Spy Talk With Snowden And 17 Other Highlights From Vladimir Putin’s Q&A

The Russian president talked about Russian soldiers in Ukraine, a husband for his ex-wife, a question from Edward Snowden, drowning with Barack Obama, and invading Alaska during his annual televised question and answer session.

1. Vladimir Putin held his annual “direct line” Q&A marathon on Thursday, a heavily stage-managed event.

This year’s was one of the shortest ever, at a mere 3 hours 56 minutes. That’s a pittance compared with the longest in 2011, which went on for 4 hours 47 minutes as Putin answered 90 questions.

2. State TV said more than 2 million Russians sent in questions, many of which only said one thing: “Thank you for Crimea!”

Baz Ratner / Reuters

Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month has drawn widespread international condemnation and sanctions, but has elevated Putin’s approval ratings to record highs on the back of a patriotic wave.

3. Putin admitted for the first time that the “green men” who seized the peninsula were Russian soldiers.

David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

“Our servicemen stood behind the back of Crimea’s self-defense forces” to protect a secession referendum the international community denounced as illegitimate, Putin said. “They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally. There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion.”

4. He denied, however, that the masked men who seized towns and buildings across eastern Ukraine were Russian, calling Ukrainian allegations “nonsense.”

The Associated Press

“There are no Russian units, special services, or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” Putin said.

5. Seeking to quell fears of armed conflict in the east, where Ukraine’s military is trying to dislodge the rebels, Putin said Kiev’s government had brought the country to the brink of an “abyss” and urged it to withdraw.

Stringer / Reuters

“Who are you going to use it against? Have you completely lost your marbles?” he said.

6. Putin said he “hoped” he would not be forced to invade Ukraine, but claimed he had the right to do so if he chose.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Putin repeatedly said that Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine, which he claims is under threat from “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” backed by the new Kiev government, was traditionally part of Russia. He even referred to it by its Tsarist-era name of Novorossiya, or “New Russia.”

7. Putin also essentially gave Ukraine a month to pay a huge gas bill it can’t afford.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Ukraine is on the brink of default and struggled to pay Russia its gas bill even before Moscow claimed it owes it $35.4 billion this month — a staggering increase over the $1.7 billion it was previously behind on. Putin said he would make Ukraine pay in advance for its gas if it couldn’t come up with any money by May. That puts presidential elections scheduled for May 25, which Putin said were illegitimate, under serious threat.

8. Ukraine wasn’t the only country Putin discussed invading. One old lady asked if he had plans to annex Alaska. “Faina Ivanova, my dear, what do you want Alaska for?” he replied. “It’s cold there too — let’s not get worked up about it.”

9. “Jazz hands” propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov told Putin he felt “suffocated” by NATO, which he described as a “cancer cell.”

“We’ll suffocate everyone ourselves. Why are you scared?” replied Putin.

10. Surprise celebrity guest Edward Snowden appeared by video link to ask Putin whether Russia had any mass surveillance and data collection programs like the NSA’s.

“Dear Mr. Snowden, you’re a former spy, and I used to work in intelligence, so you and I are going to speak to each other as professionals,” Putin said. Putin then denied Russia had programs “on an uncontrolled scale,” omitting secret services’ SORM problem, a direct equivalent of the NSA’s controversial PRISM operation. Snowden’s appearance was a propaganda coup for Putin, who positioned Russia as a greater supporter of civil liberties and internet freedom than the U.S. and did not have to answer questions about Russia’s moves to restrict the internet.

11. Putin decried U.S. sanctions on oligarchical “cronies” from his inner circle — particularly billionaire oil trader Gennady Timchenko, an old judo buddy.

Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters / Reuters

“I’m not ashamed of my friends,” Putin said, claiming that they had begun to make their fortunes before his rise to power. “Like many Russian citizens, they watched the events in Crimea on TV with tears in their eyes. By the way, Gennady Timchenko’s wife couldn’t pay for an operation because her card was blocked. In my view, that’s a real human rights violation.”

12. Putin seemed particularly aggrieved at Ukrainian oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk provincial governor Igor Kolomoisky, who enjoys trolling him.

Putin complained at length that Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank was not helping Crimeans transfer to the Russian financial system. Kolomoisky once referred to Putin as a “little schizophrenic,” prompting him to rant about how he was a “scoundrel” who cheated a Russian oligarch in a business deal. On Thursday, he announced rewards of $10,000 for Ukrainians who captured Russian spies and $200,000 for freeing captured buildings.

13. Putin was also still upset at Barack Obama’s refusal to meet one-on-one, despite his now-routine denunciations of the U.S.’s supposedly nefarious role in global affairs.

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

Putin said he wanted to return “trust” to the U.S.-Russia relationship, which he said had been ruined by the invasion of Libya in 2011 and ousting of its dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi.

14. Then things got personal. Putin revealed that his favorite movie was the early Soviet classic Chapaev, a war yarn about a legendary Bolshevik soldier in the Russian Civil War and the source of a famous series of Russian jokes.

15. Asked when Russia would have a new first lady, Putin said he would not marry until he found a new husband for his ex-wife Lyudmila, whom he recently erased from his official biography.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file

16. Putin ended the marathon by answering a series of questions from children. We learned that he doesn’t plan to be president for the rest of his life and he sleeps six hours a night.

17. He told a 6-year-old girl that he thought Obama would save him from drowning, despite their differences.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Reuters

“I can’t say that I have any particular personal relations with the president of the U.S., but I think that he’s a decent, brave man, and he’d definitely do it,” Putin said.

18. At the end, Putin went on a long monologue in response to another child’s question: What makes someone Russian?

“Our country, like a vacuum cleaner, has drawn representatives of diverse ethnic groups, nations, and nationalities into itself — actually, it’s not just our general cultural code that was formed on the back of this, but also our exclusively powerful genetic code, because genes have been exchanged for all these centuries, and even millennia,” Putin said. “I think that the Russian man and, to speak more broadly, the man of the Russian world, thinks, first and foremost, that man himself has some sort of higher moral purpose, some sort of higher moral beginning and thus a Russian man, a man of the Russian world is not turned towards his beloved self, although, of course, in everyday life we all think about how to live more richly, better, to be healthier, to help our families, but all the same these are not the main values — he is turned outwards.”

The audience gave him a standing ovation.

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