Putin Tones Down His Annual Reality Show

He ducked questions on foreign policy and quit after just 3 hours and 41 minutes.

Asked and answered.

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin hosted his annual television call-in show on Thursday. This time, however, his heart didn't seem to be in it. As in the past, some of his statements failed the test of basic fact-checking. and he still sounded like a parody of himself -- recalling Dr. Evil from the "Austin Powers" film series -- but he also also read economic statistics from a piece of paper, while previously he had made a point of demonstrating his impressive memory. 

The session lasted for 3 hours and 41 minutes, short by the standards of the last five events (the longest, in 2013, clocked in at 4:47). Putin showed up in the studio without a watch, seemingly prepared to answer questions from ordinary Russians -- there were more than 3 million, according to the call center -- for as long as necessary. 

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

Worried voters asked about high inflation caused by the ruble's devaluation caused by falling oil prices. Putin shrugged off the question. Prices would stabilize, he said, when the market filled with Russian-made goods. An activist in Siberia asked about damaged roads. Putin said it might help if funds allocated for road repairs on a regional level couldn't be spent on anything else. A farmer asked if a ban on some foreign food imports could be extended even if Western sanctions against Russia are lifted. That wouldn't fly under World Trade Organizations rules, Putin said. 

Two entrepreneurs asked Putin to do something about the harassment of business by all sorts of government inspectors. "We're working on this but such is the bureaucrats' mentality," Putin said. As he spoke, police raided the offices of IKEA outside Moscow, and the FSB secret police conducted searches at the offices of several companies belonging to the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's Onexim Group.

Putin didn't even take the bait when asked about geopolitical matters, which yielded colorful answers in the previous two years' appearances. Turkey was a friendly nation, Putin said, not even mentioning that nation's president by name, as if he and his Turkish counterpart hadn't become bitter enemies over Russia's intervention in Syria. President Barack Obama was "a decent man" unafraid to admit U.S. foreign policy failures. What could he say about Ukraine's new government headed by Volodymyr Hroisman, who was confirmed by parliament on Thursday? "Nothing," Putin said. "I know nothing about him."

Wasn't Russia surrounded by enemies? "We are not finding ourselves and we won't find ourselves within a hostile ring." Are accusations that Russian athletes used meldonium, a banned drug, politically motivated? "Probably not." Even when a first-grader quoted her dad as saying that Putin was the only man capable of "overcoming America," the Russian leader shook his head and said he wasn't trying to overcome anyone, just to ensure that Russia developed steadily so it could feel "invulnerable."

This was an uninspiring performance, with only rare glimpses of Putin's streetwise sense of humor. Asked whether he would save Erdogan or Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from drowning, the president replied, "If a man has decided to drown, he can't be saved" -- but that's probably just because he couldn't resist a softball.

Putin's gray and boring style for most of the Q&A may have been intended as calming. He behaved as though Russia wasn't in the throes of an economic crisis, having lost 3.7 percent of economic output last year, with expectations of a continued recession, at least into 2017. The Kremlin propaganda machine has spent years whipping citizens into a patriotic, anti-Western frenzy, but Putin appeared to keep away from that line. Instead, he tried to convey a sense of business as usual, emphasizing the routine work to keep the huge country running despite some minor economic difficulties. The financial crisis of 2008 was much more serious, Putin said.

This was Putin as a calm and experienced manager, not the international rogue and adventurer he has portrayed as he waged wars in Ukraine and Syria, braving ostracism by Western leaders and the wariness of Asian ones. "Why do those people hate me?" his harmless manner seemed to ask. 

But Putin is anything but harmless. Even in the midst of Thursday's soporific performance, he thew in some fabricated factoids to back up his points. At one point, he said that Russia's international reserves, at $388 billion, had returned to level of early 2014, even though they were more than $500 billion then. When asked, rather timidly, about the Panama Papers and the revelations concerning the alleged offshore accounts of his friends, Putin said the newspaper that first received the enormous document cache, Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, was owned by Goldman Sachs -- hinting that the leak may have been organized by the U.S. establishment to discredit him. The newspaper, however, belongs to Stuttgart-based Suedwestdeutsche Medien Holding, and isn't owned by Goldman Sachs.

There has been an eerie disconnect between Putin's public performances and reality throughout his latest term in office. His enemies seemed to belong to an imaginary, paranoid world. His economic pronouncements and predictions -- of oil bouncing back and the ruble reversing its losses, for example -- were wildly optimistic. And his lack of an economic plan made him seem uncharacteristically helpless or overconfident. 

The disconnect has reached its apogee. Putin is pretending that the stability he had created earlier had been maintained, despite the collapse of oil prices and the annexation of Crimea. He still has 82 percent popular support, according to polls. Judging by the questions Putin received, however, Russians don't quite buy his line of goods. The September election may not be a cakewalk for Putin's allies: 59 percent of Russian disapprove of the current parliament, which is dominated by his cronies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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