Russia's Putin shines at Valdai summit as he castigates West
The annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club of Russian specialists with President Vladimir Putin is usually held behind closed doors. This year, to mark the 10th anniversary, it was a show specially tailored for television.
Centre stage was Mr Putin, flanked by slightly awkward looking dignitaries from Germany, France, Italy and the United States.
Facing them was a crowd of foreign guests, plus several rows of Russians, including an Orthodox priest in flowing robes, two white-turbaned Russian Muslim spiritual leaders, and a rumbustious handful of Russian opposition leaders - most of whom got a chance to put a question to Mr Putin.
The president likes marathon sessions and this was no exception: three hours of questions back and forth with a packed auditorium, all broadcast live on Russia's rolling TV news channel. It was a very public occasion, but nonetheless revealing.
On getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons, President Putin was surprisingly cautious. "Will we manage to convince Assad? I don't know," he mused aloud.
"Will we be able to see everything through? I cannot be 100% sure."
And he shied away from any assumption that it was Moscow's clout with Damascus that would count most, arguing that ensuring Syria's compliance was the joint responsibility of the entire UN Security Council.
Response to McCain
Other senior Russian officials had earlier gone out of their way to insist that Moscow's influence with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was limited.
"We have 100 times less influence in Damascus than the United States has in Israel," said one senior official. He added that Moscow's close ally had been Mr Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, and that it was not until his son fell out with allies in Europe and the Muslim world that he had sought better relations with and increased support from Moscow.
Underscoring that this is a collaborative enterprise, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that Russia was ready to send specialists to take part in the joint efforts to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons.
Mr Shoigu also revealed that Russia had ships on standby and all possible evacuation routes and schedules in place, just in case the remaining 7,000 Russians in Syria needed to leave in a hurry.
Mr Putin was also modest when it came to US President Barack Obama, denying he had helped him to save face by giving him a way out of pursuing military strikes on Syria.
Simply, Mr Putin said, their two positions had converged after an analysis of the situation.
And he brushed off scathing criticism of his government by Senator John McCain in an article published on a Russian website. Pravda. Instead of retorting in kind, he said mildly that the senator seemed to suffer from a lack of information about Russia.
He also described, with some pride, how he came to write the article which appeared under his name in the New York Times, aimed at influencing American public opinion.
It was, he said, his own work and on his own initiative. He had dictated it word-for-word to an aide, made his own corrections, and even added the final paragraph by hand, once he had read (and taken exception to) the reference to American "exceptionalism" in President Obama's address to the nation.
Europeans 'dying out'
But other comments from the Russian president revealed that the gap between himself and Western leaders was as wide as ever.
He repeated his assertion that Russia had every reason to believe it was rebels, not the Syrian regime, who were behind the chemical attack that injured and killed so many on 21 August.
Once again he suggested it could have been a crafty "provocation", involving the use of ancient Soviet missiles long decommissioned by the Syrian army, but used deliberately in order to implicate Mr Assad's forces.
And in an opening speech devoted to Russian values, he castigated the West for losing touch with its Christian roots when it came to gender questions.
Mr Putin said that "one-gender families" and exaggerated political correctness were leading countries into degradation and a deepening moral crisis.
One Austrian professor challenged him on this and asked for a guarantee that minority values would be respected in Russia and not subject to harassment.
Mr Putin denied there were any laws in Russia to punish sexual minorities for their orientation. The Russian law which had caused so much controversy was, he said, simply to stop "propaganda" among minors.
But the Russian leader did not try to hide his disdain for sexual minorities. Europeans, he continued, were suffering from a falling birth rate and could be in danger of dying out if they did not do something about it.
"You can either have more children to increase your population," said Mr Putin in typical blunt fashion, "or have more migrants, but you don't like them either. It's your choice."
He even returned to the subject to make a joke of what he perceived as Western Europe's distorted attitude to gender issues. Recalling his friendship with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he noted that Mr Berlusconi was now on trial for living with women.
"But if he'd been living with men, as a homosexual, no-one would have dared lay a finger on him," Mr Putin said.
The Russians in the auditorium erupted into roars of laughter. On the panel next to a grinning Mr Putin, his European guests looked bemused and uncomfortable.
The Russian leader did not look in the least bit put out at this clash of cultural sensitivities. Possibly he even did it deliberately.
It serves his purpose, reinforcing his earlier argument that Russia's place in the world is unique, with its own norms and values, and any attempt to force it to conform to other people's view of what is right and proper would be resisted.