A vigorous-looking Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the public stage Thursday for his annual multihour town-hall-like press conference in which he typically displays his magisterial command of just about every subject under the sun.
Though this year's talkathon had been delayed – due to Mr. Putin's health problems, it was rumored – the Kremlin leader appeared perfectly poised and hearty, and did not disappoint the nearly 1,000 mostly-Russian journalists assembled for the occasion. In just over four hours, he addressed a staggering array of matters.
Some were of burning importance, such as Russia's shifting stance on Syria's bloody civil war, and Moscow's furious reaction to the US Magnitsky List, which will target Russian human rights violators with economic and visa sanctions.
He also surprised many by backing a draconian bill that will ban the 1,000 or so annual adoptions of Russian children by US citizens and levy tough restrictions on US passport holders doing almost anything in Russia. The bill looks set to sail through its third and final reading in the State Duma Friday.
A few of Putin's points sounded downright whimsical, including a discussion of his decision to grant a Russian passport to tax-hopping French actor Gérard Depardieu, and his insistence that he knows when the world is actually going to end (hint: it's not tomorrow).
On the matter of his health, which has dominated the Moscow rumor mill ever since Putin was spotted limping painfully at last September's APEC summit in Vladivostok, Putin had some blunt words for the journalist who asked.
"This issue is beneficial only for political opponents who are trying to question the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the authorities," he said.
"I can give the traditional answer to the health question: Don't bother waiting [for my demise]," he added.
A Putin surprise
Many experts had expected that Putin would support the Duma's riposte to the US Magnitsky List, the Dima Yakovlev bill, which imposes tit-for-tat sanctions on US officials accused of mistreating Russians, but draws the line at the more extreme amendments loaded onto it this week by Duma hard-liners, including the ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
Several Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have spoken out against the proposed ban, if only because it wrecks many years of painstaking Russian diplomacy – which resulted in a bilateral US-Russia adoption accord that finally came into force just last month.
But Putin stunned many by appearing to back the draft bill. "I understand [the bill is] an emotional response from the State Duma, but I believe it is adequate," he said.
"What really surprised me is that journalists asked Putin questions about the anti-adoption bill several times, in a sharp form," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a veteran Kremlin critic. "In response he read them lectures about human rights violations in the USA. From what I saw he is mostly concerned with penalizing the USA instead of the fates of real, living Russian children."
Russia's foreign adoption laws require that a child be rejected by prospective Russian parents – usually for health reasons – before being made available for foreign adoption.
"I hoped at some point Putin might wrap himself in virtuous robes and stop this law. But upon seeing today's performance, I feel that he is inhumane, cruel, and has no feelings for the children at all," Mr. Piontkovsky says.
As for the US Magnitsky List, which aims to punish about 60 Russian officials implicated in the 2009 prison death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Putin showed a flash of real anger.
"I consider [the Magnitsky List] unacceptable. Do you think it’s normal? Is it normal when someone humiliates you? Do you enjoy it? What are you, a sadomasochist?" Putin demanded of the journalist who had posed the question.
"If we are slapped, we must respond. Otherwise we’ll be constantly slapped.... What’s worse, they [imposed penalties on Russian officials] without provocation. They are up to their necks in a certain substance themselves," Putin added.
On Russia's longstanding support for the faltering regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Putin insisted that Russia's only concern is to help mediate a peaceful solution and not to prop up Mr. Assad.
"We are advocating a solution that would prevent the collapse of the region into continuous civil war.... Our goal is not to retain Assad and his regime," Putin said.
There have been rumors in recent weeks that Moscow may be moving closer to a cooperative position with the West on finding some last-ditch formula for a transitional government that would exclude hard-liners on both sides and set terms for a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
"First, people should negotiate, agree on how their participation would be guaranteed ... not first destroy everything and then try to negotiate," Putin said.
They didn't mean to insult Depardieu
Speaking of movie star Mr. Depardieu's hunt for a welcoming tax haven after renouncing his French citizenship over high tax rates, Putin displayed a surprisingly warm and understanding attitude.
"If Gérard really wants to have a residence permit or a Russian passport, you can consider it done, the issue solved positively," Putin said. "I am sure French officials didn’t want to insult Gérard, but just as any officials, they pursue their policies.... There is a saying: ‘Anyone can hurt an artist.’ I sympathize with Mr. Depardieu’s feelings."
And about the Apocalypse?
"It will all end in 4.5 billion years," Putin said. "The sun's [nuclear reaction] will end, but before that it will turn into a white dwarf ... I don’t believe the world will end this year."