Putin said that the U.S. announcement it will withdraw its troops from Syria is “the right thing to do” though he expressed skepticism about whether it will actually take place. He added that he broadly agreed with Trump’s view that Islamic State has been defeated in Syria. “Donald’s right and I agree with him,” he said at his annual press conference in Moscow on Thursday.
The U.S. exit from Syria would be a major achievement for the Russian leader, who has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through almost seven years of civil war amid efforts by the U.S and its allies to oust him. As Putin was speaking, Trump tweeted that Russia was among those countries that are “not happy about the U.S. leaving” because they will have to fight Islamic State alone, but the Russian president didn’t address that.
Putin underscored a growing confrontation with the U.S. over its move to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms control treaty. He warned of a “nuclear catastrophe” if the U.S. stations new missiles in Europe. The Trump administration on Dec. 4 said it would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 60 days if Russia doesn’t stop its violations. Russia insists it is complying with the deal.
“For mankind this is very bad, because it will take us to a dangerous point,” Putin said, expressing concern about moves to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, including the U.S. decision to produce lower-yield missiles. This trend “could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe,” he said.
Russia will be forced to develop new weapons systems, the Russian leader signaled. “If missiles appear in Europe, what else can we do?” Putin said. “We are witnessing the collapse of the global system of deterrence.” The U.S. has said it has no plans to deploy new missiles after pulling out of the INF treaty.
In more conciliatory language, Putin rallied to Trump’s defense against his domestic opponents, warning that the Democrats’ success in the midterm elections to the House of Representatives will lead to “new attacks” on the U.S. president.
“They don’t want to recognize President Trump’s victory,” he said, comparing the situation to opposition to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to implement the 2016 referendum that backed leaving the European Union. “This shows a lack of respect for voters.” Russia has repeatedly denied the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that it intervened in the 2016 presidential elections in Trump’s favor.
On another key international issue, Putin said he is working toward a deal solving a World War II-era territorial dispute with Japan, though he cautioned that concerns over a Japan-U.S. security pact must be addressed for an agreement to happen.
Putin, who was addressing more than 1,000 reporters from around the world, many of them holding up signs to attract his attention, faced a tougher task defending his domestic record. He drew skepticism even from state TV as he touted the year’s growth outlook of 1.8 percent and an upturn in household incomes.
As he began his opening remarks, the price of oil — Russia’s biggest export earner — fell, with Brent crude dropping below $55 a barrel for the first time since 2017.
“We need a breakthrough,” Putin said. “Without it there will be no future for the country.” In one of the first questions, a state television reporter asked how the government planned to reach those goals amid a decade of “stagnation.”
As in past years, Putin was asked about his health (he said he’s feeling fine) and the possibility he might remarry (“As a decent person, I will have to do that sometime”).
The Russian leader, whose speaking stamina is second only to late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, took 53 questions over 3 hours and 43 minutes, almost an hour short of the record (4 hours 40 minutes) set at his 2008 press conference.