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2016 Hands Russian President Vladimir Putin Momentum On World Stage


It was a good year for Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. As 2016 drew to a close, the candidate who heaped praise on Russia's leader won the U.S. presidential election, and Putin proved to be a major player in the Middle East. From Moscow, NPR's Lucian Kim joins me now to talk about the man in the Kremlin. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

CHANG: Well, first, did President Putin make any headlines in his New Year's remarks this year? He spoke to the nation at midnight, right?

KIM: Yes, he did, and he didn't really make any big headlines. This a customary speech. Traditionally, Russian leaders deliver their greetings, then the Kremlin chimes ring, and the new year begins. This year, Putin told Russians to believe in themselves and their country. He told them to respect and care for their families and their work colleagues. And while it's true that Russians smile less than Americans at least in public...

CHANG: (Laughter).

KIM: ...Putin was stone-faced and looked quite severe, even as he was saying these very warm words.

CHANG: Well, of course, for us, the big story last year was our presidential election. The Obama administration says Russia hacked Democratic Party emails to undermine Hillary Clinton's campaign. Do ordinary Russians see Trump's victory as a win for Russia and for Putin?

KIM: Well, it's hard to know what Russians really think. The national TV channels are all controlled by the government. And they've been giving very positive coverage for Trump, a little bit like "Fox News," in fact. The respected Levada Center, a polling agency, did a poll back in November right after the elections. They found that 60 percent of Russians think Trump is better for Russia, a mere 5 percent would have preferred Clinton, and 36 percent admitted that they didn't know.

CHANG: This past week, you could say Putin played Mr. Magnanimous when President Obama slapped sanctions on Russia because of the hacking. The U.S. expelled dozens of Russians, but Putin did not reciprocate. Why not?

KIM: Because that was expected of him, and Putin is known to do things unexpectedly to throw other people off balance. So, you know, his decision not to reciprocate made Obama look vindictive. And it also gave Trump an opening to better relations when he takes office.

CHANG: Then there's the Middle East. Russian forces bombed Syrian rebels and civilians relentlessly to support the Syrian president. Has this whole venture in Syria won Putin support at home? Or are Russians more concerned about, say, their pocketbooks at a time when oil revenues are low?

KIM: Well, a recent poll by that same Levada agency found that 81 percent of Russians knew little or nothing about Syria.


KIM: That's happening in another world for most Russians. They have other concerns - as you mentioned, their pocketbooks. But for Putin, this is extremely important. It's a way to muscle his way back onto the world stage. Very recently, Putin forged a - an alliance of convenience, I think you could call it, with Iran and Turkey and has initiated a cease-fire and maybe even peace talks later in this new year. And so the result of those talks is actually less important. What's important is that when Trump comes into power, Russia will not only have a seat at the table, but it will actually be sitting at the head of the table.

CHANG: NPR's Moscow bureau chief, Lucian Kim - Happy New Year, Lucian.

KIM: Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.