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Russia's Putin holds first call-in Q&A session since he launched invasion of Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is talking today - a lot. This is an almost annual tradition. Putin holds an extended press conference at the end of the year. He also hosts a televised call-in show with the Russian public. I say almost annual because Putin skipped this last year as his invasion of Ukraine went wrong. Today, both rituals are back and combined into one. NPR's Charles Maynes is following along in Moscow and joins us now. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, as you and I are talking, we're in the middle of an event that can usually go for hours. So what is Putin saying?

MAYNES: Well, so far it's classic Putin with his meld of conservatism and nationalism. Once again, we hear him arguing that Russia is the defender of so-called traditional values, accusing the West of trying to isolate and destroy the country. Let's listen to a taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says that Russia's very survival rests on maintaining its sovereignty - the implication here that Russia needs to defend its independence from the West in every sphere, from politics to culture to the economy.

Now, Putin in some ways undermined the main intrigue of today's event with last week's announcement, given at a small Kremlin gathering rather than from the big stage here, that he intends to stand for a fifth term in office when the country holds elections in March of next year. So today, de facto Putin is in campaign mode, moreover, for an election he's universally expected to win. Yet, in its own strange way, this year-end press conference event is also what passes for retail politics here. The Russians submit videos pleading with Putin directly to intervene with problems that affect daily life - you know, saying, we've got no hot water. We need someone to fix the heating. The mayor won't build the bridge - all that kind of stuff. And so we often see Putin all too happy to intervene - you know, forever the benevolent czar.

INSKEEP: This seems like an event where the event itself is part of the message. So what do we learn from the fact that Putin, unlike last year, is holding it?

MAYNES: Well, quite a bit, I think. You know, Putin canceled last year's event, as you note, amid Russia's invasion, as it wasn't going well. But clearly, Putin is feeling much more confident these days about Russia's prospects, and the fact that he's on the stage is proof of that. You know, he's arguing Russia's wartime economy has successfully weathered Western sanctions. He points to Ukraine's failed counteroffensive, and he sees U.S. military support for Ukraine, in particular in Congress, stalling. Meanwhile, Russia has settled in for this war over the long haul. Just last night, Ukraine says Russia launched another barrage of drones and missiles. So the Russian attacks keep coming, and Putin argues that Russia will come out on top and keep fighting until it achieves its goals in Ukraine, even if that's at great human cost.

INSKEEP: Although how much of that is hourslong theater from Putin?

MAYNES: You know, you can think of it as informative theater. There are plenty of moments designed to make Putin look good, and there are certainly real questions, even tough ones, with the caveat that there are usually no follow-ups. So Putin, who, after all, has been doing this for two decades, quite easily handles these meddlesome queries from journalists. And even though Russia's media are almost entirely state-controlled, there are difficult questions being raised in Russian society, particularly over the war in Ukraine, which is soon entering its third year. For example, we've heard from families of mobilized conscripts - civilians who were drafted into the war last September in what was a very unpopular move by Putin. You know, they've been angling to get an audience with Putin today and demand the return of their loved ones from the front immediately.

INSKEEP: Interesting. So he has an opportunity to take tough questions, but on his terms.

MAYNES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Charles Maynes
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.