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Putin Warns Against Underestimating Risk Of Nuclear War, Talks Up Russian Economy In Annual Press Conference

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict should not be underestimated and criticized the United States for abandoning Cold War-era arms treaties, while casting his country's economy in a positive light but calling for improvements.

Putin made the remarks on December 20 in his annual press conference, an event he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to the United States and the rest of the world.

The televised press conference, which usually lasts up to four hours or more and was still going after two hours, is being held at a time when tensions with the West are high and his ratings have fallen early in his six-year fourth term.

Putin said that a nuclear war could lead to "the death of all civilization," at least the second time in months he has publicly raised the prospect of such a catastrophe, but said he hopes common sense will prevail.

With the world "witnessing the collapse of the international system" of arms control there is a dangerous "tendency to underestimate" the risk of nuclear war, Putin said, blaming the United States.

He said that the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 undermined the "strategic balance" and that the U.S. plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was "yet another step" in this direction.

Putin also said it was bad that the United States and Russia are not holding talks about New START, a long-range nuclear weapons treaty that expires in 2021 but can be extended by five years if both countries agree.

Putin reiterated Russian denials of a series of accusations of what Western official have called "malign activities" around the globe.

He suggested accusations that Moscow was behind a nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March were an excuse for Britain and other Western countries to impose new sanctions.

"This is a pretext, just a reason to organize another attack against Russia," Putin said, lamenting what he called a "politicized, Russophobic approach" and adding: "If there were no Skripals, they would find out something else. For me that is obvious."

He said that there was "absolutely no reason" for the arrest of Maria Butina, a Russian woman has pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent in a case the U.S. government said highlighted Moscow's efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.

He said she pleaded guilty "under pressure" -- a claim that dovetailed with unsubstantiated Russian assertions that she was subjected to torture-like conditions, and added: "I can assure you, Butina was not carrying out any state-ordered activities there."

IS Has Been 'Defeated'

In another jab at the United States, Putin said that U.S. plans to withdraw its troops from Syria -- announced a day earlier by President Donald Trump -- was "not fully clear to us."

"U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 17 years and every year they say they are being withdrawn, but they are still there," Putin said.

He reiterated Russia's assertion that the presence of U.S. forces in Syria is "illegal" because, unlike the Russian military, they have not been invited by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

However, Putin said: "As for [the extremist group Islamic State], I agree with Trump that it has been defeated."

Trump said in a video posted on Twitter on December 19 that "we've beaten" IS "and we've beaten them badly."

On another issue that has raised tensions, Putin lashed out over the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, where a church linked with Russia has long dominated.

He blamed the Ukrainian government for what he called "another step to divide the Russian and Ukrainian people" and seemed to mock Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is considered the "first among equals" in Orthodox Christianity.

Putin referred to the Constantinople Patriarchate as the "Turkish" and "Istanbul" patriarchate and claimed that its decision to back the Ukrainian bid for an independent church was influenced by the United States.

Putin also repeated his claim that Kyiv was to blame for an incident in which Russian forces fired on Ukrainian naval vessels off Russian-held Crimea on November 25.

He said that the fate of the 24 Ukrainian crewmen now jailed in Moscow would be decided after the criminal process is complete, suggesting they will not be released or swapped and returned to Ukraine until a trial is at least held.

Kyiv blames Moscow for the dire state of their ties and Putin tried to turn the tables, criticizing President Petro Poroshenko's government ahead of a presidential election in Ukraine on March 31, 2019.

"As long as Russophobes remain in the corridors of power in Kyiv -- those who do not understand their own people's interests -- that kind of abnormal situation will continue no matter who is in power in the Kremlin," he said.

In addition to seizing Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Russia supports separatists in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.

Economic Figures

Putin began the press conference by reeling off economic performance figures that he cast in a positive light, saying that unemployment was decreasing and that Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) was growing -- if modestly.

He repeated his calls for a "breakthrough" that would bolster the economy and improve living standards, saying that Russia needs a "new technological foundation" and must "concentrate its resources" and use them effectively.

Asked how a breakthrough is possible when annual GDP growth is not expected to exceed 2 percent any time soon and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has said it is mired in "stagnation," Putin blamed external factors for some of the troubles.

Russia must break into a "new economic league" in terms of size and quality, he said, adding that "if we don't set ambitious goals, nothing will be achieved."

The Kremlin said a record number of journalists -- 1,702 -- were accredited to cover Putin's 14th such press conference as president.

The latest one comes amid what opinion polls indicate is a drop in Putin’s popularity at home. A plan to raise the retirement age has prompted anger and protests. Regional elections in September saw several Kremlin-backed candidates lose.

On the international stage, Russia’s relations with the West remain strained over its actions in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria and other factors including its alleged interference in elections abroad and in a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian intelligence officer in England in March.

The press conference is likely to be watched for any indication of Putin's plans for what comes after 2024, when a constitutional limit of two straight terms bars him from seeking reelection. He has been president or prime minister since 1999.

Putin’s annual press conference is closely managed by the Kremlin, which chooses who can attend and ask questions.

Once relatively modest, with a few hundred journalists attending, the annual event is now heavily hyped by the Kremlin and state media. State TV ran a 24-hour countdown onscreen ahead of the press conference.

It is also known for its theatrics, including signs and stuffed animals that journalists wave to catch the attention of Putin or his press secretary on stage, and for its length. The record was four hours and 40 minutes, in 2008.

It has become a magnet for criticism by Kremlin opponents. This year, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny organized a live commentary show that was running at the same time as the press conference.

Growing Anxiety

Last year, Putin held the press conference on December 14 before some 1,600 Russian and foreign journalists, a nearly four-hour marathon during which he announced he would run for reelection in March.

He went on to win his fourth presidential mandate with more than 76 percent of the vote in an election that was widely criticized as unfair.

However, since then Putin’s popularity has dipped amid growing anxiety among average Russians over the state of the economy and plans to raise the retirement age.

The Levada Center, a leading independent Russian pollster, published a survey on November 22 showing the electoral rating of Putin had fallen under 60 percent for the first time in five years.

Another poll by Levada published on December 19 showed more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union than at any time since 2004.

In 2005, Putin called the Soviet breakup the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, citing the large numbers of Russians it left outside Russia.

In March, when asked what event in the country's history he would like to have been able to change, he named the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Levada said that Russians' concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret.

In a March state-of-the-nation speech and his inaugural address in May, Putin called for a technological "breakthrough" to bolster the economy and raise living standards.

But there are few signs of a turnaround. Kudrin, Putin's longtime former Finance Minister and now Audit Chamber chief, warned in late November that the economy is in one of its longest, deepest slumps since World War II.

Russia is in a "serious stagnation pit" and any additional Western sanctions could make it much worse, said Kudrin, Putin's finance minister in the era of oil-fueled growth in 2000-2008.

He said new sanctions could restrict technology transfers with the West -- a development that would dampen hopes for the kind of breakthrough the president has been seeking.

With or without new sanctions, Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP by 2021 may be unrealistic.

With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan, Reuters, AP, AFP, TASS, and Interfax