Vladimir Putin cancels annual press conference as unease grows over Ukraine war

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Russian president Vladimir Putin has cancelled his annual press conference for the first time in a decade, as the Kremlin faces growing disquiet over its invasion of Ukraine following significant battlefield retreats and an unpopular military draft at home.

The decision, announced by the Kremlin in a phone call with reporters on Monday, illustrated Putin’s growing distance from internal political matters and his reluctance to take tough questions as Russia’s war effort sputters.

“The conference won’t happen before the new year. We hope that the president will still find an opportunity to talk to journalists,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday.

The press conference is usually a large-scale marathon lasting for up to four hours and attended by hundreds of journalists, both domestic and foreign.

In the absence of genuine freedom of the press, the event resembles a political carnival, with pro-state journalists coming in national dress and competing for the most flattering banner to attract Putin’s attention to be picked for a question.

It fits into a tradition of the Russian president presenting himself as being in direct dialogue with the people, who may suffer local problems such as poor roads or minor corruption at the hands of local governors or politicians, whom Putin can then reprimand after the conference.

In 2021, the Kremlin invited about 500 reporters, including representatives of several outlets labelled “foreign agents” — a tag used for almost all independent media in Russia, which burdens them with onerous financial restrictions and connotations of treason.

Although none of the “foreign agents” were allowed to ask questions, their presence allowed the Kremlin to claim Putin wanted to hear a diversity of views amid rampant censorship.

Monday’s decision to cancel the press conference showed how far the limits on Russia’s already shackled media have grown since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February.

It has been cancelled once, in 2005, and was not held between 2009 and 2011, when Putin was Russia’s prime minister. Hundreds of Russia’s independent journalists fled the country in March after lawmakers criminalised “discrediting the armed forces” by deviating from the Kremlin line or calling the conflict a “war”, which is punishable with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Putin’s annual State of the Union address, which he is required to make by the end of the year under Russia’s constitution, is still under review, Peskov said. The Russian president last addressed parliament in April 2021, 10 months before the invasion of Ukraine.

“The press conference has always been an unpleasant duty for Putin. But it was a necessary ritual to maintain what he believed was a democratic regime”, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a France-based political consultancy. The war has made the regime more “defiant” and freed it from the need to maintain the pretence of external decorum, she added.

Putin has recently held several highly orchestrated conversations with the public to answer questions about sensitive issues such as the likelihood of a second wave of the draft or the poor conditions being experienced by those mobilised during the first one in September.

In late November, Putin held a meeting with soldiers’ mothers that excluded prominent activist groups in favour of women with close ties to the government and the ruling party. The meeting allowed Putin to demonstrate that he was aware of some war-related issues without explaining the bigger picture.

“He believes this is enough, and there is no need to waste more energy on yet another formality,” said Stanovaya.

Putin talks to the press regularly, Peskov noted, including during his foreign trips. The last time Putin spoke to reporters was on Friday following his visit to Kyrgyzstan, when he threatened to cut oil production in response to the G7’s price cap on Moscow’s crude exports.

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