- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Russian military will stay in Syria as long as it is in Moscow’s interests, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday during his annual question-and-answer phone-in TV program.

During the marathon session, the Russian president addressed world affairs, soccer’s World Cup and other issues and responded to a request to tell a joke.

The TV program is a trademark event for the Russian leader and his first since being sworn in for a new six-year term as president a month ago. He had some sharp words for U.S. and allied sanctions on the Russian economy and the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide of the battle in favor of its ally, President Bashar Assad, and the Kremlin is seeking to be the decisive voice in any postwar settlement. In December, Mr. Putin announced that Russia would scale down its military presence in the war-torn country, now in its eighth year.

“Our military is there to ensure Russia’s interests in an important region of the world,” said Mr. Putin, responding to one of the screened questions selected from more than 2 million submitted by Russian citizens.

“We have no plans for pulling these units out for now,” he said. “They will stay there as long as it is beneficial to Russia and to ensure our international obligations.”

The U.S., Iran and Turkey are among other countries with forces inside Syria, where the Assad government is battling a domestic rebellion and the threat from jihadi groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda. With government forces recapturing Syria’s major cities in recent months, Mr. Putin said, large-scale hostilities have ceased and a peaceful settlement is on the horizon.

He stressed that Russia’s air base at Hemeimeem and naval base in Tartus, which he said are important for helping the Syrian government, do not host any permanent facilities, which means the Russian military can withdraw quickly if necessary.

“But let me draw your attention to the fact that I did not call these deployment sites ‘bases,’” he said. “We are not building long-term facilities there.”

Although the questions were screened, Mr. Putin over the years has faced some unusual and uncomfortable queries during the multihour, live call-in program known as “Direct Line With Vladimir Putin.”

Regarding relations with the West, Mr. Putin said Russia is wrongly perceived as a threat.

“I believe this approach is mistaken,” he said. “Instead of restraining whoever, it would be better to establish constructive cooperation, and then the overall effect on the global economy would be positive.”

The Russian president also used the sanctions issue to play up differences between Mr. Trump and European leaders on such issues as trade and the Iran deal. The steel tariffs on leading European nations — justified by Mr. Trump on national security grounds — are showing EU leaders that trying to appease Washington doesn’t work. He said Russia learned that lesson in a clash with the West over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“Our partners probably thought that these counterproductive policies would never affect them …,” Mr. Putin said. “No one wanted to listen, and no one wanted to do anything to stop these tendencies. Here we are.”

Mr. Putin also faced a question reflecting widespread fears that the government was planning a crackdown on social media sites to quash political dissent.

In April, thousands of Russian protesters organized in Moscow in response to the government’s ban of the encrypted messaging application Telegram. One caller asked Mr. Putin whether popular social media sites such as Instagram and YouTube were at risk of being banned as Telegram was.

“We have no plans to shut anything down,” said Mr. Putin, although the onetime KGB agent did voice fears that terrorists could use encrypted services to frustrate Russia’s security operations.

On a lighter note, Mr. Putin spoke hopefully of the underdog national soccer team’s chances as Russia prepares to host soccer’s massive World Cup tournament this month.

“Our national team has not demonstrated strong results recently, but the number of fans of this beautiful sport here is massive; it’s in the millions. We will rely on the fact that our soccer team will score a big win, so to speak, and will show its best qualities,” Mr. Putin said.

But the Russian president sidestepped a request by the moderator to tell a joke. Instead, he used the question to ridicule claims that the Kremlin tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“We apparently influenced the election of the U.S. president, and then he gifted us Europe,” Mr. Putin said. “Total nonsense. There’s no way to describe this other than as a joke.”

Natalie Malek and Connor Foarde contributed to this report.

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