Inside Putin’s carefully choreographed annual news conference

Steve Rosenberg holding a BBC sign
Image caption,President Putin did not take any of BBC Russia Editor Steve Rosenberg’s questions

By Steve Rosenberg

BBC News Moscow

For the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I’m invited to a Kremlin event. I’m in a room with Vladimir Putin.

And 600 other people.

At an exhibition hall opposite the Kremlin, in a specially built TV studio packed with video screens and electronic tickers, Russian journalists – and some foreign correspondents – are watching the Kremlin leader host an end-of-year news conference combined with a TV phone-in. He’s taking questions from members of the public and selected media.

You can’t miss the spectacular – that is, if you’re in Russia and have your TV set on. The programme is being carried live by all main Russian TV channels.

It’s called “Results of the Year with Vladimir Putin.” In effect, it is the world according to Vladimir Putin.

A world in which the Kremlin leader is right about absolutely everything.

“I’ve learnt to identify what’s most important,” President Putin announces, “and then do everything to achieve those aims, without paying attention to the unimportant.”

His war aims haven’t changed. The anchor puts a question to Putin which has been sent in by a viewer. It’s about Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine: “When will there be peace?”

“When we achieve our goals,” replies the president.

This time last year, Vladimir Putin was under intense pressure. His “special operation” had gone badly wrong.

By the Kremlin’s own admission, the Russian army had suffered “significant” losses. Ukraine was clawing back Russian-occupied territory: the situation had forced the Russian president into a “partial mobilisation”, drafting hundreds of thousands of Russian men to fight in Ukraine.

No surprise, then, that the Kremlin cancelled last year’s Putin phone-in and end of year news conference, which are normally two separate events.

Fast forward a year. The Russian authorities sense growing war fatigue across Europe and in the United States. And Ukraine’s counter-offensive has failed to make the impact Kyiv had been hoping for.

Vladimir Putin is sounding increasingly confident about the situation on the battlefield.

“Practically along the whole line of contact our armed force are, to put it mildly, improving their situation,” the president says.

The phone-in part of the show is designed to portray President Putin as Russia’s Mr Fix-it and to boost his popularity ahead of next March’s presidential election.

In a video message, one Russian pensioner complains about the rising price of eggs.

“My favourite president,” she declares, “please influence the situation.”

I look away from the president and up at a giant screen that’s showing text messages sent in by viewers. They make fascinating reading.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during his combined call-in-show and annual news conference

There’s plenty of praise for Putin.

“How do we make sure Putin lives forever?” one message reads. “A strong Putin is a strong Russia.”

But there are critical texts, too: “Does Putin want to end the war?”

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, you’ve been in the job too long.”

“When will power change in Russia?”

“Could you tell me how to move to the Russia that we see on TV here?”

None of these criticisms is put to the president during the broadcast or read out on air. Hardly surprising. This TV extravaganza is designed to promote Putin, not cast doubt on his work.

But the fact they’ve made it to the video screen suggests the Kremlin, at least, feels the need to hint at the existence of different views – without giving them too much prominence.

The four-hour marathon is carefully choreographed. I may have been invited, but the president won’t take any of my questions.

Pity. Nearly two years on from the invasion he ordered, there was so much to ask.

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