The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin's regime against Ukraine
Yury Krylov

Contributing Author, FRF

Dec 23, 2021
Putin’s Annual Press Conference

Putin’s annual press conference upheld his long-standing tradition: no matter what topic the Russian president attempted to discuss, his narratives are full of fakes, disconnected from reality and inevitably swerve into anti-Western tirades.

Putin has hosted a large press conference every year since 2001, only taking a pause from May 2008 to May 2012 when he was Prime Minister.

The 2021 year-end press conference (which was Putin’s 17th), took place on December 23 and lasted 3 hours and 56 minutes. The president fielded questions from 44 people, covering both domestic and international issues.

Representatives of three outlets designated by the Kremlin as “foreign agents,” — Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Meduza, and Dozhd — had been invited to Putin’s press conference but not allowed to ask questions. The Kremlin lead spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained that “foreign agent media” were not given a turn, because the queue was too long. “Well, the queue was too long, they can’t get lucky every time,” he said, answering a question from Meduza. “You see how many people present here were unable to ask their question, how many people from the presidential pool were unable to as well… Foreign agents cannot be our priority,” he added.

In order to participate in the event, 507 invited journalists had to fulfill a number of conditions, including a daily PCR test starting with Sunday, December 19.  After three negative PCR test results, it was possible to enter the Moscow Manege, where the results were checked at the entrance. In front of the hall, special machines had been installed that sprayed a disinfectant solution, allegedly containing silver particles. Then, guests had to don special protective masks treated with an obscure “antibacterial solution of nanosilver.” The Presidential Administrative Directorate had spent 117 million rubles (about $1.6 million) to organize this press event — of which about 1.4 million rubles, or $19,000, went toward spraying journalists with silver particles, according to public procurement records.

The distance between the president of Russia and the journalists during the event was greater than ever — a few dozen meters. Only cameramen and photographers who had been quarantined were allowed to approach closer.

Before Putin’s appearance, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov reminded the participants to periodically change protective equipment (masks), to observe social distance and added that microphone pads will be disposable.

In April 2020, after the start of the pandemic, Putin stopped in person meetings and events. On September 14, 2021, Putin went into self-isolation due to spikes in COVID infections in Russia (according to media reports, about three dozen people in Putin’s entourage tested positive for COVID-19). The president himself boasted that he managed to avoid getting infected due to his “high level of antibodies.” It has been reported that Putin was vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine — and did so back in February 2021. During this summer’s live TV press-conference the president explained why the process of his vaccination was not documented on video: according to Putin, he did not consider publicizing such an event particularly important.

Most people with whom Putin meets are required to spend from several days to two weeks in quarantine beforehand. For example, at the beginning of September 2021, Olympic and Paralympic medalists went into self-isolation, and for some of them this had a detrimental effect on their preparation for competitions. At the same time, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom Putin also met, were not mandated a similar quarantine.

Foreign Policy

NATO and Ukraine. Moscow’s further actions will depend not on progress in negotiations with the US on security guarantees, but on real action, taken to ensure Russia’s security, Putin announced.

“As for the guarantees [of security] and what will depend on progress in negotiations, our actions will depend not on progress in the talks, but on unconditional measures to ensure Russia’s security today and in the long term,” the president said. He stressed that Russia has made it pretty clear that “NATO’s further expansion to the East is unacceptable.”

“Are we planting missiles near US borders? No. It is the United States that has brought its missiles to our doorstep,” Putin said. “Is it an excessive demand — no more attack systems near our home? Is there something unusual about this?”

Putin also mused about ways the United States might react if Russia deployed its missiles in Mexico or Canada on the border with the US. “Have Mexico and the United States never had any territorial disputes? Whom did California belong to in the past? And how about Texas? Have they forgotten? Nobody recalls all this the way many tend to look at Crimea these days. We, too, have been trying not to recall how today’s Ukraine took shape and who created it — Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. There was the Union Treaty of 1922 and the Constitution of 1924. The latter was adopted after his death, but in accordance with his principles,” Putin said.

Reality Check: Since 2014, Putin has, on numerous occasions, articulated various versions of the genesis of Ukraine. In July 2021, he even penned an article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which was supposed to convince the reader that Ukraine had never existed and that all of its land and people inhabiting the territory had always been originally Russian. During December press conference, Putin has shared an even more bizarre story according to which, Ukraine was created by Vladimir Lenin in 1922, when the leader of the Russian proletariat announced the creation of the USSR.

Asked by a SkyNews correspondent what guarantees might Russia provide to assure that it would not attack Ukraine or any other sovereign state, the Russian leader said that it was not Russia that posed threats to other countries.

“Have we approached the borders of the United States or Britain? They have approached ours. And now they say ‘Ukraine will be a NATO member.’ Consequently, there will emerge [their weapon] systems,” he explained.

“You are demanding some guarantees from me. But it is you that must provide guarantees. You must do that at once, now, and not keep talking about this for decades,” Putin said.

He stressed that Russia was “treacherously deceived” when it was told in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastwards.

“’Not an inch towards the east’, we were told in the 1990s. And what? They cheated us. They outrageously deceived us: five waves of NATO’s expansion. Now the corresponding systems are emerging in Romania and Poland,” Putin said.

Reality Check: Speaking at a press conference, Vladimir Putin once again spoke emotionally about Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO: Russia was allegedly “cheated” in the 1990s by promising not to expand the alliance to the east, and now they plan to take Ukraine there as well.

The next day, NATO denied Putin’s words. The North Atlantic Alliance never promised that it would not expand, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told DPA.

“NATO has never made a promise not to expand. In fact, it is in the founding treaty of our organization that it says that any European country can become a member of the alliance. <…> This is a fundamental principle of European security,” Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg noted that the alliance is ready to negotiate security guarantees in the framework of the Russia-NATO Council, so he is ready to convene a council meeting as early as possible next year. “But we will not compromise on basic principles. We cannot compromise on NATO’s right to defend and protect all allies, and we cannot compromise on the basic principle of every nation’s right to choose its own way,” Stoltenberg added.

“We must understand how our security will be ensured. That’s why, all tricks aside, we made the straightforward case that there shouldn’t be any further NATO expansion eastward,” Putin said. “The ball is in their court and they should say something in response… We are generally seeing a positive reaction so far. Our American partners are telling us they are ready to start discussions… Both sides have appointed their representatives,” he went on to say. “I hope the situation will develop along these lines.”

On the topic of the war in eastern Ukraine, Putin condemned the leadership in Kyiv for refusing to comply with the Minsk agreements and to negotiate with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (the territories in the Donbas controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists).

“The Minsk agreements, in substance, imply an autonomous Donbas. Elections need to be held, an amnesty needs to be held. But Kyiv isn’t doing any of this — instead, it’s returning troops,” Putin said, alleging that Ukraine is planning to retake the region by force.

Russia is willing to establish good-neighborly relations with Ukraine, but it is almost impossible due to the actions of the current administration in Kyiv, Vladimir Putin said.

“What is the problem for us? We want to build good-neighborly relations with Ukraine and, moreover, we want it, I should say, at any cost and we are in fact doing everything possible in this regard,” he said. “However, how can we build these relations with the present-day administration [in Ukraine] considering what they are doing at the moment? This is practically impossible,” the Russian president said.

Putin stressed that Moscow was ready to work with the Ukrainian authorities, “who are ready to build relations with Russia in a good-neighborly atmosphere.”

“What’s happening with these authorities? We see extrajudicial killings, sanctions against their own citizens, which contradict the laws and the Constitution of Ukraine, or simply murders right in the street. Nobody is searching for these murderers.”

And Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has found himself under the influence of radical elements after coming to power, according to Putin.

“Instead of responding to the people’s demand for peace, President Zelensky fell under the influence of radical elements, as they say in Ukraine, Nazis.”

Reality Check. Ukraine’s progress toward  joining NATO now is about the same as it was in 2008. At that time, together with Georgia, it applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan, the name given to the program for the admission of new members. In the spring of 2008 possible membership of Ukraine was much discussed at the NATO Bucharest summit (Putin was there, and, apparently, this experience had a strong influence on him), but neither Ukraine nor Georgia were allowed to join the Action Plan – Germany and France prevented this. Without giving Kyiv a road map, the NATO summit welcomed the very idea of accession – since then it is believed that Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is only a matter of time.

Since 2008, however, when Viktor Yushchenko was the president of Ukraine, much has changed. Later, Viktor Yanukovich, who advocated Ukraine’s non-bloc status, came to power. And then 2014, Crimea and events in eastern Ukraine happened, which turned Ukraine toward NATO again: Presidents Poroshenko and Zelensky repeatedly (and quite insistently) appealed for  NATO to accept Ukraine, and in April the latter declared that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass.

Ukraine’s accession must be supported by all 30 countries of the alliance, and there are precedents when some countries blocked the accession of others. Ukraine itself believes that the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbass are the most important barriers to Kyiv’s NATO membership. Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, Natalia Galiborenko, says that Russia decided from the very beginning to block Ukraine’s membership in the alliance through these conflicts, and NATO countries, having accepted Ukraine, are simply afraid of finding themselves in a situation of armed conflict with Russia.

Taliban. When asked about Russia’s relations with the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Russian president did not say whether Russia would recognize the new government in Kabul, but said he hoped the situation in the country would be stable and warned against the penetration of extremists into the bordering Central Asian republics. He also called on the West to unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets, saying the country is on the brink of a widespread humanitarian crisis.

Reality Check: The Taliban movement is officially banned on the Russian territory, as are any official contacts with representatives of the organization. Nevertheless, Moscow maintains relations with the leaders of the movement, and they have repeatedly come to the Russian capital for negotiations. And although the Russian authorities admit that they are ready to negotiate with the new Afghan authorities, they do not hurry to remove them from the list of terrorists. Russian authorities have never concealed their contacts with Taliban representatives because “they are part of Afghan society.”

In October 1999, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1267 recognizing the Taliban as accomplices of terrorists and imposing sanctions against this movement. In pursuance of this resolution in May 2000 Vladimir Putin signed the first presidential decree on Russia’s sanctions against the Taliban, banning flights, blocking funds and financial resources.

After the negotiations in Moscow on July 8-9, 2021, it became known that Taliban representatives asked the Russian authorities to remove the movement from the UN Security Council sanctions list.

But even if it happens, the ruling of the Russian Supreme Court of 2003 that recognized the Taliban as a terrorist organization and outlawed its activities in the country will remain in force. It was precisely because of this decision that the Taliban ended up on Russia’s list of terrorist organizations. The media are obliged to mention its status every time, and citizens are still fined for posting the movement’s symbols on social media. And the Russian authorities are formally prohibited by law from making political concessions to the Taliban.

In recent months, the official Russian media have stopped referring to the Taliban as a terrorist organization. The management of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency demanded that its journalists use another formulation instead: “The organization is under UN sanctions for terrorist activities.” News about the Taliban began appearing on RIA Novosti’s Web site on Monday with this footnote. The same phrase is used on RT news agency’s website.

Belarus. At the conference, Putin boasted closer integration with Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko. According to Putin, Moscow and Minsk are working on a number of proposals to closer integrate the two countries, as Russia has become Belarus’ key financial and political supporter amid widespread international isolation of the Lukashenko regime over the past year.

“We are building a ‘Union State,’” Putin said, but noted that the level of integration between Russia and Belarus was “at a much lower level than that in the European Union. It’s incomparable.”

Reality Check: Closer integration between Russia and Belarus has been discussed since the 1990s. The agreement was signed on December 8, 1999, by Alexander Lukashenko and Boris Yeltsin.  The rapprochement then included the creation of a common parliament, constitution, court, accounting chamber, and common currency, but the State Council of the Union State never signed the agreement.

In 2019, negotiations resumed at Russia’s initiative. Some media speculated that even a unification of the two countries was possible. And explained it by Vladimir Putin’s desire to stay in power without changing the Russian Constitution. In this logic, the union of Russia and Belarus would have led to the formation of a new state with a new constitution. But nothing of the sort has happened.

Lukashenko still does not give up either his union with Russia or the idea of deeper integration. At the same time, he constantly stresses that independence is sacred and that Belarus is not going to become a part of Russia.

In Belarus, the idea of integration with Russia is viewed with apprehension and considered a threat to independence. In 2019, more than 800 people came out to protest with the slogans “Zhyve Belarus,” (“Long Live Belarus”), “No Anschluss” and “No Russian Occupation.”

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko held their last integration negotiations by this point in Moscow on September 9, 2021. At the meeting, they agreed on 28 union programs aimed at the integration of Russia and Belarus. “There is nothing bad for the peoples of Russia and Belarus in these programs and could not be. Everything is aimed at the growth of welfare,” said Lukashenko after the meeting. Putin, in his turn, did not rule out the organization of a union parliament of Russia and Belarus in the future. But he added that first it is necessary to create the “economic basis” for the integration.

The Pandemic

New coronavirus strains emerge in those countries, which have problems in their public health systems and do not have a high level of herd immunity, Vladimir Putin said.

“As for new waves of the coronavirus infection, new strains — what is the reason for this? It stems from this virus’ ability to mutate. That’s all. The answer is simple. New strains emerge where there are problems in the public health system and where herd immunity is low. Well, African countries have many immunodeficiency infections, with new strains emerging. There is nothing unexpected about that,” he said.

Reality Check: The arrival of a new strain of coronavirus with a large number of mutations was reported in late November 2021 by scientists from South Africa. The new strain, “omicron”, quickly became the predominant variant of covid in the country. It also spread almost immediately to dozens of countries around the world. In Russia, the identification of the first “omicron” strain became known as early as December 6.

The “omicron” strain has several dozens of mutations in the spike protein by which the virus enters the human body. Because of this, scientists fear that any vaccines will be less effective against this strain of coronavirus.

The quality of the health care system around the world is virtually irrelevant. Even if all of humanity somehow becomes immune to COVID-19, its spread will continue, both through repeat (in the case of those previously overexposed) and breakthrough (in the case of those vaccinated) infections, as well as through newly born children who have no specific immunity.

Putin’s words about collective immunity are also easily refuted. For example, as of December 21 in Germany, 73.5% of the population was vaccinated with at least one dose, 70.5% were fully vaccinated, and a booster dose (the third or second in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) was given to 32.7% of residents. Doctors believe that the booster dose has become especially important due to the spread of the “omicron” strain of coronavirus, which easily infects even fully vaccinated people. In Russia, according to the same source, at least 50.2% of residents have been vaccinated with one dose, 44.8% with two doses, and only 4.6% with a booster dose. Thus, Russia is one of the least vaccinated countries in Europe, along with Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Russian economy was better prepared for pandemic shocks than other countries, according to Putin.

“Our economy, faced with the challenges of coronavirus infection, necessary, forced restrictions in this regard in the economy, and in social areas, despite all the challengers turned out to be more flexible and ready for these shocks than many other developed world economies… Our economic decline rate was 3%, which is much lower than in many leading economies in the world.” And Russia recovered from these shocks much faster than other countries, he stressed.

Reality Check: Even before the new quarantine, the head of the Ministry of Economic Development, Maxim Reshetnikov, stated that the recovery growth that the Russian economy had shown in recent months had exhausted itself.

This is compounded by global problems, such as the rise in world commodity prices, which is noticeable in many countries of the world. In Russia, almost everything was rising in price throughout 2021: building materials, fuel, and food. The government launched a system of monitoring the risks of price hikes for socially important commodities in order to combat inflation. It is planned to combat the price increase by relatively mild methods – reduction of import duties and subsidizing of producers as well as by more drastic measures – increase of export duties and special deals with companies.

On December 1, 2021, the World Bank lowered its forecast for Russia’s economic growth. According to revised data, Russia’s GDP will grow by only 2.4 percent, which is 0.4 percentage points less than the World Bank forecast in October. The outlook for 2023 is unchanged, at 1.8 percent.

Inflation in Russia, as of November 29, 2021, accelerated to 8.38%, according to the review of the Ministry of Economic Development “On the current price situation.” According to Rosstat, consumer prices have increased by 7.51% since the beginning of the year.

In 2020, Russia’s GDP shrank by 3%, which was the strongest decline in 11 years.

The president said he hopes Russia will reach the planned level of herd immunity to COVID-19, 80%, in the first half of next year. Putin added that currently herd immunity stands at 59.4%, which is too low. Some countries now say herd immunity needs to be 90%-95%, he said.

“What is it [the currently herd immunity] for us? 59.4% as of today or last night. I just spoke to Anna Popova and Tatyana Golikova yesterday, knowing for sure that this would almost be the main topic of our meeting today. 59.4% is the collective immunity today in Russia. We are referring to our citizens who have recovered from the disease and those who have been vaccinated. We have about 70 million who have had their first vaccination, and 70 million who have had two shots,” Putin said.

Reality Check: It is impossible to estimate the level of collective immunity in Russia because there is no suitable methodology. It is likely that when Putin gives an estimate to the nearest 0.1%, he is referring to the total of fully vaccinated and over-vaccinated people. But many were vaccinated after the disease, and it is unclear if they are not counted twice. It is also unlikely to take into account the fact that immunity gradually wears off, which is why experts recommend vaccinating with a booster dose. Finally, the data on the number of people who have been infected are extremely unreliable. In November, Meduza estimated that, based on the open database “Stopcoronavirus.rf,” about 58% of all identified infected people end up in the hospital in Russia. By comparison, in France the figure is 7.6%, in the United States – 6.7%, in Germany – 5.3.This may mean that the actual number of infected people in Russia exceeds the official data.  This may be due to insufficient testing, or to deliberate underreporting.

It is not known exactly, what level of collective immunity is necessary to stop the COVID-19 epidemic, it also depends on the rate of spread of the virus. After the appearance of the Delta strain it became clear that the first estimates of 65-70% are not relevant, and to achieve collective immunity a minimum of 85-90% of those vaccinated is necessary. The Omicron strain appears to be more contagious than the previously dominant Delta strain and requires an even higher level of collective immunity.

But what is certain is that achieving collective immunity with such a low vaccination rate is impossible in the first quarter of next year.

Domestic Situation and Civil Society

BBC correspondent Petr Kozlov asked Putin what events in Russia have led to the recent rapid growth in the number of “extremists,” “undesirable organizations,” and “foreign agents.”

Vladimir Putin replied that Russia “can only be destroyed from within.” “And who did this [in the past]? Those who were serving foreign interests,” he stressed.

The amount of organizations designated as “foreign agents” in Russia is the same as in the United States, but the punishment for those who violate it is lighter, Putin pointed out.

“A total of 74 organizations out of 200,000 NGOs have been labeled as foreign agents here, that’s 0.034%, the same as in the US, but there aren’t any tough regulations [in Russia] like those in the US, which particularly include criminal responsibility,” he said.

“If you don’t stop your activities there [in the US], you may face criminal prosecution and up to five years in prison. It can happen even when you end your activities and shut down your organization, you can’t escape criminal responsibility. You’d face a five-year term. We don’t have anything like that here. We don’t ban the activities of such organizations. We only want the organizations involved in domestic political activities to clearly state what their sources of funding are. That’s all. And they can continue their work. Our law is far more liberal,” Putin stressed. He added, however, that there were some issues with the law, particularly related to the understanding of the notion of “political activities” and rules regulating this work.

Reality Check: Putin has once again repeated the fake, popular with Russian officials and propagandists, about the essence of American and Russian laws. And it has been explained more than once what the fundamental difference between them is. First of all, the American law contains a clear definition of a foreign agent: it is an individual or legal entity that “works under the control and direct supervision of a foreign ‘principal’ and in his direct interests” and is involved in political activities, the concept of which is also clearly defined.

The Russian law, on the other hand, makes it possible to declare virtually any non-profit organization undesirable to the authorities as a “foreign agent”; for example, in order to hang this label on the “Golos” movement in defense of voter rights, a 200-ruble money transfer from an Armenian citizen was sufficient.

There are two “foreign-agency” lists for people in Russia. The first one includes people who have been declared as “foreign media agents.”  To get on this list, it is enough just to publish messages “intended for an unlimited circle of people” (i.e. to run a social network account for example), and to receive any funding from abroad (a transfer of 50 euros from an acquaintance also counts). The second list is simply for “foreign agents”, who can be recognized as such for “gathering military information” or “political activities”, provided that they receive any — not only financial — “support” for these activities from abroad or from a “foreign agent” organization.

In both cases, “foreign agents” face criminal liability under certain conditions. If a person declared a “foreign media agent” violates the rules for working in the new status three times within a year, he could face up to two years in prison. It is very easy to accuse a person of violating the rules, since there are quite a few requirements.

Those who get on the list of simply “foreign agents” (not the media) face up to five years in prison. If such a person does not declare his status himself, he will first be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles, and if he does not do it later, he may be sentenced to actual imprisonment. These “foreign agents” must also submit reports on their activities and expenditures — and here criminal liability arises not after the third, but after the second violation.

Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Western countries have given no evidence to prove allegations about Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s poisoning, Vladimir Putin said.

Putin hinted that Navalny serves “foreign interests” that he compared to figures who “destroyed” the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union “from the inside,” and accused the activist of using politics as a “shield” from his criminal conviction.

“You speak about a man who was allegedly poisoned. We have issued numerous official inquiries from the Russian prosecutor’s office asking for any documents proving the poisoning. Not a single paper, not a single evidence of this Novichok, or whatever you call it,” he said answering a question from a BBC correspondent.

According to the Russian leader, Moscow suggested sending Russian specialists “there to work together.” “I personally told the French president and the German chancellor: Let our specialists work, let us take sample, check grounds to open a criminal case. Nothing in response. Nothing,” he said.

“Stop talking about it. Let’s turn the page on this, if you have nothing new to tell us,” he concluded.

Reality Check: The joint investigation of The Insider and Bellingcat has long ago established the names of NII-2 FSB employees involved in poisoning Alexey Navalny. Moreover, one of the poisoners, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, personally communicated with Alexey Navalny, thinking that he was talking to the Assistant Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, and told many details of the attempt. Among other things, he explained that Navalny’s life was saved by the actions of the pilots and the atropine injected by the ambulance doctors, and also specified that the poison was applied to Navalny’s underwear, with the help of FSB and the transport police in cleaning up the traces.

Torture in Russian Prisons

Journalist Ksenia Sobchak asked Putin about a recent prison torture scandal and allegations that penitentiary service officials, some of whom were the recipients of state awards, were responsible for systemic abuse.

He claimed that prison torture also exists in the United States and France. “If you take a look at what is happening in such establishments in other countries, you will see that such problems there are as frequent. It is a world problem.” He stressed that such institutions in some countries looked decently only at first sight. “But in Europe, say, in France, and in the United States there are many places of a kind that, I believe, no longer exists in third world countries,” he stated.

Putin said Russian authorities have opened 17 criminal cases following the torture leaks.

“It should be clear to everyone that punishment for these offenses is inevitable,” he said, adding that the investigations “should of course use the capabilities of civil society.”

Reality Check: In early October, the human rights project Gulagu.net published a series of videos from several Russian colonies, depicting torture and sexual violence against inmates.

Gulagu.net received 40 gigabytes of footage of torture and rape of inmates in Russian colonies. According to Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin, the secret archive of the special services was given to human rights activists by programmer Sergey Savelyev, who had access to the computers of the Federal Penitentiary Service in the Saratov region for five years during his imprisonment.

Vladimir Osechkin stated that the torture system in prisons is centralized and exists with the full knowledge and support of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Federal Security Service. According to Osechkin, although there is video evidence of torture in the Saratov, Vladimir, Irkutsk, Belgorod, and Kamchatka regions, in fact the torture system covers the entire Russian penitentiary system.

Inmate “activists” who tortured inmates received cell phones and official video recorders from prison management to record the torture. The videos were then used to blackmail the victims, who were thusly forced to cooperate.

In the middle of October Saveliev, fearing prosecution by law enforcement officers, asked for political asylum in France. And on October 23, he was put on the wanted list.

The Investigative Committee of Russia announced initiation of several criminal cases on the grounds of sexual abuse (part 2 of Article 132 of the RF Criminal Code) and abuse of power with violence (part 3 of Article 286 of the RF Criminal Code). At the end of November, they announced arrest of the former head of OTB-1 in Saratov and the former head of the security department of the prison hospital. 18 lower-ranking employees have been dismissed. On November 25, Vladimir Putin fired the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service Alexander Kalashnikov.

On December 20, 2021 a bill to increase penalties for torture organized by government officials was submitted to the State Duma. According to the bill, such torture would be classified as the extremely serious crime and would be punishable by imprisonment for up to 12 years.

The document also introduces the concept of “intimidation,” while forcing the Federal Penitentiary Service officers to testify is proposed to be equated to torture.

However, leading Russian human rights organizations criticized the draft law on torture. More than 30 human rights activists and organizations, including Memorial, the Public Verdict Foundation, the Committee Against Torture, and the Moscow Helsinki Group, have signed a statement. Human rights activists point out that this version of the bill runs counter to legal logic.The authors called on Duma deputies to include a specific article on torture in the Russian Criminal Code, to establish special characteristics, such as group torture, and to set no limitation periods for such crimes.

Gender Issues and Cancel Culture

Putin repeated his long-standing disdain of Western “liberal” values and defended so-called “traditional values” in response to a question from the state-run RT correspondent on cancel culture and the controversy surrounding “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s comments on transgender people.

“I adhere to that traditional approach that a woman is a woman and a man is a man. A mother is a mother, a father is a father. And I hope that our society has the internal moral protection dictated by the traditional religious denominations of the Russian Federation,” Putin said adding that he hoped that Russians had enough defenses against gender-fluid “obscurantism.”

Putin also said cancel culture was “like the coronavirus, with new variants frequently appearing,” adding that following traditional values was Russia’s proposed “antidote.”

“If somebody thinks that a woman and a man are the same thing, they’re welcome to [their opinion], but a certain common sense should exist,” Putin pointed out.

The president cited the example of an incident in the US when a criminal serving time for rape declared that he was female and after a transfer to a women’s prison committed the same crime in his cell.

He also said the women’s sports may become to be extinct with the arrival of male transgender athletes. “A male declares to become a female and competes, let us suppose, in weightlifting or any other sports competition,” Putin said. “This is the end to female sports [in this case]. Where is a common sense here?”

Santa Claus

Toward the end of the press conference, instead of asking the really important question, a journalist from newspaper Krasny Sever asked the Russian president’s stance on Ded Moroz (the Russian version of Santa Claus.).

In response to the burning question “Does Father Frost fulfill your wishes?” Putin thanked Father Frost for having helped him become president and urged the mythical figure to help carry out Russian government plans. “I am grateful to him that I can meet with you in my capacity…I can advocate for Father Frost and remind the plaintiff that Father Frost only fulfils the wishes of boys and girls who have been good.”