations. (Reuters)

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on Thursday said that he didn’t think President Trump would be able to improve relations between their two countries because he was being held back by his political opposition. 

Saying that Trump undoubtedly has had some successes as president, including a booming U.S. stock market, Putin said that reports about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were being invented to create questions about his legitimacy. 

“There are things that he would want to do but hasn’t been able to so far, like reforming health care or other goals, for instance he spoke about improving relations with Russia,” Putin said in remarks carried on national television. “It’s clear that even if he wanted to, he’s not in a condition to do that because of some clear restrictions” created by his opponents. 

“I don’t know if he still wants [to improve relations with Russia], or if it’s totally exhausted, but I hope he still does,” Putin added.

It was another dose of the world as Putin sees it, as the former, current, and likely future president sat down with more than 1,000 journalists packed into a Moscow convention hall for his annual televised press conference. Equal parts news conference and political carnival, the annual event provides a sounding board for Putin. The discussion is always broad, though often lacks depth. Journalists can ask sharp questions, but rarely have a chance to ask follow-ups. 

During his annual press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Dec. 14 his opponents need to offer a “real agenda” to the people. Putin will be seeking re-election in March 2018. (Reuters)

Addressing a recent ban on Russian participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, he said the investigation that revealed a state-sponsored doping program in Russia was driven by an attempt to undermine his expected reelection in 2018. 

“The scandal is being ramped up in connection with the Russian domestic political calendar,” Putin said. “No matter what anyone says, I am certain and I know that it is very much so.” 

At moments, he showed flashes of anger, like when discussing Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Rusada anti-doping lab in Russia, who later gave information on the country’s athletic doping program to investigators and journalists after fleeing to the United States.

“It was a mistake” for him to be put in charge of the lab, Putin said. “I know who did it.” 

Focusing on domestic politics, Putin also said that he would like to see greater competition in Russian politics but it isn’t his job to build up the opposition in a country that he has ruled for 18 years, and likely longer as the new elections loom.

At his annual press conference on Dec. 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the FBI had manipulated evidence in the Russia doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (RU-RTR)

He said he would run a campaign largely focused on improving the Russian economy and that he would run as an independent, distancing himself from the United Russia political party that he founded and built into the ruling party.

“The simplest thing for me to say is that it isn’t for me to foster opponents, although I should unexpectedly tell you, that I think that our political sphere, like our economic sphere, should be competitive,” Putin said.

Putin, Russia’s de facto leader since New Year’s Eve 1999, has held a marathon news conference once a year in December for the 13 years he has been president (taking a break for the four years he was just prime minister). They can last more than four hours, often providing for a broad discussion of current issues, if sometimes lacking in depth and with little chance for reporters to ask follow-up questions.

The conference was attended by reporters from across Russia and the world, many of whom waved large signs in the hope of being called upon. “Give the Floor to Children,” read one. Another sign, a larger-than-life Russian passport, was held by an attendee hoping to liberalize border crossing rules between Russia and Estonia.

Another sign read “Putin Babay,” an expression of affection from a journalist from Russia’s Tatarstan republic. Putin confused the sign for “Putin, Bye-Bye,” after quickly pivoting from another journalist who asked him if he wasn’t tired of running the country.  

Putin last week said he would run for a new six-year term in a March presidential vote that he is expected to win easily.

“Whenever we speak about the opposition, it is important not just to make noise on squares or privately speak about how the regime is against the people, it is also important to offer something which will make life better,” Putin said. “People are discontent with lots of things, and they are right to be discontent. But whenever people compare and look at what the opposition, especially the extra-systemic opposition, has to offer, they have big doubts.”

A survey published Wednesday by the independent Levada Center suggested that 61 percent of Russians intended to vote for Putin, up from 54 percent in a similar poll conducted in late November. 

Two candidates who have traditionally played the role of runner up garnered single digit support in the poll, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 8 percent and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with six percent.

Only 1 percent said that they would vote for Ksenia Sobchak a TV host who has made headlines as a “candidate against everyone.” Sobchak attended the press conference as a journalist for the opposition Internet channel TV Rain.

Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who has been excluded from the elections because of a criminal conviction he says is politically motivated, was not named in the poll.

As state-run television counted down the minutes to the press conference, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, played down the competition, saying that “there are a lot of worthy people” who have announced their candidacy, but no one is ready to be a worthy opponent” to the Kremlin leader.

Peskov also said that Putin would not take part in campaign debates against “candidates who know they have no chance.”


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