Marco Werman: Well, if anyone knows what Russia wants, it's Russian President Vladimir Putin. The crisis in Ukraine didn't prevent him today from holding his live annual phone-in show where he answers questions from citizens. As usual, it was broadcast on Russian television. Correspondent Charles Maynes in Moscow listened in and says Putin gave a vigorous defense of Russia's role in Ukraine.
Charles Maynes: You get the sense that Russia is the only rational actor in all of this and that everyone else from America to Europe are giving into emotions. But the key points were that he was saying that essentially he had the authority to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine, including using the military, but he hoped that diplomacy would prevail. He also mentioned that these military maneuvers by the Ukrainian army were illegal from his point of view, that these were a crime against the people of east Ukraine.
Werman: By the way, what does this live Putin call-in show actually look like? Is he on a set walking around with a microphone like Phil Donahue or is he seated? What's the deal?
Maynes: It has a little bit of that feel to it. Essentially it's Putin behind a desk, there are two correspondents and a small audience, including some well known Russians. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya was there, some other governors, also some of the Ukrainian Berkut secret services were there, so you have this kind of representation of different aspects of the Russian population. But then they do this high tech performance where they beam into small villages and cities.
For example, this time it was quite noteworthy that they went straight to Crimea for the first questions. But it does have a few moments where it can veer into like a late night show. It's a four hour marathon so by the end, Putin was just taking his own questions. It felt a little bit like David Letterman or something, he was sort of reading his own questions and giving answers to them, like a list.
Werman: I don't know how many one-liners but there was a memorable moment when former US intelligence agent Edward Snowden popped up via a video link. Let's listen to this.
Edward Snowden: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies rather than subjects under surveillance. Thank you.
Werman: Edward Snowden wanted to know does Russia store and analyze information like the NSA. Putin is a former KGB agent, found that amusing. How did he answer?
Maynes: He said both of us are former guys in the secret services and we can speak on this professionally, but his answer essentially was that Russia didn't have the technical capability that the Americans had, that Russian secret services had always acted in accordance with courts and the law and if they did tap into doing some surveillance of any kind it was for national security and to fight terrorism, things like that. This comes across as a bit disingenuous because there's quite a lot of evidence in fact that the Russians have basically the equivalent of the PRISM surveillance system and theirs is called SORM. It was interesting because the timing of this, Pavel Durov, who's the founder of the company VKontakte, it's essentially the Russian Facebook, so you might think of him as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg, he went public with demands from the secret services in Russia to provide data on the Maidan protesters in Ukraine as well as Russian opposition figures. In fact, he'd been forced to give up his shares in the company because of it.
Werman: Charles, how much of this whole call-in show idea is just scripted?
Maynes: It's the lingering question through the whole thing. Is it real or is it theater? My take on it is it's theater but it's instructive theater. It's a pretty good performance by Putin. He's very commanding with statistics, he seems to know everything. While there are a lot of softball questions and praising of the Russian leader, they do enter into these uncomfortable issues as well. But the caveat here is that Putin seems to know all the answers and he doesn't have to take any follow-up questions so he seems to bat these things around easily.
Werman: I can't let you go without talking about one telephone call from a girl who's 6-years-old and maybe this will shed a little light on US-Russia relations.
Maynes: This was again, towards the end of Putin's performance, he had questions that he picked for himself and he picked one from a 6-year-old girl who asked a hypothetical question: If Putin was drowning, would Obama save him? This got a big laugh from the crowd and he said that ultimately he thought that Obama was a decent guy and would probably lend a hand.
Werman: Correspondent Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you very much.
Maynes: Thanks Marco.