Text messages with rare criticism of Vladimir Putin appeared behind the Russian president on a giant studio screen during his televised annual phone-in.
Viewers tuning into the marathon press conference directly challenged the Russian leader’s reasons for ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
“Why is your ‘reality’ at odds with our lived reality?” one message read. Protests against Russia’s war in Ukraine are banned.
Another criticised the Kremlin’s powerful propaganda machine. “Mr President, why does the real Russia differ from the one on television?” it said.
Last week, Putin confirmed that he would run in a presidential election in Russia in March but another of the rogue messages read: “Don’t run for another term as president. Make way for the young!”
‘This question won’t be shown!’
Putin appeared not to notice the messages, which were broadcast on live television.
One text messaging appeared to mock the Kremlin’s own propaganda machine.
“Hello. When will it be possible to move to the Russia which they tell us about on Channel One?” it read.
Another read: “This question won’t be shown! I’d like to know, when will our president pay attention to his own country? We’ve got no education, no healthcare. The abyss lies ahead…”
Although it is dressed up as a genuine question-and-answer session for ordinary Russians, the Kremlin carefully vets the process. It is unclear how the rogue messages were allowed onto the giant TV screen.
The messages could have slipped through, in what would amount to an embarrassing security lapse. But a Russian political scientist said that it may have been deliberate to create a false impression of free speech in Russia.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled opposition businessman, however, said: “Putin is holding his annual televised Q&A today, and people have been invited to send questions via text, to be displayed on big screens behind him. Apparently, whoever is filtering them has let some uncomfortable ones slip through.”
600,000 Russian troops in Ukraine
The rest of the phone-in appeared to be running as planned by the Kremlin which had organised for Putin to face a mixture of soft domestic questions and to receive the adulation of children and frontline soldiers.
A group of Russian soldiers wearing badges with Putin’s face on their uniforms asked about promoting the military more heavily to children as they stood in what appeared to be a bunker near the frontline. In the background, shots could be heard.
During the phone-in, Putin said that there wouldn’t be a second mobilisation.
“Why do we need a mobilisation? Today there is no need for this,” he said.
This was the first phone-in that Putin has faced since his soldiers invaded Ukraine in February 2022. He skipped the session last December because his forces were on the backfoot.
He used the phone-in to claim more than 600,000 Russian troops were now in Ukraine, double the number that entered during the initial stages of the invasion. He also criticised the Kyiv war machine and ruled out a further round of mobilisation.
Putin has looked increasingly confident over the past few months because his forces have fought off a Nato-backed counter-offensive in Ukraine and Western support for Kyiv is beginning to fracture.