Given the fast pace of breaking news in Russia-US-EU relations over the past three weeks, it was high time to tamp down speculation about possible imminent outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine and to let us all enjoy what is left of the holiday season within the limits permitted by the ongoing Covid pandemic. Vladimir Putin obliged by staging an intentionally dull and low key annual press conference. The press conference lasted over four hours but at the end I only had two pages of notes.
There were 500 + journalists present in the Manezh, which was chosen for the first time because it is more capacious than the venue across town traditionally used for the purpose. Maximum consideration was given to sanitary measures. All journalists had passed three PCR tests to be admitted, all were masked and seating ensured social distancing. The microphone sponge cover was removed after each journalist spoke and handed over as a souvenir. Vladimir Putin sat alone on a dais behind a draped white table perhaps 10 meters long. His press secretary Dmitry Peskov was also at the table but half a room away.
At the outset, Peskov informed us that most of the accredited 500 journalists in the hall were coming from the Russian regions and they would be favored. Indeed, though Western media were also accredited only three among them, for the BBC and Sky News and an Italian media outlet, were given the microphone to pose questions. The avoidance of international topics was no accident, as Putin’s answer to the lady from Sky News made clear.
She asked him whether Russia was ready to provide assurances it would not invade Ukraine. Putin then went through his prepared speech on the history of the Ukraine conflict from the Feb 2014 coup onwards up to the latest Kiev-planned assault on Donbass that the Russian troop concentration prevented. He went over the sad story of Western broken promises with respect to moving NATO to the East. And he concluded that these issues are now the subject for discussion with the US to be held in Geneva in January. He said that the Americans seemed to be treating the process seriously. Full stop. He said nothing that might upset the understandings now reached with Biden over the pending talks.
The BBC journalist used his moment in the limelight to present a question, or rather a programmatic statement given him by the editor of the anti-Putin, pro-free press newspaper and Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2021 Dmitry Muratov, criticizing Russia’s foreign agent law as stifling the non-governmental organizations and press. Here again, Putin was perfectly prepared to knock down Muratov’s arguments, pointing out how much more humane Russia’s law on the matter is than the foreign agent law in the USA upon which it was modeled. That 1930s law is still in force and imposes liability for criminal prosecution on those in its sights even after they desist, whereas the Russian law allows journalists to practice their trade even as foreign agents.
As a demonstration of the freedom to operate that the Russian law grants, Peskov remarked at the outset that several representatives of such publications were accredited and seated in the hall. Later in the conference, the microphone was handed to political activist, 2018 presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who was most likely present on behalf of Dozhd, the opposition television station that is in fact registered as a foreign agent.
As for the rest of the conference it was all about domestic Russian issues including the pandemic, the current bubbly economy (annual GDP growth of 4.6% and 2 or 3% rise in inflation adjusted real incomes) and the dismal impact of Covid on mortality and life expectancy, which has declined from 75 to 71 this year as a result.
Before closing this overview of the press conference, I direct attention to one question from a journalist puzzled by the latest news on Russian gas deliveries to Europe that had a big impact on gas prices in Europe these past two days. The news was that Gazprom has most recently not booked capacity on the Yamal pipeline, which is a key conduit of its gas exports to Europe, and that in fact the gas flows have now been reversed, flowing from German eastwards.
In response, Vladimir Putin gave us a brief master class on how the gas trade really functions. He explained that Gazprom did not reserve space in the pipeline because it has received no new orders from its Western customers and has fulfilled existing obligations including supplying Germany with 10% more gas this year than last. Instead, the Poles have booked the reverse flow. Why? Possibly for speculative reasons, because that gas was purchased from Russia at a long term contractual price that is 3 – 4 times cheaper than current spot prices in Europe, so that if it was resold now the seller could realize a profit of a billion dollars. Possibly they did so in order to send the gas down to Ukraine. It is quite stunning that our journalists – finance people either did not know that or kept it to themselves while blaming Europe’s gas shortage and soaring prices on Russia.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021