Speaking in his annual town-hall meeting, which this year ran nearly five hours, the Russian president called for greater US-Russian cooperation on terrorism after the Boston bombing.
The Boston Marathon bombing offers a fresh opportunity for the US and Russia to revisit the basics in their struggling relationship and prioritize security cooperation in order to prevent any repetition of the tragedy, Vladimir Putin said in his annual electronic town-hall meeting with the Russian public Thursday.
"I just call for this tragedy to be an incentive for us to become closer in tackling common threats, with terrorism being one of the most important and dangerous of them. If indeed we combine our efforts, we won’t take such hits and sustain such losses," Mr. Putin said.
In the wake of the bombing it became known that one of the two suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been on the radar of both the FBI and the Russian FSB security service, and that the Russian agency had warned both the FBI and the CIA about him in 2011. Yet a subsequent FBI check failed to validate the Russians' suspicions, and the FSB itself apparently did not follow up on Tamerlan when he made a six-month visit to the Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya the following year.
"We always have said that we shouldn't limit ourselves to declarations about terrorism being a common threat, and [that we should] engage in closer cooperation. Now these two criminals have proven the correctness of our thesis," Putin added.
Putin's yearly telethon, which took place even during the years Dmitry Medvedev was president and Putin was prime minister, is seldom a news-breaking event. But it is a good opportunity to take the Kremlin's temperature on, literally, scores of issues. Experts argue over how tightly stage-managed the sessions are – they combine a studio audience, telelinks with viewers across the country, and questions submitted by electronic media – but there is no doubt about the ability of the Russian leader to field an exhausting battery of questions, on almost every imaginable subject, and provide lengthy, detailed answers. The event has grown steadily in duration, from 2 hours, 27 minutes for the first one in 2001, to 4 hours, 33 minutes last year.
Today he talked for a whopping 4 hours, 47 minutes, and answered almost 100 queries, including: How goes the fight against corruption? When will Russia's new stealth fighter be ready for service? Will he sack the government of Prime Minister Medvedev over alarming signs that the Russian economy is slipping into recession? Does he think that the current crackdown on NGOs, and upcoming prosecution of protesters connected with an alleged "riot" at a protest rally last May, suggest "overtones of Stalinism" in current Russian politics? Is he happy?
On the issue that will be of greatest interest in the US, Putin combined his plea for greater security cooperation with some tough criticism of past US policies and attitudes.
"This [slump in Russia-US relations] didn't begin yesterday," he said. "Back when our American colleagues called upon us to join in the process [leading up to the 2003 invasion of] Iraq, we told them it was a mistake. Our position was open and honest, but relations grew cooler. After that there were the events in Libya, and other states. We are watching chaos unfold everywhere."
"Must we support what we consider erroneous? Why do they demand that we accept their standards? Let's not demand anything from each other, but rather look for ways to improve mutual understanding," he said.
He also argued that Western sympathy for the Chechen side in two brutal wars in the past 20 years – a struggle that has morphed over that time from a secular nationalist bid for Chechen independence from Russia into a more diffuse, Cacausus-wide jihadist insurrection – has been deeply misguided.
"I always felt indignation when our Western partners and Western media referred to terrorists who conducted brutal and bloody crimes on Russian soil as 'rebels,'" Putin said.
On corruption, Putin vowed – as he has in most telethons since 2001 – to crush it: "We will fight against [corruption] no less stubbornly than against inflation. We will wipe it out," he said.
Despite persistent rumors that Putin may be preparing to sack Medvedev's government, and perhaps even call fresh Duma elections, Putin insisted "there is no division between the government and the president," on the economy. He added Medvedev's government has been in place for less than a year, and needs time to work.
Putin dismissed the question about echoes of Stalinism, saying "Stalinism is connected to the cult of personality, massive legal abuses, repressions, and gulags. There are no such things in Russia, and I hope they will never happen again."
He insisted that in contemporary Russia, people are jailed "for legal violations" and not for their political views.
Many critics argue that laws are selectively applied, and bent, in Russia in order to punish political opponents such as former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Pussy Riot performance-art band, currently on-trial protest leader Alexei Navalny, and almost 30 people soon to be tried, and facing serious jail time, over a fairly minor disturbance at a legal protest rally almost a year ago.
As for whether Putin is happy, he suggested the jury is still out on that.
"I am thankful to destiny and the citizens of Russia for showing the trust that allowed me to become Russian president," he said. "This is my whole life. Whether it's enough for happiness, that's another question."