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.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a plenary session at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, Friday, Sept. 7.

Vladimir Putin has addressed what he sees as key misunderstandings in the West concerning his leadership and Russian policies in his first lengthy interview since being inaugurated for his third term as Russian president.

Many analysts say they're puzzled why Mr. Putin chose a Kremlin-funded boutique station, the English-language Russia Today (RT) network, rather than a major Russian or Western outlet, for the 40-minute interview, but there seems little doubt that he had a foreign audience uppermost in mind. In the course of his chat with RT's suave British anchor, Kevin Owen, Putin fielded questions about Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, the Kremlin's controversial Syria policy, Pussy Riot, the alleged clampdown on Russian opposition, and the tragic death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison.

"Putin's interview was clearly aimed at foreigners, and this is confirmed by the questions he was asked," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Center of Political Assessments, an independent Moscow think tank. "RT is aimed at outside audiences, and it's possible it was chosen because a big Putin interview would be the talk of the day and make its ratings go up."

Though the interview opened with Putin's upcoming speech to Pacific Rim leaders at the APEC summit in Vladivostok this weekend, he quickly moved on to more controversial issues.

Weighing in on Obama and Romney

Among other things, he appeared to express a preference for Mr. Obama to win the upcoming US presidential elections, if only because he believes a deal on the thorny strategic issue of missile defense would be more likely with him in the White House.

"My feeling is that [Obama] is a very honest man and that he sincerely wants to make many good changes," Putin said.

"But can he do it, will they let him do it? I mean that there is also the military lobby, and the Department of State, which is quite conservative," he said.

Mr. Romney – who roiled Russia by calling it the US's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and then doubled down at last week's Republican convention by saying a Romney administration would show Putin "less flexibility and more backbone," especially on missile defense – is merely misguided, in Putin's view.

"We understand that [Romney's harsh anti-Russian stance] is to a certain extent motivated by the election race and election rhetoric, but I also think that he was obviously wrong," Putin said. "We'll work with whichever president gets elected by the American people. But our effort will only be as efficient as our partners will want it to be," he added.

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.

"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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