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Opinion: What Vladimir Putin said … and what he meant

Jill Dougherty

(CNN) – It was the kind of challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to relish: downplaying his own weakness, exploiting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and deftly turning the tables by throwing in a few barbed jokes.

As he stood at the podium at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, news broke that the European Union was extending economic sanctions on Crimea, the Ukrainian region Russia annexed in 2014, and would soon extend overall sanctions on Moscow.

Putin the Economist

In his speech, and in questions from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Putin claimed Russia couldn’t care less about the sanctions, that its economy is recovering and is poised for growth. He conveniently omitted the fact that sanctions were imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Then, he twisted the knife, claiming European businesses want to end the sanctions, but politicians are stopping them:

“European business wants and is ready to cooperate with our country. The politicians must agree to that and show wisdom and foresight. We should return confidence to Russian European relations and revive the level of our cooperation.”

And don’t blame Russia, he said, for tensions with the West:

“Remember how it all started. Russian did not initiate the current downfall of relations and current issues. Russia did not impose sanctions first. All our actions were and remain only reciprocal.

But we, as we say in Russia, we do not hold grudges against anyone. We are ready to come forward to our European partners, but this cannot be a one-way street.”

Putin the Diplomat

On Syria, Putin ducked a question from Zakaria asking him to comment on vows by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to take back every square inch of his territory.

Putin turned diplomat, saying the only way to ensure democracy in Syria is with elections and a new constitution. The Americans, whom he called “our partners,” want Assad to go immediately but, he claimed, that’s not the way to do it. “We should not set unachievable goals.”

Putin the Denier

At Friday’s forum — just hours before the IAAF extended a ban on Russian track and field athletes over doping allegations — Putin told Zakaria that Russia, far from being a state sponsor of doping, had fought to prevent it.

“Let me emphasize that we have never supported any violations in sports. We have never supported that at the state level,” he said, “and we will never support this. We will never support any dopings or any other violations in this area. And we are going to cooperate with all the international organizations in this regard.”

“The doping problem is not only related to Russia; it is the problem that is relevant for the whole sports world. And if someone is trying to politicize this area, it is a big mistake.”

Putin the Politician

Vladimir Putin has gotten a lot of mileage out of calling U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump a “brilliant person.” That comment was lost in translation, using a Russian word with multiple connotations, like “bright,” “shiny” — even “flashy.”

Putin played with the misunderstanding, asking Zakaria with a smile, “Why do you change the meaning of what I said? Why are you juggling what I said?”

“I only said he was a bright person,” he laughed. “Isn’t he bright? He is. I didn’t say anything else about him.”

“But there is one thing I welcome,” Putin added: “that Mr. Trump is ready to restore full-fledged Russian-U.S. relations. What can be bad about that? Don’t you welcome it?”

Asked about Hillary Clinton, Putin worked in another joke, saying previous negative comments about “Madame Clinton” might have been “impulsive,” and even expressing gratitude for Bill Clinton’s “respect and attention” when Putin came into office as Russian president.

“She probably has her own views on relations,” Putin said. “And people change when they get in office.”

“They speak differently … even their appearance changes because of their sense of responsibility,” he said. “I hope, he said, that sense of responsibility will encourage the future American president “to work together for a more secure world.”

But Putin, ever the feisty debater, didn’t leave it there, taking a swipe at the U.S. election system.

“Do you think the U.S. elections are democratic?” he asked, noting that twice in American history the will of the majority has been foiled. “We never criticized, so why are you meddling in our affairs?”

“The U.S. is the only superpower and we accept that fact. The world needs a country as strong as the U.S. but we don’t need them to interfere in our affairs, to instruct us how to live, to prevent Europe to work with us.”

“When the U.S. elects a president we will work with whoever it is — but we hope it’s a President who will strive to work with our country.”

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