- - Thursday, December 20, 2018

MOSCOW — The big news was a strong endorsement of President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, but Russian President Vladimir Putin once again ranged far and wide in his marathon year-end press briefing that has become must-see TV and a hallowed holiday tradition for ordinary Russians.

Fielding questions for nearly four hours, the onetime KGB spy expounded on the rising threat of nuclear war, Ukrainian perfidy, the Russian athlete doping scandal, the struggling domestic economy, his health and even his love life before a massive press contingent and a national television audience.

The 66-year-old Mr. Putin gave a positive assessment of Mr. Trump’s Syria decision. Moscow sees the withdrawal as a boost in the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Russian ally, while many in Washington, Europe and the Middle East were reeling from the news.

Noting that Mr. Trump justified his decision by claiming the Islamic State terrorist group had been defeated in Syria, Mr. Putin said, “Donald is right. I agree with him. … That is the right move.”

But the Russian president said he couldn’t be sure Mr. Trump would carry through on his surprise announcement Wednesday.

“The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 17 years and has announced withdrawals almost every year, but [its troops] are still there,” Mr. Putin said.

But the Russian leader had sharp words for Mr. Trump’s plans to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, warning that the move could result in the collapse of the international system of arms control.

Mr. Putin also contended that what he said was a Pentagon plan to develop non-nuclear ballistic missiles was a much bigger threat to international stability that could inadvertently trigger World War III.

“Just try to figure out while it’s flying if it is nuclear or not,” he said, adding that such a situation could lead to “the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet.”

State television had aired an on-screen countdown for Mr. Putin’s press conference, which was held in Moscow’s World Trade Center. More than 1,700 journalists were accredited for the event, which coincided with Russia’s national holiday for security service officials.

Russian journalists vied for Mr. Putin’s attention with colorful signs and other eye-catching objects. The Washington Times saw journalists, many from the country’s remote provinces, hold up a golden boxing glove, a large artificial hand, a photograph of a bare-chested Mr. Putin fishing, a cardboard television, a balloon, and a Russian flag. Journalists jumped excitedly to their feet after each of Mr. Putin’s answers, causing Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman who moderated the event, to appeal for calm.

Foreign media outlets were allowed to attend, but only a handful were permitted to pose questions.

Skirting sensitive topics

Russian media largely avoided sensitive issues, such as the March fire in a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Siberia, that took the lives of 64 people, the majority of them children. The large number of fatalities was blamed on the failure of local authorities to enforce fire safety regulations and triggered days of protests in the city.

There were likewise no probing questions about British allegations that the Kremlin sent military intelligence officers to attempt to kill a former Russian double agent with the Soviet-developed Novichok nerve agent in England in March. Mr. Putin has said the two men accused of trying to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are civilians. The United States was among a number of Western countries to expel Russian diplomats over the incident, sparking tit-for-tat measures from Moscow.

The editor of The Insider, a Russian website that helped expose the would-be assassins as GRU military intelligence agents named Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, was barred from the press conference.

On Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent suspected of attempting to influence Washington’s policies toward Moscow, Mr. Putin said there was no reason to jail her. Ms. Butina pleaded guilty last week to a charge of trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association on the orders of a top Russian official.

“I can say for sure that she didn’t execute any state tasks, whatever she may have said under the threat of 12 to 15 years in prison,” Mr. Putin said. “I don’t understand why they imprisoned her; there was no reason. We’ll see how it ends. We are not indifferent to this.”

Mr. Putin also offered some unexpected, and likely unwelcome, support for beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is resisting increased calls to hold a second referendum on the country’s planned exit from the European Union in March. The Kremlin has been accused of trying to influence the initial referendum in 2016, when a slim majority of voters elected to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

“The referendum happened,” Mr. Putin said. “What can she do? She should fulfill the will of her nation, as expressed at the referendum, or it isn’t a referendum.”

He linked the criticism of Mrs. May to the efforts of Mr. Trump’s opponents in the U.S. to undermine his upset win in the 2016 presidential election, saying the “Anglo-Saxon world” is facing serious problems.

“Look, Trump won and that is an obvious fact,” Mr. Putin said. “But nobody wants to recognize his victory. Efforts to delegitimize his victory are underway.”

Security guards removed two signs accusing the Kremlin of corruption from Dmitry Nizovtsev, a supporter of leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The security guards refused to provide an explanation for the confiscation of the signs ahead of Mr. Putin’s appearance on stage.

Slumping in the polls

Mr. Putin held his annual press conference, the 14th since he took power in 2000, at the end of a year in which his approval ratings slumped over a five-year increase in the national pension age. He defended the decision, which sparked nationwide protests, by saying rising life expectancies and an aging population meant the unpopular move was inevitable.

Despite rising poverty rates triggered partly by Western sanctions, Mr. Putin attempted to paint a rosy picture of Russia’s economic prospects. He said Russia’s gross domestic product was set to grow at a rate of 1.8 percent this year, while industrial output has grown at a 3 percent rate.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, said Mr. Putin’s annual press conferences and television call-ins were important components of his attempt to present the image of a leader “in touch with the country.”

“Demand for a strong leader among Russian voters is going down, so it’s more important to appear as a concerned leader, a leader that cares for people,” Mr. Gallyamov said. “That’s why he has to continue, although it’s already turned into a ritual without much meaning.”

The famously private Mr. Putin, who carefully stage-manages his public image, even offered a rare glimpse into personal matters when asked at one point whether he would marry again. His divorce from Lyudmila Putina after three decades of marriage was revealed in 2013. He did not address rumors in the Russian press linking him to a former Russian Olympic gymnastics star, but he did not rule out the notion of a second trip to the altar.

“As a respectable person, I will have to do this at some point,” he said with a smile.

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