Annual press conference: Putin calls off his press show – better safe than sorry

Vladimir Putin's year-end "press conference," which can hardly be called a press conference by democratic standards, is a ritual with one-sided rules, but also a rare opportunity.

Annual press conference: Putin calls off his press show – better safe than sorry

Vladimir Putin's year-end "press conference," which can hardly be called a press conference by democratic standards, is a ritual with one-sided rules, but also a rare opportunity.

The orchestrated question and answer session, which traditionally takes place in December and often lasts several hours, is one of the few opportunities where journalists from abroad also have the theoretical opportunity to question the Russian President directly - if asked to do so.

Putin and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov use their fingers to select who may ask questions (the direction of which must be submitted in advance), and strangely enough, the critical statements at the major event - which the state television reports extensively and live - remain a pleasant rarity for the Kremlin.

Consequently, the annual press conference, which has been held since 2001 with few exceptions, is rather an opportunity for Putin to brush up on his image as a dutiful father of the country and express himself verbally as he pleases. Inquire? "This is not a discussion," Putin said in December 2017. "You ask a question, I answer."

He had a lot to say about Ukraine in particular at the past "press conferences", or: to correct it, at least according to his reading. Last December, as Russia massed tens of thousands of soldiers on its border with its neighbor, Putin dismissed the scenario of a military escalation as if it were none of his business. "Everyone is talking about war, war, war," he said. "But that's not our decision." That depends solely on the actions of the USA and NATO.

Now, a year later, Russia has invaded Ukraine — and Putin has nothing to add. His big performance was called off, for the first time in ten years. "As for the big press conference, no, there won't be until the New Year," said his spokesman Peskow on Monday, without giving a reason for the cancellation. The reasons are obvious.

The West has imposed sanctions on Russia that are increasingly affecting the economy and even bringing pro-Kremlin propagandists to the brink of a nervous breakdown. After a series of setbacks, Russian forces were forced to withdraw from many fronts. And apparently fewer and fewer Russians support the aggressive war, which became noticeable to many people after partial mobilization - and for which Putin is ultimately responsible.

The mere possibility of the failures being brought up could have made the Kremlin uncomfortable. True, the ranks of the independent media in Russia have been more than thinned out, having either closed or migrated abroad. Criticism of the war, which must be called a "military special operation", was made a punishable offence. Nevertheless, it would have been theoretically possible for both Russian and foreign journalists to address or at least describe some of the setbacks to Putin - live on state television.

"Officials in the Kremlin are almost certainly very concerned about the possibility that an event attended by Putin could be hijacked for illicit discussion of the 'military special operation'," said the British Defense Ministry's daily intelligence update on Wednesday . According to the assessment from London, the Russian leadership is concerned about the increase in anti-war sentiment in the country. The cancellation of the traditional annual press conference is an indication of this.

Putin may also consider the already questionable format to be obsolete. "I don't think Putin has anything to say, especially since he's been saying so much lately," says Tatiana Stanovaya. The founder of R.Politik, a French-based political consulting firm, sees the cancellation as a "psychological unwillingness" on the part of Putin to "explain himself" and "answer boring and routine questions".

Most recently, Russia's president had addressed his home audience several times, sometimes in a bizarre way. For example, he staged a coffee party with soldiers' mothers or hosted a champagne reception for war veterans. During his inspection of the Crimean Bridge, Putin was also able to demonstrate that he keeps an eye on wartime events - without having to explain the overall picture.

"He thinks that's enough," Stanovaya concludes, and that "there's no need to waste any more energy on another formality." And if he wants to tell the foreign audience something that he thinks is necessary, there's a good reason. "He sees no point in communicating with the public in the country. Let the subordinates do it."

In addition to the "press conference", the New Year's reception in the Kremlin is also to be cancelled. In the meantime, it is questionable whether there will be a national television consultation hour, "Direct Line", during which citizens can usually personally submit complaints to Putin every year. There is also no date for Putin's annual speech to the two chambers of parliament.

Quellen: "The Guardian", "The Financial Times", "The New York Times", "Der Spiegel".