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Putin defends Trump, talks global warming, Olympic ban at annual press conference

Vladimir Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

At his annual marathon news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended U.S. President Donald Trump, talked about the threat of global warming to Russia, as well as the Olympic ban on Russian athletes.

Putin took questions from Russian and foreign correspondent at his annual media event in Moscow on December 19 for four hours and 18 minutes.

The televised end-of-year news conference has been a regular event of Putin’s tenure, one of a series of high-profile set-piece events he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to the United States and the rest of the world.

Asked about the impeachment of Trump, Putin said it was based on “allegations that were “dreamed up.”

Putin said he expected Trump to remain in office despite the House of Representatives voting to impeach the U.S. president on December 18.

“[The impeachment bill] still needs to go through the Senate where Republicans, as far as I know, have a majority,” he said.

Putin said that “the party that lost the election is continuing the fight by other means.” He compared the impeachment to the earlier U.S. probe into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, which he downplayed as being groundless.

Putin added that Russia is ready to extend the New START arms treaty with the United States, but that there has been no response to Russian proposals.

“If there is no START, there will be nothing in the world that will contain an arms race and that I think is bad,” Putin said.

On Global Warming

Earlier, Putin said Russia is warming more than twice as fast as the global average. He said that global warming could threaten Russian Arctic cities and towns built on permafrost, adding that Russia was abiding by the Paris agreement intended to slow down global warming. At the same time, he noted that factors behind global climate change have remained unknown and hard to predict.

Regarding the banning of Russian athletes from the Olympics and other international sports event for four years, Putin said the the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had acted unfairly. Putin said any punishment of Russian athletes should have been meted out individually and not collectively.

“The overwhelming majority of our athletes are clean, and then why must all of them suffer? Our figure skaters are just little girls who are able to do things on the ice that nobody, almost nobody, can do,” Putin said.

Putin’s annual news conference comes after a summer of protests that rocked Moscow and other Russian cities, sparked by the barring of independent candidates from a municipal poll that grew into wider calls for democratic change in Russia.

However, not one question posed by reporters at the news conference addressed the Moscow summer protests.

The event also comes with Russia’s economy struggling to recover. The Russian economy has suffered from a drop in global oil prices and Western sanctions that followed Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Russia’s ties with the West have remained at post-Cold War lows, and Western sanctions have continued to hamper the country’s economic growth.

The West has accused Russia of arming and funding the separatists in eastern Ukraine. But Putin said on December 19 that there were no “foreign troops” in areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk region under separatist control.

“There are no foreign troops in LNR and DNR. The self-defense forces consist of local people…. There are some foreigners, like Germans and French, who are fighting on both sides, but the major part of the forces are local people,” he said.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine that flared up in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea has killed more than 13,000 people.

Lenin Criticism

Putin, who has been in power for two decades, also hailed the economic achievements of his rule. He emphasized that Russia has become the world’s largest grain exporter, surpassing the United States and Canada.

Putin, who once called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, voiced criticism about Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

He lambasted Lenin’s policies on ethnic issues, saying that his idea to grant broad autonomy to ethnic-based Soviet republics, including their right to secede, paved the way for the Soviet breakup once the Communist Party’s hold on power started to loosen.

“When creating the Soviet Union, he ignored the 1,000-year-long historical state order of Russia and offered not even a federation, but a confederation making administrative units based on ethnic groups residing there and giving to such units a right to break off the country. And the boundaries were drawn not necessarily in a just way,” Putin said.

At the same time, Putin rejected the push for taking Lenin’s embalmed body out of the Red Square tomb in Moscow and burying it.

“As for Lenin’s body in the mausoleum, it is too early to talk about [its possible removal] as there are so many people in our country for whom his name remains important,” Putin added.

His Political Future

Putin — whose current term runs through 2024 — refused to be pinned down on his political future. He wouldn’t answer if he could potentially extend his rule by shifting into a new governing position to become the head of a Russia-Belarus union.

He also suggested the Russian Constitution could be amended, such as changing the powers of the president and the cabinet.

He said he was open to tweaking presidential term limits, suggesting they could be changed to limit anyone’s ability to serve more than two terms, something he has done.

“One thing that could be changed about these [presidential] terms is removing the clause about ‘successive’ [terms]. Your humble servant served two terms consecutively, then left his post and had the constitutional right to return to the post of president, because these were not two successive terms,” he said.

Putin also defended an amendment that he signed into law on December 2 about media outlets deemed “foreign agents” to include workers employed by such organizations being listed as “foreign agents,” as well.

“After introducing the law on foreign agents, some organizations receiving funds from abroad changed their system. The funds started being sent to individuals and those individuals later were giving that money to the organizations, which then legally were not financed by foreign sources. But in fact they were. That was the idea [of the law],” Putin said.

Nine RFE/RL reporting platforms have been designated “foreign agents” as a result of a 2017 law that brings media organizations under the purview of the original foreign agent law that requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” with Russia’s Justice Ministry.

Putin was also asked about his family. There have been reports for years that a woman named Katerina Tikhonova is his daughter. Tikhonova has been seen in Russian news reports more recently, as director of a billion-dollar high-tech development project.

In answering the question, Putin spoke at length about the development of high-tech projects in Russia, but dodged the question whether Tikhonova is his daughter.