Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted a little of the secrecy today around his grandchildren and mockingly offered ex-FBI chief James Comey asylum during his annual televised chat with the Russian people. But the Kremlin strongman appeared rattled when facing tougher questioning from journalists at the end of the four- hour phone-in event, angrily accusing a BBC reporter of supporting jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Putin also refused to be drawn on whether he will stand for a fourth term in 2018.
During the television show aimed at a domestic audience, Putin insisted the latest US sanctions over alleged election meddling are efforts to “contain Russia”. The US Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve further sanctions against Russia yesterday. “The United States is not our enemy,” Putin said, but he complained of Russia facing sanctions “throughout all of our history” from global partners who fear a “serious competitor”. He also jokingly suggested offering political asylum to fired FBI director James Comey – who had been overseeing the bureau’s Russia investigation – likening him to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who has asylum in Russia.
“If he (Comey) is persecuted, we would be ready to offer him asylum in Russia. He should know this,” Putin said. At one point in the carefully choreographed live show, the screen displayed some rather caustic questions from viewers sent in by text message. “Putin, do you really think people believe this circus with staged questions?” asked one viewer, following reports of secret rehearsals held outside Moscow for people reading questions to the camera.
Close to the end of the show, a presenter read that question to Putin, however, suggesting the producers want to counter perceptions the show is stage-managed. The president insisted the questions are “definitely not prepared.” Some of the texted questions to Putin urged him not to run for re-election next year when he is expected to seek a fourth term.
One message said simply: “Goodbye, Vladimir Vladimirovich.” Putin was asked whether there would be another annual phone-in – implying that he would be in power after 2018 polls. But he dodged the question, saying enigmatically: “If there is a phone-in, it will be live.”