Vladimir Putin gave another of his end-of-year press conferences last week—nationally televised events consisting of an always-curious combination of Q&A, opinionating, offhand banter, observations on a wide range of domestic and international affairs, and the Russian president’s appraisal of his own record. This was his 13th such outing and weighed in at three hours and 42 minutes. Putin again had some interesting things to say, though one could scarcely glean this from Western press reports, and certainly not from the US media. Beelzebub is never deserving of serious attention.
Russians I respect have sometimes told me that, while some features of Putin’s domestic performance merit criticism, on the foreign-policy side their support is more or less shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin. I view the distinction as important; it seems to go some way to explaining Putin’s standing in opinion polls, which hovers consistently above 80 percent. He had plenty to say last Thursday on Russian politics, the economy, the domestic opposition, and other such matters. I will leave those questions aside as the business of Russians: It is when Putin speaks on global affairs that it is everyone’s business.
Here are four topics Putin addressed last Thursday that are worth thinking about. I draw from a pared-down list:
Syria. Putin did not distinguish between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, which is in keeping with Russia’s policy since it intervened at the Assad government’s request two years ago. But he spoke about post–conflict challenges, notably. While most terrorist groups have been defeated, he said, there is a mop-up phase to complete. Russian forces have begun to withdraw, thus, but some will remain. This is what one would have expected. He had no comment on the Pentagon’s recent announcement that US security forces will remain on Syrian soil indefinitely.
The interesting part of Putin’s remarks on Syria, at least to me, concerned Russia’s responsibilities now that the war is over. He talked about the welfare of Syrians as essential to preventing new terrorist outbreaks, about resettling refugees, about working with foreign partners, about the peace process. “All the parties involved should resist the temptation to take advantage of short-term political goals,” Putin asserted. This is a healthy handful of tasks on which Russia now must prove out. Especially for those who supported Moscow’s defense of Damascus to prevent Syria’s collapse into another Libya or Iraq, it is time to watch the Russians. This will be their most importance performance since, by way of the Syria conflict, they have assumed a more influential role in the region.
Ukraine. Putin’s remarks on the state of affairs in Ukraine are, of course, wholly at odds with what Washington puts out on the subject. But they are not at odds with reality: Washington is. As Putin calmly noted, the number-one obstacle to a settlement in Ukraine is, as it has been for three years come next February, the profoundly corrupt government installed in Kiev after the American-cultivated coup in 2014. I say three years next February because it was then the settlement framework known as Minsk II (for the city where it was negotiated and signed) was put in place.