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In Call-In Program, Putin Addresses U.S. Relations, Economy, Social Issues

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the call-in show on June 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the call-in show on June 15.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding a televised question-and-answer session, the latest edition of a heavily stage-managed annual show broadcast live by Russia's main state networks.

Putin is taking questions from Russians across the country in the Direct Line program, now in its fourth hour.

Most of the questions have centered around domestic economic and social issues such as low wages in the state sector, demographic problems, and improving health care.

Asked about relations with the United States, which have reached a nadir following a U.S. intelligence assessment that Putin ordered an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Putin blamed what he called "Russophobia" in the United States on domestic U.S. politics.

Putin compared former U.S. FBI Director James Comey, who recently testified to Congress that he felt President Donald Trump tried to influence his work on the investigation into alleged Russian interference to Edward Snowden, a former U.S. security consultant who leaked sensitive U.S. documents before obtaining temporary political asylum in Russia.

Putin said Comey's leaking of details of his conversations with Trump was "weird" and added jokingly that Russia was ready to provide Comey with political asylum as well.

At the same time, Putin said Moscow was ready to cooperate with the United States on issues such as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating international terrorism, and resolving the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

Some of his remarks about U.S. ties came in answer to a question posted on YouTube by a man in the U.S. state of Arizona who said he supported Putin and asked what people like him can do to combat anti-Russian sentiment in the United States. Putin thanked the questioner for his support, but said there was no advice he could give in response to the question.

Putin also denied that Moscow has interfered in the domestic affairs of neighboring Ukraine, despite Moscow's seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and overwhelming evidence that it has provided massive military, economic, and political support to separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 10,000 dead since it began in April 2014.

Many questions focused on the economy and on low wages in the state sector, with nurses, firefighters, teachers and other complaining that they cannot make ends meet.

Putin said that the recession Russia entered in 2014, the year world oil prices collapsed and Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine, "has been overcome."

"The economy has moved into a period of growth," he said, citing data going back to the fourth quarter of 2016.

One questioner asked how long Russia could expect to live under the sanctions introduced by the United States, the European Union and other countries.

Putin responded by claiming the sanctions were a bid by Western countries to prevent Russia from playing a competitive political and economic role in the world.

"Russia's history shows that our country has always been under sanctions," Putin said. "Every time Russia begins growing stronger, sanctions are introduced. It has always been like that."

"If there was no Crimea or other problems, they would still create some pretext to contain Russia," Putin said.

Putin said the sanctions -- and countersanctions Moscow imposed in response, which consist largely of trade restrictions -- also have benefits for Russia and were helping the country develop its intellectual potential and reduce its reliance on energy exports.

An audience member representing the agricultural sector thanked Putin for the "antisanctions" and expressed the hope that they would remain in place. Putin responded that when Western countries drop their sanctions, Russia will cancel its countermeasures.

WATCH: What Would You Ask Putin?

What Would You Ask Putin?
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While Putin was speaking, Russian state television flashed written versions of other questions, including some about whether Putin tolerates corruption, when he plans to retire, and whether three terms as president are enough for him.

One such message denounced the entire Direct Line program as a "circus" and asked Putin whether he really thought people take it seriously.

Putin was also asked about his family. He responded that he guards their privacy so that they can have "normal" lives, but he said both his daughters live in Moscow and are not involved in politics. He said he has two grandsons, one of which was born "recently."

He was not asked to confirm or deny widespread Russian media that one of his daughters is Katerina Tikhonova, an acrobatic dancer and the director of two state-funded initiatives at Moscow State University.

Among the questions, the program featured optimistic vignettes showing upbeat scenes such as locals dancing on the shores of Lake Baikal, a father in Ufa seeing his newborn son for the first time, construction at a new airport in the city of Rostov-on-Don, and a nearly completed nuclear-powered icebreaker being built in St. Petersburg.

Together with a televised press conference and an address to parliament, Direct Line is one of three high-profile annual events that Putin uses to burnish his image in Russia, send signals abroad, and offer hints about future plans.

Putin has held the event annually since 2001, except for 2004 and 2012. Since 2013, it has been held in April, but in March the Kremlin announced it was being postponed this year because of Putin's "tight schedule."

The 2017 rendition comes at a time of social tension in Russia, just days after police detained more than 1,500 people at anticorruption protests in cities across the country on June 12. In addition, Moscow has seen numerous protests in recent weeks over a controversial government plan to raze and replace thousands of Soviet-era residential buildings.

The Russian economy has been recovering sluggishly amid low world energy prices following the 2009 global financial crisis.

In addition, Russia is scheduled to hold a presidential election in March 2018, in which Putin is expected to seek and gain a fourth term as president. He has not announced his candidacy.

WATCH: Five Fawning Questions From Putin's Q&A

Five Fawning Questions From Putin's Q&A
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Russian citizens have used a special website and social media to submit 1.8 million questions and messages for the event, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on June 14.

In past years, questions have ranged from the serious to the superficial and fawning, with participants asking Putin how he stays in "such good athletic condition," urging him to clone himself, or seeking his opinion on the merits of porridge for breakfast.

Kremlin critics say one of the main purposes of the Direct Line program is to perpetuate the idea that Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, stands above ineffectual or corrupt officials and is the only person who can ultimately be counted on to address the problems of ordinary Russians.

Putin has been particularly visible in recent weeks. Earlier this month, he gave an exclusive interview to U.S. journalist Megyn Kelly of NBC.

On June 12, the U.S. network Showtime began showing a four-hour collection of interviews with Putin by Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone. Russia's state Channel One television was scheduled to air the programs on June 19-22.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax

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