MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin told the nation he was practicing ice hockey during the biggest protests of his 12-year rule and mistook the white ribbons worn by protesters for condoms.
In an annual call-in show, the Russian prime minister reached for a familiar mix of reassuring rhetoric, crude humor and verbal assaults against Washington and the West to please a crowd of millions watching live on state television.
Putin fielded a wide array of questions from across Russia, displaying a detailed grasp of economic and social issues in a program he has used every year for a decade to show he has his finger on the pulse of the world’s largest nation.
But to some in the audience, Putin showed only that he is out of touch.
“Aliens have nothing in common with earthlings,” said Yevgeny, 21, the trainee lawyer in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.
With business-like props such as a crisp suit and a big desk, Putin turned in a record 4 1/2-hour performance, five minutes longer than last year’s call-in show.
This time, it came days less than three months before a presidential election expected to return Putin to the Kremlin for at least six years — and days after protests than showed many Russians are not pleased by that prospect.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly educated urban dwellers, protested last Saturday over alleged fraud in his ruling party’s favor in a December 4 parliamentary election, calling for a rerun and chanting “Russia without Putin!”
Many protesters wore white ribbons prompting comparisons to the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, which ushered Western-friendly leaders to power and followed allegations of election fraud.
“Honestly speaking, when I saw something on people’s chests, I thought it was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that they put on such contraceptives,” Putin said when the TV anchor asked him whether the ribbons could become a symbol of an uprising.
The ex-KGB officer, a proud product of the tough courtyards of St. Petersburg, is known for crude language that has helped develop his strong, street-smart image.
In the past, he has said that separatist militants should be “wasted in the outhouse” and “scraped from the sewers,” and he once suggested a journalist come to Russia for a particularly extensive circumcision.
This time, his protest punch line got few laughs.
On social networks, Russians matched the mockery of Putin’s contraceptive comment with an explosion of sarcastic and critical posts. One doctored photo showed Putin in front of the Kremlin wearing a condom attached to his jacket.
“The best kept secret of the regime which has finally become public: Putin is stupid,” wrote Yevgeniya Chirikova, a environmental activist and one of the protest leaders.
“Putin, if you want to see a condom, look in the mirror,” read another post.
Putin, who kept silence on the protests until the television phone-in, has appeared somber and tired at several recent public appearances.
He was jeered by spectators when he took to the ring at a martial arts event in Moscow last month, seen as the breaking of a taboo and a sign of eroding popularity.
Asked about the incident, Putin used wry humor to suggest that the boos could have been aimed elsewhere but that, if he was the target, the boos were just a downside of his dominance.
“This noise could have been caused by a variety of reasons. One of them is that my mug, which is already all over the television screens, appeared in the ring, provoking some dissatisfaction,” he said.
While expressing respect in some remarks for peaceful protesters, he also seemed determined to dismiss the demonstrations as being of marginal importance.
When asked about meetings held in the Kremlin on how to deal with the protests, Putin said:
“To tell you the truth, I was learning to play ice hockey at the time. I am still trying to show something, although I look like a cow on ice...I did not pay too much attention to what was happening.”
Many observers have said that the protests have shown a genuine dissatisfaction among the more liberal and well-off Russians with Putin’s monopoly on power, and that his response suggests he has been getting poor advice.
“It seemed to me that Putin is not the same. He still smiles and makes jokes but when there is no prepared answer to a question he does not stand up to the blow, but looks for someone to blame,” said Vladimir Sukhoveyev, 32, in Yekaterinburg.
Last week, Putin accused the United States of inciting the post-election protests.
On Thursday, he suggested the United States wants “vassals” rather than allies around the world and lashed out at U.S. Senator John McCain, who recently warned “Vlad” he could soon face an Arab Spring-style revolt.
Putin mixed a verbal assault on McCain with criticism of the conduct of NATO in Libya, where he said longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi was “destroyed ... without trial or investigation.”
“Mr. McCain ... fought in Vietnam, I think he has enough peaceful civilians’ blood on his hands,” he said, later adding that “anybody would go nuts” after being held “in a pit” — a reference to McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war.
“Maybe he can’t live without horrible, disgusting scenes of Gaddafi’s massacre, when it was shown on all the TV screens around the world how he was killed, all bloodied,” Putin said. “Is that democracy?”
To show his more educated side Putin cited British writer Rudyard Kipling to say that his enemies were like frightened Bandar-log monkeys hypnotized by the giant python Kaa in The Jungle Book.
“Come all one pace nearer to me, Bandar-log,” Putin said, imitating the python. “I have loved Kipling since childhood.”
Additional reporting by Natalya Shurmina in Yekaterinburg, Russia; editing by Steve Gutteman