Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual press conference on Thursday, albeit under hybrid conditions of both minimal in-person attendance and remote participation. The utmost care was taken to ensure the highest hygienic standards, such as social distancing, changing microphones between speakers, wearing masks, and replacing the latter after a few hours. The most important topic that he covered had to do with the wide range of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he also touched on other relevant ones too.
According to the Russian President, his country handled the pandemic a lot better than most of its peers. He rattled off some impressive statistics such as Russia’s GDP only dropping 3.6% compared to almost three times as much in some European countries. President Putin largely attributed this to declining oil production due to the OPEC+ deal, but he praised Russia for continuing to diversify its erstwhile dependence on this sector to only 30% of GDP. As for unemployment, it only rose from 4.6% to 6.3%, which is regrettable but not unmanageable.
President Putin drew important attention to the state’s response to all of this. Not only did he discuss pertinent socio-economic programs, but also epidemiological ones as well. Although no healthcare system in the world was prepared for the pandemic, Russia’s rapidly rose to the occasion. It dramatically increased the production of personal protection equipment and sanitizers, built 40 new hospital centers, and repurposed medical colleges to fight COVID-19. The latter effort also saw senior medical students join the battle against the virus.
Russia’s crowning achievement was being the first country in the world to develop a vaccine, Sputnik V. President Putin assured his people that Russia’s planned global export of it, which he described as safe and effective, won’t come at the expense of the quantity or quality of the ones available at home. In connection with this, he also encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and said that he’ll inoculate himself too once it’s his turn. The Russian leader is confident that his government’s mass vaccination program will succeed.
In response to a question about COVID-19’s origins, President Putin said that he hasn’t seen any proof to support far-fetched theories about it. He also condemned some countries for blaming China for the pandemic and then contrasted their unproductive stances by referencing Russia’s across-the-board cooperation with the People’s Republic. President Putin also spoke very highly about his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which shows the strength of their countries’ strategic partnership, especially during the pandemic.
Other international topics of relevance included President Putin’s claim that the American intelligence agencies are cooperating with the anti-corruption blogger who’s receiving treatment in Germany at the moment after accusing the Russian leader of trying to poison him. President Putin regards this as a nonsensical information warfare attack just like the earlier ones accusing Russia of hacking the US elections. He also warned about foreign interference in his country’s elections next year, hinting that America might try to meddle in them.
Russia, however, doesn’t meddle in anyone’s affairs, neither America’s nor any of his country’s partners in the former Soviet sphere. He disagreed with a journalist’s worries that Russia was losing influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet cooperation platform. President Putin expressed optimism about the recent peace agreement that Russia helped broker between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and also said that peace in Ukraine’s Donbas region is inevitable too, but it depends on the Ukrainian leadership.
He’s also optimistic that the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Germany will be completed and is hopeful that the Biden Administration will respect its partners’ rights to engage in win-win relations with Russia. Nevertheless, President Putin blamed the US for what a journalist called the new cold war, reminding everyone of NATO’s expansion and America’s withdrawal from a series of strategic stability agreements that sparked the ongoing arms race. Despite this, he still hopes that the New START will be extended before it expires in February.
Although the Russian leader talked about a multitude of other topics as well, all of the discussed ones had the greatest relevance for the global audience. President Putin’s year-end speech showed everyone that Russia is among the world’s leaders in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst these turbulent international times, however, Moscow will still very proudly defend its interests. The US should therefore listen to Russia’s strong message, stop exploiting the pandemic to advance its interests, and finally cooperate with the world.