You can at least say one thing for Vladimir Putin. When he holds a press conference he really goes full tilt. Every December the Russian president invites roughly one thousand journalists for a Q&A session which lasts for hours on end and he tackles whatever questions are tossed his way. (The validity of those answers is left to the eye of the beholder, but at least he lets the questions be aired.) The annual press festival took place once again yesterday and there was an uncomfortable moment when a reporter asked about why nobody seemed terribly anxious to run against him.

Putin’s response? Hey, man… it’s not my job to drum up opponents. (Washington Post)

Focusing on domestic politics, Putin also said that he would like to see greater competition in Russian politics but it isn’t his job to build up the opposition in a country that he has ruled for 18 years, and likely longer as the new elections loom.

He said he would run a campaign largely focused on improving the Russian economy and that he would run as an independent, distancing himself from the United Russia political party that he founded and built into the ruling party.

“The simplest thing for me to say is that it isn’t for me to foster opponents, although I should unexpectedly tell you, that I think that our political sphere, like our economic sphere, should be competitive,” Putin said.

So… it isn’t for Putin to “foster opponents” but he thinks the elections should be “competitive.” Sounds reasonable enough. After all, I’m sure there’s some perfectly logical reason why nobody seems to want to run against him. Perhaps everyone in the country is just so happy with the way things are going that they have no interest in unseating him. That might actually make for a pretty good campaign slogan.

Or might it be something else? I don’t suppose it could have anything to do with the fact that people who criticize Putin or his policies seem to wind up mysteriously dead. You can read a list of ten of them here, including several who were shot dead in broad daylight within sight of the Kremlin. Despite their normal reputation for ruthless efficiency, the police in Moscow were completely unable to figure out these murders and identify the killers. It’s just the darndest run of bad luck for the cops, isn’t it?

In a truly bizarre moment, Putin went to bat for President Trump, claiming that he was being stymied by his political opponents in the United States and hoping that there was still a chance at improved relations for our two countries.

“There are things that he would want to do but hasn’t been able to so far, like reforming health care or other goals, for instance he spoke about improving relations with Russia,” Putin said in remarks carried on national television. “It’s clear that even if he wanted to, he’s not in a condition to do that because of some clear restrictions” created by his opponents.

“I don’t know if he still wants [to improve relations with Russia], or if it’s totally exhausted, but I hope he still does,” Putin added.

Here’s a question for the audience. Was that Putin extending an olive branch to Trump, either because he sees him as somebody he can cut a deal with or has an earnest interest in thawing out relations? Or was that Putin trolling Trump by stirring up his detractors at home? (Look! There’s Putin siding with Trump again!) I’m leaning toward the former but definitely wouldn’t put the latter past him.