Direct Line with Vladimir Putin (December 2023): four-hour marathon on domestic issues, international relations with other countries, and Russia’ Special Military Operation

In December 2023, the annual Direct Line with Vladimir Putin, usually a televised phone-in event in which Russian citizens ask questions of the Russian President, was combined with his annual news press conference. Hosted by Yekaterina Berezovskaya and Pavel Zarubin, the event lasted some four hours with President Vladimir Putin taking questions from people living right across the Russian Federation, people living as far apart as Crimea, the Komi Republic, North Ossetia, Lugansk oblast (one of four formerly Ukrainian oblasts accepted into the Russian Federation in September 2022), Mordovia, Tatarstan, Krasnodar kray, Blagoveshchensk (near China), Buryatia and Magadan oblast in the Russian Far East. Most questions fielded by Putin from Russian citizens concerned domestic issues such as declining water levels in the Volga River, the price of eggs, developing transport infrastructure in Krasnodar kray, the rewriting of history textbooks, and the possibility that Moscow might subsidise flights for passengers from the Russian Far East to Khabarovsk and other major cities in that region.

For people outside Russia, the most relevant questions revolved around Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and Russia’s relationships with other nations, especially with the European Union. The answers Putin gave are intriguing, especially the answer he gave to TASS journalist Yekaterina Korostovtseva on the issue of relations with the EU and the increasingly strained ties between the EU and Ukraine. After speaking briefly on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and how this conflict is being fanned by the West, Putin mentioned that southeastern Ukraine has historically been Russian territory, at least since the mid-1700s after the Russo-Turkish wars, and that Odessa especially is a Russian city. This may imply that, after fulfilling the core goals of the SMO (de-Nazifying and demilitarising Ukraine, and ensuring that Ukraine remains a neutral state), Odessa and other parts of southern and southeastern Ukraine that are historically Russian and which are not yet part of the Russian Federation may join as well via referendum. Putin then went on to discuss how the Europeans and the US sweet-talked Ukraine with offers of EU and NATO membership after the 2014 Maidan putsch that toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and replaced him with a government openly hostile to Russia and dominated by neo-Nazi forces and their allies in the US government and intelligence community.

One other interesting reply Putin gave, this time to Vesti journalist Nikolai Dolgachev’s question on the future of the four former Ukrainian oblasts (Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk, Zaporozhzhye) that are now part of Russia, concerns how Russia will continue its operation agains the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU): basically, the Russians will wait for the AFU to continue committing one folly after another, sending troops into traps to be pounded by Russian artillery and drone attacks. This strategy helps to fulfill the long-term goal of Ukrainian demilitarisation.

Elsewhere in the Q&A session, Putin addresses the issue of mobilisation, and whether there will be a second mobilisation of volunteer fighters for the Russian armed forces: Putin’s answer was that a second mobilisation is not necessary. This suggests that the Russian armed forces are not short of people willing to fight, with 1,500 volunteers joining the armed forces every day, and that in itself implies that morale among soldiers and volunteer fighters is high.

Putin took a question from Valerie Hopkins of The New York Times on Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who has been held in prison since March 2023 after he was caught trying to speak to employees at a factory making parts for weapons in Yekaterinburg. Hopkins held that Gershkovich has been detained without trial. Putin pointed out that his detention term had recently been extended, and that extension could only have been granted under a court ruling.

These sections of Putin’s press conference / Q&A session will be of most interest to people curious to know and understand what Russia’s SMO in Ukraine aims to do, whether these aims are being fulfilled, and what current Russian strategy in the SMO may be. Putin’s answers may, in their own way, hint at what the President would like to see in the near future, assuming of course that he will win a fifth term as President in Presidential elections in early 2024.