The biggest news from the annual marathon press conference by Russian President Vladimir Putin came after it ended: Mr. Putin said he will pardon jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“He has been in jail already more than ten years, this is a serious punishment,” Putin told reporters, saying that the former Yukos oil company chief had asked him for a pardon.
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 after falling out with Putin and has been convicted of crimes including fraud, theft and money laundering. Kremlin critics say Khodorkovsky, 50, was punished for perceived political challenges to Putin, to keep other wealthy tycoons in line and tighten the state’s grip over lucrative oil revenues.
The annual televised news conference – lasting over four hours – by the 61-year-old leader explored a range of subjects in a session that returned frequently to the topic of pardons for activists.
Tough on Greenpeace
The tough response to a Greenpeace protest over Arctic oil drilling should serve as a lesson and Moscow will further harden its guard against interference in development of the region, Mr. Putin said.
He said an amnesty passed this week, which lawyers say will enable the Greenpeace activists to avoid trial and return home after being arrested for a protest at a drilling platform operated by state-controlled Gazprom in September, was not drafted with them in mind.
“As for the fact that they can now get amnesty ... we are not doing this for them,” Putin said. “What happened must be a lesson….”
Putin suggested Greenpeace activists may have been carrying out an order to undermine Russia’s development of Arctic energy resources, he suggested.
“Why was this (protest) carried out? Either it was to put pressure on a company or on someone’s orders interfere with Russia’s offshore development,” Mr. Putin said, suggesting foreign rivals could have been behind it but naming no nation.
“This is a serious thing for us. And we do not plan to soften (our stance), we will only be toughening it.”
Pardoning Pussy Riot
Two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot will be freed under an amnesty but Mr. Putin described their protest against him in a church as disgraceful.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, are serving a two-year jail sentence for performing a crude “punk prayer” against Putin and his ties to the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow’s main cathedral.
The two women had been due for release in March but are now expected to be freed sooner under the amnesty, in part because both are mothers of small children.
“I was not sorry that they (the Pussy Riot members) ended up behind bars,” Mr. Putin said. “I was sorry that they were engaged in such disgraceful behaviour, which in my view was degrading to the dignity of women.”
‘Brotherly’ aid to Ukraine
Russia’s bailout of Ukraine was a “brotherly” move help to stave off economic crisis, not a tactic to prevent Ukraine from seeking closer ties with the European Union.
“Now we see that Ukraine is in difficult straits ... if we really say that they are a brotherly nation and people then we must act like close relatives and help this nation,” he said.
Russia agreed on Tuesday to buy $15-billion worth of Ukrainian Eurobonds and cut the price Kiev pays for Russian gas, weeks after Kiev spurned a trade pact with the EU, touching off anti-government protests.
On who might succeed him
Putin brushed aside a question about who might succeed him when his presidency ends in 2018.
“About the successor I have said nothing and there is nothing to say,” said Mr. Putin, who has been Russia’s dominant politician since he was first elected president in 2000 and has the right to seek a new term – his fourth – in 2018.
Surveillance and its limits Mr. Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran and the former chief of Russia’s main espionage agency, was generous toward the U.S. National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance programs, the extent of which has been revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – who is now living in Russia. The NSA program “isn’t a cause for joy, it’s not a cause for repentance either,” said Mr. Putin, because it is needed to fight terrorism.
He did remark on the need to harness such agencies: “On political level, it’s necessary to limit the appetite of special services with certain rules.”
Nr. Putin said he hasn’t met with Mr. Snowden and that Russian security agencies haven’t worked with him and have not asked him any questions related to NSA activities against Russia.
‘Calm down’ about missiles
Mr. Putin sought to reassure the West about Russia’s military deployments, saying Moscow had not yet decided whether to station Iskander missiles in its western enclave of Kaliningrad.
NATO members voiced alarm at reports this week that Russia had already deployed Iskanders in the area, which borders alliance members Poland and Lithuania. The missiles have a range of about 400 km and can carry nuclear warheads.
Putin reiterated Moscow’s position that an anti-missile shield the United States in building in Europe with help from NATO nations poses a threat to Russia, and that it must respond.
“One of the possible responses is to deploy Iskander complexes in Kaliningrad ... but I want to draw your attention to the fact that we have not yet made this decision yet, let them calm down,” he said.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press