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NATO blast and four other takeaways from Putin's annual speech

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Vladimir Putin took part in his annual marathon press conference on Thursday fielding questions on the devastating toll the COVID pandemic has taken on the country and on the military build-up near Ukraine.

The annual event, which started at 10 am CET, latest about four hours.

Here are the main takeaways so far.

1. Tensions with Ukraine: 'Further NATO movement to the east is unacceptable'

Asked what guarantees Russia needed to categorically rule out an invasion of Ukraine, Putin stressed that Moscow "made it clear that any further NATO movement to the east is unacceptable".

According to US intelligence, up to 90,000 Russian troops and military equipment are currently deployed near the border with Ukraine.

The Kremlin denies any warmongering, accusing the Americans and their allies of threatening Moscow with its politico-military support to Kyiv and its forces in the Black Sea.

Putin issued demands to NATO allies last week to de-escalate tensions which include an end to NATO and Washington's military support for Ukraine, a ban on any enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance and an end to all Western military activity near Russia.

They have been deemed "inadmissible" by many Western voices. Washington and Moscow are planning to hold talks in January.

Putin argued the country's demands are not "excessive."

"The US is deploying its missiles close to our homes, on the porch of our house," he said. "What would Americans think if we, for example, decided to come to the border between Canada and the US or Mexico and the US and deploy our missiles there?"

"We said not an inch to the east. That was NATO's guarantee in 1990. What happened to that? They fooled us," he continued.

2. Putin urges Russians to get vaccinated with COVID death toll at 520,000

Among other uncomfortable topics for the Russian leadership, Putin was questioned about the ravages of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Low vaccination coverage, fuelled by public distrust, and the absence of strong health restrictions have led to a heavy human toll.

More than 520,000 people have died of COVID in the country in fewer than two years, according to official statistics from the Rosstat agency.

But these figures could be underestimated, as the natural decline in the population reached half a million people in 2020 and already exceeded 595,000 in the first half of 2021. Yet demographic recovery is one of Putin's top priorities.

The Russian leader claimed 59.4% of the country's 146 million population is protected, including in that figure those who are fully vaccinated and people who have recovered from the disease.

"This is insufficient," he stressed. "We need to reach herd immunity at around 80%."

Putin hopes herd immunity will be achieved late in the first quarter of 2022 or by June at the latest.

On the country's high mortality, he said he instructed authorities to be fully "transparent" for "people to understand how important vaccination is".

3. We recovered quickly from COVID downturn, says Putin

Putin claimed the country's economy has recovered faster from the COVID downturn than other countries.

"Our economy downturn equalled 3%, which is much lower than in many leading economies around the world, and we recovered much quicker than other countries," he said.

Inflation, however, has soared to 8% but Putin rated the work of the country's leadership as "satisfactory" with "positive" results and said real income growth will average 3.5% this year.

He forecast the economy will have grown by 4.5% this year and that unemployment will have fallen below pre-pandemic levels.

4. 'Let's turn the page' on Navalny's 'alleged' poisoning, says Putin

When asked about the investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin referred to him as "the man who was allegedly poisoned" and reiterated that Russia demanded but received no evidence that the Kremlin critic had been exposed to the Novichok nerve agent.

"We sent numerous official inquiries from the Russian prosecutor's office asking for any documents proving the poisoning. There is not a single paper. How can we explain it? Not a single (evidence) of this Novichok, or whatever you call it," he said.

"We suggested sending our specialists there so that they work together. I personally told the French President and the German Chancellor, 'let our specialists work, let us take a sample, give us grounds to open a criminal case.' Nothing!," he added.

"There is no need to talk about this, let's turn this page," he concluded on the topic.

5. Our law on foreign agents 'more liberal' than US, Putin claims

A crackdown on the country's opposition and civil society escalated in 2021, which saw Navalny arrested upon his return to the country following his recovery in Germany and his anti-corruption foundation ruled "extremist".

Throughout the year, media outlets, NGOs, journalists, lawyers and activists have been targeted by various lawsuits with some sent to prison and others choosing to flee the country.

Two trials, one of them on Thursday, could lead to the liquidation of the NGO Memorial, a symbol of the democratisation that followed the end of the USSR and which investigates Soviet crimes and human rights violations in Russia.

Putin said on the issue that the political prisoners "have always existed in any country and they will continue to exist. One shouldn't commit crimes and cover it up with political activity."

Speaking about media outlets labelled as foreign agents in Russia, Putin said Russian laws on the issue are "much more liberal" than in the United States, with lighter punishment for violations.

He said that authorities just want organisations that get funding from abroad to be "transparent" but that unlike the US they don't "impose criminal responsibility for this activity (foreign agents) if the organisation doesn't stop its operation. We don't demand to stop it. (We just ask the foreign agent) tell us honestly what your source of finance is."

"A total of 74 organisations out of 200,000 NGOs have been labelled as foreign agents here, it's 0.034%, the same as in the US, but there are no tough regulations similar to those in the US, which particularly include criminal responsibility," he said.