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Putin Touts Syria Peace, Pokes US Democrats

  • Daniel Schearf

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016.

In his annual end-of-year press conference Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin devoted a lot of time to economic issues, as the country struggles to get back to growth after shrinking the past two years because of low oil prices and economic sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.

He said the Russian economy is gradually recovering and expected to contract by about only half a percent this year, while inflation has dropped to an all-time low and might soon reach the official 5.4 percent target. Putin noted capital outflows slowed down to a net $17 billion loss and real wages are stabilizing after dropping last year for the first time since 2000.

“It’s quite peaceful, this is good news,” says the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov. “But, bad news is that there was not any kind of understanding of the situation: all those words about good economic performance, which is not too good in reality.”

Russia-Turkey-Iran partnership?

His focus on the economy this was in stark contrast to last year’s briefing, when Putin had harsh words to say about Turkey just weeks after its air force shot down a Russian jet along its border with Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a news conference following their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9, 2016.

The improved relations between Moscow and Ankara which followed the Turkish president’s apology are holding, despite Monday's assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.

“It indicates an intention to build up a triangular Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership to deal with the Syrian crisis,” says Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Russia held a memorial ceremony Thursday for Ambassador Andrei Karlov, who was shot by a Turkish police officer shouting the murder was revenge for Aleppo. The attacker was killed shortly after the murder by Turkish special forces.

Victory in Syria?

The rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo fell last week to Syrian government forces, backed by Iranian troops and Russian bombing. The city, Syria's second largest, lies in ruins but is a symbolic and strategic victory for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.

Despite concerns about the fate of civilians, Putin declared the evacuation of those remaining in Aleppo the “largest international humanitarian operation in the modern world” and called for a nationwide cease-fire in Syria.

The Russian president said Iran, Syria, and Turkey agreed to hold peace talks in Kazakhstan.

“For Putin, it’s much more important right now to demonstrate his might, to demonstrate his capacity to be the winner, to be the game-changer in this region,” says Kolesnikov. “And, he in some sense achieved this goal, taking Aleppo. Yes, he lost Palmyra, but he finished this year with the image of the winner.”

“Lose with dignity”

In Friday's press conference, Putin struck a conciliatory tone concerning relations with the West and in anticipation of a more Russia-friendly administration after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.

But the Russian president took the opportunity to poke the administration of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the U.S. - for citing Russian hacking as part of the reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, China, Sept. 5, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, China, Sept. 5, 2016.

“Democrats are losing on every front and looking for people to blame everywhere,” he said during the press conference, which was broadcast live on Russian television. “They need to learn to lose with dignity.”

The CIA and FBI say Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and party officials in an effort aimed at helping Trump win.

In foreign policy, Russia clearly is not looking to escalate tensions with the West, says Kortunov.

“There is an understanding that the West is a moving target and many things will change in Russia and the USA over the next year, and therefore it is clear that at this stage Russia is not going to come up with any strategic, long-term initiatives.”

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