It’s only good news in Putin’s Russia

The rouble’s been tanking, interest rates have soared and citizens are panic-buying buckwheat. So Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference in Moscow naturally opened with an unflinching look at the cold, hard truth about Russia’s finances.

“First, the most important thing: economic performance,” he said. “Growth is 0.7% … Industrial production is up 1.7% … Unemployment is low … The birth rate is increasing … We have had a record harvest: 104 million tons of grains …”

The good news just kept coming. A proud litany of Russian success. Older reporters must have felt overcome by nostalgia. Sadly, the president offered no figures for tractor production.

After a few minutes, he did acknowledge that recent events may have been “unfavourable”, and would require “some adjustments to our plans”, but it didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Putin’s press conferences are always remarkable, not least for their length (last year’s took four hours and 40 minutes). Boldly, the first reporter asked about the rouble.

“I do not think I could call the situation a crisis,” replied the president, reassuringly. Recovery was “inevitable”. Honestly. People do love to make a fuss out of nothing.

On to foreign policy. As any honest observer recognises, responsibility for Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine lies with everyone except Russia, a peace-loving nation that was going harmlessly about its business until Nato, the EU and the US brutally forced it to annex a sizeable part of a neighbouring country.

To illustrate this point, Putin reached for his favourite metaphor.

“Imagine the bear who guards his forest,” he said sternly. “Maybe the bear should just sit quietly, eating berries and honey rather than chasing piglets. Maybe then they would leave us alone. But no, they would still try to chain the bear, and take out his claws and fangs, so the bear will not be able to do anything … Do we want our bear to be a stuffed animal?”

If anyone did, they thought better of saying so.

The BBC’s John Simpson asked Putin whether he’d started another Cold War. “All we’ve done is protect our interests in a tougher way,” protested Putin. “We are not aggressive … We are right, and our Western partners are wrong.”

Back to the economy. “Some of the [Russian] elite,” ventured a reporter daringly, “blame you.”

“Could you tell me their names, please,” shot back Putin. Then he grinned. I think this meant it was just his little joke.

A woman congratulated Putin on being voted Russia’s Man of the Year for the 15th time in a row. Did it make him feel lonely, to be so much more popular than his rivals? Putin assured her that he didn’t concern himself with approval ratings. I’ll bet he doesn’t.

The press conference ended after three hours and eight minutes. Brief, by Putin standards.