MOSCOW — Sporting a natty tie, crisp white shirt and perched behind a desk like a friendly but serious news anchor, Russian President Vladimir Putin fielded questions for almost four hours Thursday in his annual marathon call-in show, discussing topics as far afield as illegal sports drugs, Ukraine, agricultural production, and Washington’s “imperial ambitions.”
Putin, looking relaxed and engaged, frequently made notes and waved a pen in his right hand for emphasis. Speaking before a live audience, the Russian leader sat behind a slick, space-age desk in front of a blue screen swimming with the Kremlin email address, website and text number.
At one point, the moderator for the highly scripted reality show said they had received more than 3 million calls.
The Russian leader uses the annual call-in show to project an image as a strong leader who protects Russia from foreign threats and cares about people’s needs. He promised one caller, who claimed she lost money on an apartment in a small town housing project, that law enforcement officials would look into her case.
The first question came from a woman from the Siberian region of Omsk who asked about potholed roads. Putin told her that the government needs to make sure that local officials don’t divert road construction funds to other needs.
On foreign policy, he appeared to send mixed messages on relations with Washington, saying the United States must abandon it’s “imperial ambitions” and treat Russia as an equal partner.
While noting that Moscow and Washington have been able to cooperate constructively on non-proliferation issues, the fight against terrorism, the Iranian nuclear standoff, he warned the U.S. against “speaking from the position of force, diktat and imperial ambitions.” If the U.S. treats Russia with respect, he added, “we will always be able to find solutions that will satisfy everyone.”
Later, however, in response to a question about whether a woman might run for the Russian presidency as in the U.S., Putin used the opportunity to present a somewhat softer line.
“America is not the problem we face, we need to deal with domestic problems first, roads, education, economic development,” he said. “If we do that, America will not be the issue. Because we will feel strong enough and we will be proud of our country.
Asked about Russia’s strained ties with Turkey, Ukraine and some other nations, Putin said Russia was ready for friendly ties with all nations but would retaliate against any hostile moves. “We must respond, or otherwise they will sit on our neck and whip us up,” Putin said.
Relations have been particularly tense with Turkey over the shooting down of a Russian warplane and with Ukraine, over the Russian invasion of its neighbor and annexation of Crimea.
When a 12-year-old girl asked him if he would save Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko if they were drowning and which one would he save first, Putin responded wryly that “if someone decides to drown, it’s impossible to save him.”
But he added that “we, of course, are ready to extend the hand of assistance and the hand of friendship to any of our partners if they themselves want this.”
On other issues, Putin:
• Saids meldonium, the banned substance for which Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has tested positive, shouldn’t be considered a performance-enhancing drug. He said meldonium “doesn’t influence the result, that’s totally certain,” and instead “just keeps heart muscles in good condition.”
• Said Russia has shored up the Syrian army to the point where it can conduct offensive operations despite a Russian military drawdown. He also expressed hope that a Russian- and U.S.-brokered truce will help Syria peace talks in Geneva go forward, paving way for a new constitution and an early election.
• Noted that Russia’s agricultural production has risen even though its national economy has plunged into recession, and predicts that the economy will start growing next year.