MOSCOW — For those looking for hints as to what Vladimir Putin might do next, his annual press conference on 23 December offered little.
The four-hour marathon, always at least in part a carefully choreographed display of Putin’s keen interest in the lives of his constituents, played out as expected. The Russian president fielded questions on everything from surging house prices in Vladivostok to inadequate rail links in the Volga region, to his thoughts on Grandfather Frost, the Russian analogue to Father Christmas.
Of tensions over Ukraine, surprisingly little was said. Despite Russia’s ongoing military build-up along the countries’ shared border, and Moscow’s 17 December ultimatum demanding radical restrictions on Nato’s activity in eastern Europe and an end to Ukraine’s dalliance with the bloc, the crisis merited only three questions, with queries instead on pensions, healthcare and – from a Russia Today journalist – on JK Rowling’s position on transgender issues.
Even when he did speak about Ukraine, Putin said little that he had not said before. Ukrainian nationhood, he asserted, was an artifice, created by Lenin, where none had previously existed. The 2014 Maidan revolution in Kyiv, which set Russia and Ukraine at military loggerheads and facilitated the annexation of Crimea, was a “bloody coup d’état”. Nato enlargement was “unacceptable”, the result of “brazen lies” told to Mikhail Gorbachev: that the alliance would not expand after the end of the Cold War.
But Putin’s words, if repetitive, are not unimportant. Once again, the Russian president demonstrated how intensely he cares about Ukraine’s fate and – by extension – how hard he is likely to press to get his desired result there.
Putin, who for some years now has appeared visibly bored when discussing the bread-and-butter domestic issues that dominated the press conference, sprang to life when discussing the Nato stand-off, his voice acquiring a passionate timbre. When asked how he could justify giving the order for Russian troops to attack Ukraine, he responded with an emotional reminder of the plight of residents of the pro-Russian breakaway statelets in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas.
But for all his railing against Nato and Ukraine, Putin allowed for a little optimism, at least where Washington was concerned. Talks with the US on “security guarantees” – which should be understood to mean an American pledge that Ukraine will never join Nato – were described as “positive”. Putin even appeared to confirm rumours of a new summit to pick up where his Geneva meeting with Joe Biden this summer left off. Even as Russia’s relations with Ukraine collapse, Putin and Biden will return to Switzerland for fresh talks in January.
This two-track approach is less surprising than it may seem. In the Russian diplomatic mind, Nato, the EU and the Ukrainian government are stooges of Washington, and unworthy of being taken seriously. But discussions with Biden – seen by many in Moscow as a wise and experienced statesman whose establishment credentials may yet allow him to deliver the sort of grand, strategic bargain Russia hoped for vainly from Donald Trump – are by no means a lost cause in the Kremlin’s eyes.
Whether Biden can justify the hopes Moscow has placed in him is as yet unknown. Putin has made his demands clear. In January the Americans must decide what they will give him.
“The ball,” as the Russian president told assembled journalists at the press conference, “is in their court.”