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For first interview of new term, Putin puts priority on foreign audience

Putin opined on Obama vs. Romney, crackdowns in Russia, and Pussy Riot in a 40-minute interview given, unusually, to an English-language state channel instead of a bigger outlet.

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Experts say Putin's attitude is unlikely to affect the US presidential race one way or the other, but the message is that he does want to continue the "reset" of US-Russian relations begun under Obama, and perhaps seal it with a deal on missile defense in the future.

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"Putin can't help Obama or hurt Romney in the US election, but it was a signal that Obama could hear," says Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis. "He doesn't want to burn any bridges."

Domestically defensive

When the subject turned to Russian affairs, however, Putin became significantly more self-righteous and dismissive of criticism.

Asked about the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian corporate lawyer who died in prison after testifying about a massive corruption scheme he'd uncovered – and being arrested by the very police officers he had accused – Putin made the whole international scandal appear to be over nothing more than a random prison death.

"You see … there are people who need an enemy, they are looking for an opponent to fight against. Do you know how many people die while in prison in those countries which have condemned Russia?" Putin said.

Dozens of countries, including the US, are mulling legislation that would blacklist 60 Russian officials who've been implicated in the Magnitsky case. That includes police, tax, and government officials who allegedly enriched themselves in the massive embezzlement scheme that Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered.

"I want to emphasize is that there is absolutely no political context to this case. It is a tragedy, but it only has to do with crime and legal procedure, not politics. No more than that," Putin said.

Putin said something similar when asked about the alleged "clampdown" on Russia's opposition, including tough new laws against politically active non-governmental organizations, draconian penalties for any "disorder" at a street rally, harsh new penalties for "defamation," and a potentially sweeping law on Internet content.

"So is it true then that other countries don’t have laws that ban child pornography, including that on the Internet?" Putin asked the interviewer.

"Talking of what some call a crackdown… we have to get the definition of this word right first. What is a crackdown? As we see it, it’s only a simple rule that everyone, including the opposition, must comply with Russian law, and this rule will be consistently enforced," he added.

On Pussy Riot, Putin insisted he played no role in the case, but also weighed in on how "obscene" the group's name sounds in English – there is no Russian translation in general use.

A hedging performance

Experts say Putin's performance was not stellar, and is not likely to change many minds in the West, even if RT's claim of having 430 million viewers worldwide is accurate.

"Putin's basic approach to every question in that interview was to say 'I don't see what the problem is, what are you talking about?' says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"He doesn't give long interviews often, and in the past he hasn't spared his energy and charisma to address issues with [major Western media] outlets. It's puzzling that he chose RT for this one. It's a loyal outlet, so the questions were obviously the ones he wanted to respond to," she says.

"But even if everyone is watching, I don't think this interview can change any of the negative images that have taken root in the West since Putin returned to power, because he didn't really answer the questions."


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