Putin talks Trump, nukes, and Syria in marathon press conference
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his marathon end-of-year press conference in Moscow on Friday, a typically super-sized affair in which the leader held the floor for nearly four hours, taking questions from some of the 1,400 reporters in attendance.
Here some of his key comments, coming at a time when major foreign policy decisions seem to be shifting Russia’s way.
No Nuclear Arms Race With the U.S.
Putin said he saw “nothing unusual” with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent pledge on Twitter to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S.’s nuclear capability. The pledge was in line with Trump’s campaign statements “about the necessity of strengthening the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and strengthening the armed forces,” Putin said.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
The Russian strongman insisted his country isn’t interested in an arms race. “If anyone is unleashing an arms race, it’s not us,” he said. “We will never spend resources on an arms race that we can’t afford.”
A renewed arms race would reverse decades of nonproliferation efforts that have seen Russia and the U.S. dramatically reduce their nuclear arsenals. The two powers still possess more than 14,000 weapons between them, accounting for more than 90 percent of all the world’s nuclear warheads.
Though he may not be interested in an arms race, Putin said that Russia had been developing its nuclear armaments to be able to pierce missile defense systems. He said these improvements had been made necessary by the U.S.’s opting out of a Cold War-era treaty banning missile defense systems – the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – in 2002. Russia has objected to NATO’s deployment of a ballistic missile defense system near its territory.
Putin said that the U.S. “has more missiles, submarines, and aircraft carriers, but what we say is that we are stronger than any aggressor.”
Future relations with President Trump
Putin said he would seek to normalize relations with the U.S., which had deteriorated under the Obama administration. He said of the president-elect: “Nobody believed he’d win. Except us, of course. We always believed.”
That last quote will likely ruffle feathers within the Democratic party, still coming to terms with recent accusations from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election in favor of President-elect Trump.
Putin continued to push back on those U.S. intelligence findings Friday, saying that no one knew who was behind the hack, and that it could have been carried out by someone sitting on a couch in the U.S. He said the more important issue was what the leaked emails revealed, and accused the Democrats of being sore losers.
“Losers always look for ways to accuse someone else,” he said, taking a jab at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
He also shot back at President Barack Obama’s recent statement that the late President Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave at reports that more than a third of Trump voters had favorable views of Putin. Reagan would have welcomed Trump’s victory, he asserted. He said the current administration had divided the U.S.
Washington and Moscow have clashed repeatedly in recent years over Syria and Ukraine, and more recently the U.S. accused Russia of interfering with the U.S. presidential elections by hacking the emails of Democratic-linked organizations and leaking details to the public.
But Putin said that the levels of support for him among Republicans reflected that they shared a similar worldview, however, and was a good basis for improving the relations between the countries.
Trump’s transition team on Friday excitedly released a letter from Putin, in which he wished the president-elect a merry Christmas, and expressed the hope that the two would be able to improve their ties to a “new level.”
“I hope that after you assume the position of the President of the United States of America we will be able — by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner — to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level,” read the letter.
Trump shares a letter he received from Putin –> pic.twitter.com/aJoSPj36zI
— Nick Corasaniti (@NYTnickc) December 23, 2016
Trump responded to the letter with a statement saying Putin’s “thoughts are so correct.”
“I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path,” he said.
The Russian leader, whose intervention in Syria has swung the course of the war in President Bashar Assad’s favor, said that the priority now is to establish a cease-fire across the country.
Russian air power has been instrumental in helping to get Syrian allied forces to the cusp of an outright victory in the key northern city of Aleppo, after four years of carnage.
Putin said that once Syrian government forces took full control of the city in the coming days, “the next stage should be a cease-fire on the entire territory of Syria, and the launch of talks on a political settlement.”
On Tuesday, Russia, Turkey and Iran — the power brokers behind the Aleppo cease-fire — announced their intention to broker a settlement to the conflict, in a separate initiative to the sporadic U.N.-backed talks led by Russia and the U.S. that have failed to bear fruit. Putin said Friday that the three countries, along with Assad, had agreed to hold negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.
He said that despite the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Istanbul on Monday — carried out by an off-duty policeman who declared that the killing was “for Aleppo” — the relations between the countries would remain strong. The relationship has thawed in recent months after hitting a low point last November when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
Putin said that the assassination had even made him reconsider whether the warplane downing may have happened without direct order from Turkish leadership.
“Frankly speaking, I was skeptical about this. But now, after the attack on the ambassador committed by an officer of the special service, I began to reconsider. I may believe now that anything is possible,” he said.