Russian President Vladimir Putin called Thursday for the United States to respect his country's foreign policy priorities and accused Washington of treating other world powers as "vassal states" in a wide-ranging call-in show that ran nearly four hours.
The annual ask-the-president event gave Putin an opportunity to put his spin on the state of the Russian economy and the country's place in world affairs. Organizers said more than 3 million questions were submitted for the marathon interview broadcast across Russia and on the Kremlin's international channels.
Putin appeared as a man fully in control, putting to rest any residual concerns over his disappearance from the public eye for nearly two weeks in early March.
He portrayed the Russian economy, forecast to contract by as much as 5% this year because of international sanctions and sharply fallen oil prices, as on the mend and likely to resume growth within two years.
The Kremlin leader also defended his decision this week to lift a ban on Russian delivery of sophisticated ground-to-air missiles to Iran, an $800-million arms sale to the Islamic republic that Moscow suspended in 2010 under pressure from the U.S. and other countries to fall in line with an embargo intended to deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons.
Iran ordered five arrays of S-300 missiles and launchers in 2007. Iran “has shown a great degree of flexibility” in agreeing to curbs on its nuclear developments under a framework agreement reached this month with six world powers, including Russia, Putin said, justifying an end to the Kremlin’s “voluntary” embargo.
On the subject of disrupted military trade, Putin also said he expected France to reimburse Russia for the first of two Mistral warships built under contract with the Kremlin. Delivery of the ship was blocked as part of Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.
Putin also repeated his insistence that "there are no Russian troops in Ukraine," answering accusations of the Kiev government and its Western allies that the Kremlin has armed and instigated the rebellion in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 6,000 people over the last year.
The Russian president called on the Kiev leadership to resume payment of pensions and government salaries to the separatist-held areas, in what was seen as a message to the rebels that Russia has no intention of annexing the territory it controls, as it did with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula 13 months ago.
It was Russia's military takeover of Crimea and its annexation on March 18 that spurred the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine and Western sanctions on Moscow. The sanctions were intended to punish Russia for forcibly changing borders recognized by post-World War II treaties and for abrogating agreements on territorial divisions after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Putin deftly cast Russia as a resilient victim of Western mistreatment, in particular by Cold War adversaries in the United States. He said Russia "doesn't see anyone as an enemy," and that other leaders shouldn't regard Russia as one, either, if they want to improve relations.
"The main condition is to have respect for Russia and its interests,” he said, lamenting that the United States "doesn't need allies, they need vassals."
On the economy, which took up much of the first half of the call-in show, Putin pointed out that the ruble has recovered significantly in recent months, from its December low of 80 to the U.S. dollar to 49 on Thursday. It had been trading around 60 to the dollar for most of this year.
Russian revenues have been devastated by the collapse in global oil prices, which fell from over $100 a barrel a year ago to around $50 in recent months. The Kremlin reportedly drafted its budget for this year on an assumption of at least $70 a barrel for the commodity that, along with natural gas sales, provides more than half of Russia's budget.
Putin also touched on the Western boycott planned for Moscow's Victory Day celebrations at Red Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. Although the World War II victors -- Russia, Britain, France and the United States -- often celebrated together at other landmark anniversaries of the feat, even during the Cold War, the three Western allies are refraining from attending the May 9 parade in an act of censure for Russia's seizure of Crimea and widely suspected support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Asked by a caller if Russians should be offended by the Western no-shows, Putin replied: "Whoever doesn't want to join us can do as they please.
"This is the personal choice of every political leader and the decision of the country they represent," he said, adding that some European leaders would like to attend but have been "prohibited" by Washington's political diktat.
"This is our holiday. We pay respect to the generation of victors," Putin said of the 1945 vanquishing of the Nazis and liberation of concentration camps. "We do this so the current generation at home and abroad never forgets and never allows anything of the sort to happen in the future."
During the exchange that ran three hours and 58 minutes, Putin expressed dismay over the Feb. 27 slaying of opposition political leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down as he walked across a bridge just yards from the Kremlin walls.
Nemtsov's slaying was "tragic and shameful," Putin said, while adding that he was pleased that police and security forces had quickly identified five suspects. He said it might never be known, though, who was behind the apparent contract killing.
As Putin spoke, masked security agents raided the offices of a civil society group sponsored by another political nemesis of the Kremlin, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Police said the group, OpenRussia, was suspected of "extremist activity" in preparing leaflets and placards for a Sunday demonstration, the Associated Press reported. Khodorkovsky spokeswoman Olga Pispanen said on Facebook that OpenRussia had not planned to take part in the Sunday march, which in any case has been canceled.
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