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Russian President Putin holds his annual year-end news conference

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Moscow today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding his annual year-end press conference. It's a marathon affair that typically lasts more than four hours. With more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, the world is watching this year's press conference more closely than usual. NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes is in the Russian capital. Charles, describe the scene for us. I mean, there's really nothing comparable in the West to this annual appearance by Putin.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. You know, it's called the big press conference and for a reason. It's promoted on all the channels for weeks. Hundreds of journalists clamor to get their chance to ask Putin a question. The media run countdown clocks just to cut live at the stroke of noon. Never mind that Putin was, as usual, running late today. But once it starts, you know, it goes for hours, as you noted. Putin usually makes a point of taking a few more challenging questions from foreign correspondents. But, you know, most queries come from the Russian journalists, many, if not all of them, from smaller regional outlets. And they're - you know, these questions tend to be a little bit softer or bring Putin's attention to local problems and certainly give him a chance to play this benevolent czar by solving them on the spot. Now, COVID has switched things up a bit. If last year's event was online because of the pandemic, this year is also in a smaller format, with just 500 journalists taking part. It's worth noting that all of them - these journalists - had to pass three negative PCR tests to get anywhere near the Russian leader.

MARTINEZ: OK. So COVID is important to Vladimir Putin. The other big topic has to be, I would imagine, Ukraine.

MAYNES: Yeah, yeah. As you noted in the intro, we're all looking for hints of what happens next in this crisis. And a bit of background here - now, Russia is demanding from the U.S. and NATO security guarantees, beginning with an end to NATO's expansion to its borders. And there's been a lot of noise out of Russia recently in terms of just how far it's willing to go to prevent what it claims is an existential threat to its security. You know, is Russia really willing to go to war over this? And today, Putin insisted Russia wasn't threatening anyone. As before - he's made this case before. He said that it was NATO coming towards Russia's borders, not the other way around. But he added Russia had laid out its demands as plainly as it could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Putin's saying the ball's in their court - in the U.S.'s court, and we're waiting for their answer. And he added it was - he was on the whole pleased, though, to see that the U.S. and Russia would meet in Geneva after the new year to discuss these security concerns. So perhaps a positive sign for diplomacy, even if, of course, the fundamental differences remain.

MARTINEZ: All right. So a four-and-a-half-hour-plus marathon monologue for Putin - what does he get out of this?

MAYNES: You know, it's part of this carefully staged, managed image of him as father of the nation, as someone firmly in control. You know, you mentioned the length. It certainly showcases Putin's stamina. Here he is batting away questions for three or four hours. That said, because of the pandemic, this year lacked a little of the usual optics of journalists kind of falling over themselves to ask the Russian leader a question. It's usually a spectacle, which gives Putin kind of a rock star status.

But fundamentally, I think the press conference allows Putin to show Russians that he's not only this global figure who can hit back at the West, he's also in command of things much closer to home. So he can weigh in on the wheat harvest or milk production levels or, you know, trucking tariffs, things like that. And so it's kind of designed to show Putin's unmatched command of the issues. And it's, of course, theater, but it's instructive theater, including providing some clues over what happens next in Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you very much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "DRAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.