Russian President Vladimir Putin painted an upbeat picture of the country's economy and accused the West of seeking to thwart its progress, setting a familiar tone for his new term in his marathon call-in show broadcast live on state TV.
Putin signaled no changes in foreign or domestic policy as he fielded questions for more than four hours in the program called the Direct Line, one of a handful of performances the longtime leader holds almost every year to burnish his image.
The June 7 broadcast came exactly a month after Putin was sworn in to a six-year fourth term following a landslide election that foes said was marred by fraud and international observers said did not present voters with a genuine choice.
Putin began with a cautiously bullish forecast for the Russian economy, saying that "we are moving in the absolutely right direction" after emerging from a two-year recession but that "there are still enough problems."
At the end, he repeated calls for an economic and technological "breakthrough," which he made during the election campaign and in his inaugural address, urging Russians to work together for a brighter future.
Putin tried to put some detail behind the ambitious economic goals he has set out for his new term, which could be his last as president, saying he hopes Russia will get a boost from GDP growth, smarter spending, and effective taxation.
"We have started on a trajectory toward robust economic growth in Russia. Yes, this growth is modest, small -- but it's not a decline," Putin said. The central bank has forecast 1.5 percent to 2 percent growth in 2018.
He sought to defend his decision to avoid major changes in the cabinet from critics who see few prospects for economic reform, saying that "purging" the government would have lost precious time and calling its current composition "optimal."
Taking the first question from a caller, a driver who phoned from his truck to voice concern over rising gasoline prices, Putin said the situation was "unacceptable." He brought in Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak -- who appeared onscreen from their desks -- to reassure Russians that the government is taking measures to curb increases.
West 'Sees Russia As A Threat'
As he has done time and again, Putin accused the United States and other Western countries of seeking to hold Russia back, asserting that states that have imposed sanctions on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine and other actions were motivated by selfish concern that Russia is growing stronger.
"The endless accusations against Russia are a way to contain Russia [and restrain] its development. They see Russia as a threat, they see that Russia is becoming a competitor," Putin said. He added that in his view this is misguided, saying that a strong Russian economy can only be a boon for the global economy.
"I understand that every country has its own interests, including economic interests, but they must not be secured in an egoistic way," he said. "It is obvious to us that Russia will continue to defend its interests, both in the economy and in defense, and we will continue to protect our interests until our partners realize that their [measures] against us are useless and counterproductive."
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over what U.S. officials have called "malign activity around the globe" in recent years, including its seizure of Crimea, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, its role in the was in Syria, and its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
WATCH: What Would You Ask Vladimir Putin?
Putin used a question about his favorite joke to reiterate his denial that Russia meddled in the U.S. election, saying that such accusations are "nonsense" and cannot be called "anything but a joke."
Putin said that sanctions targeting Russian tycoons and companies were a "big mistake" and expressed a negative view of U.S. import tariffs that have drawn criticism of President Donald Trump in Europe and elsewhere, reiterated his claim that Russia was not behind the nerve-agent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in March, and said that Moscow wants to be involved in the investigation.
Citing Albert Einstein as saying that the fourth world war would be fought with "stones and sticks," Putin said that a World War III would mean the end of civilization and accused the United States of undermining the parity that helps avert nuclear conflict. U.S. officials deny that and say that Russia is in violation of a major Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty.
Turning to Syria, where Russia launched air strikes and bolstered its military operations on the ground to support President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Putin said that there is no longer a need for major operations involving Russian forces there but that Moscow is "not yet planning a withdrawal" and will leave its forces there for as long as it is in Russia's interest.
He also spoke again about an array of weapons that he boasted of in belligerent comments in a state-of-the-nation address weeks before his March 18 election, saying that some of the arms have been deployed and that others will ready for action in the next few years. The Sarmat, an intercontinental ballistic missile, will be put in service in 2020, Putin said.
Answering a question that seemed designed to raise the prospect that Ukrainian forces could mount an major attack on Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine while Russia is hosting the June 14-July 15 soccer World Cup, Putin warned that any such offensive would have "grave consequences for Ukrainian statehood."
Amid pressure from rights groups and Western governments to release imprisoned filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and other Ukrainians held by Russia on what critics say are politically motivated charges, Putin suggested that Moscow would not exchange Sentsov for a Russian state news agency journalist who is jailed in Ukraine. He said the cases were "incomparable" because Sentsov, an opponent of Russia's takeover of Crimea, is accused of plotting terrorism -- a charge the filmmaker and his backers say is false.
A week ahead of the World Cup, which will be held in 11 cities and put Russia in the global spotlight amid severely strained relations with the West, Putin turned to sports officials and gave them a talking-to about how sports and its infrastructure should be developed.
Lamenting the national team's lack of recent success, Putin wished it well in the World Cup but also said that Russia must grow "a new generation of athletes and soccer players." He told regional governors not to let stadiums built for the tournament turn into flea markets when it is over and foreign fans leave.
As in the past, the Direct Line seemed to be closely choreographed, with Putin fielding selected questions from among the nearly 2 million that have been submitted and sending signals about an array of domestic and foreign policy issues.
Billed as a "Conversation With Vladimir Putin," the program -- broadcast live by four state television channels and three radio stations -- lasted about four hours and 20 minutes. Organizers began taking questions by telephone, Internet, and text message on May 27 and kept those channels open until the show was over.
It was the 16th such Q&A session conducted by Putin, 65, who has been president or prime minister since 1999 and began the tradition in 2001. No Q&A session was held in 2004 or 2012.
Putin -- who will be barred from seeking reelection in 2024 by a constitutional limit of two straight terms -- also gives a large annual news conference and, in his years as president, delivers an annual state-of-the-nation address.
Of the three set-piece events, the Direct Line is Putin's best chance to portray himself as a leader who is firmly in control of the country but also has his finger on the pulse of the people
Every year, he has vowed to fix -- or ordered subordinates to fix -- both broad, national problems and specific, local ones raised by callers from far-flung regions. The results have been mixed.
In a change from previous editions of the Direct Line, there was no audience at the venue near the Kremlin where the event was held. And Putin frequently turned to regional governors and other high state officials to help answer questions or provide explanations when constituents complained of problems, an arrangement that appeared aimed to deflect blame while showing that the president is firmly in charge and able to pull strings to get things done.
In addition to questions about the economy, relations with the West, and issues ranging from garbage dumps to cryptocurrencies and university entrance exams, Putin took queries about himself, such as when he began to believe in God and what he does when he does not know what to do.
Asked what advice he would pass on from his father to his grandchildren, Putin said, "Don't lie."
While Putin stuck to a familiar narrative and few of the questions that he addressed put him under much pressure, some of the comments flashed onscreen during the call-in show injected a darker tone.
"We live worse and worse. It's in the Kremlin that everything's wonderful," one message read.