Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced he will run for reelection as an independent in March, defended U.S. President Donald Trump against allegations that his campaign colluded with Moscow, and accused the United States of violating a key nuclear arms control treaty in remarks at a marathon press conference in the Kremlin.
Speaking before some 1,600 Russian and foreign journalists for almost four hours on December 14, Putin also took aim at Aleksei Navalny, a would-be candidate officials say will be barred from the presidential ballot because of a criminal conviction he contends was politically motivated. Without mentioning one of his fiercest critics by name, Putin suggested that Navalny is out to destabilize Russia and foment unrest.
The televised press conference has been a regular tradition of Putin's tenure, one of a series of high-profile set-piece events he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to Washington, the West, and the rest of the world.
This year's version is likely to be one of his last major public appearances before an election that appears certain to hand him six more years in power.
He took the stage in a Kremlin auditorium just after noon as flattering photographs showing him meeting with world leaders, playing sports, and posing on trips to the Russian wilderness flashed on the big screen behind him.
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Asked at the start why he decided to run fur a fourth term in the March 18 election, Putin suggested that he wanted to improve Russians' lives. He said that the authorities must focus on increasing the incomes of Russian citizens, and that it is crucial to make improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care -- and later added that most taxes will not be raised before the end of 2018.
Putin used the press conference to announce that he will run as an independent candidate rather than being nominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, which dominates government nationwide but is less popular than he is.
Putin said he was "counting on broad support from citizens" in the election and hopes for backing from more than one party. He said the opposition lacks a strong candidate and that most of his political rivals make a lot of noise but have little to offer the country -- a claim he has made repeatedly in the past.
Russia needs a "flexible" and competitive political system, said Putin, whom critics accuse of rolling back democracy and using law enforcement, courts, and other methods to quash dissent and sideline potential rivals over about 18 years in power as president or prime minister.
Asked about Navalny, Putin likened him to Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who is now an opposition leader in Ukraine, and said: "Do you want such [people] to destabilize the situation in this country...for us to have attempts at coup d'etats?"
"We've been through all that before," Putin said, adding that "the absolute majority of Russian citizens do not want this." He pointedly avoided saying Navalny's name, calling him a "convicted individual" -- a reference to two financial-crimes convictions that Navalny contends were engineered by the Kremlin to discredit him and keep him out of electoral politics.
The 2017 press conference is Putin's 13th since he first became president in 2000. As in the past, the journalists were a mix of foreign correspondents and Russian reporters who looked like supplicants, many holding up signs with their questions topics in hopes of being called on. One Russian journalist introduced a question about Putin's order for a partial withdrawal of military forces from war-ravaged Syria but saying that his trip there on December 11 looked "really cool."
The first hour was dominated by domestic issues, and Putin peppered his answers with statistics in an an apparent attempt to show that life in Russia is improving and problems are being addressed.
The 2017 press conference is Putin's 13th since he first became president in 2000. He traditionally responds to a broad range of questions on topics ranging from the economy and international relations to light queries about his personal tastes.
He took questions about matters including kindergartens, forest preservation, the cost of land, and what critics say is a recent campaign by the state that is undermining minority cultures by sidelining the languages spoken by ethnic groups such as Tatars, Chuvash, and Bashkirs.
In one of several shifts to foreign policy issues, Putin asserted that allegations of collusion between associates of Trump and Russia during and after the U.S. presidential campaign were "invented by people who are opposed to Trump in order to make his work illegitimate."
It was the latest of Putin's many denials in the wake of an assessment by U.S. intelligence officials in January that he ordered an "influence campaign" using cyberattacks, fake news, and other methods to interfere in an election in which the Kremlin favored Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, who had signaled she would be tough on Russia after its aggressive actions in Ukraine.
Putin said he believes that Trump, who indicated during the campaign that he wanted to mend badly strained ties with Russia, has been prevented from doing so.
Putiin cast U.S. investigations into alleged Russian interference and possible collusion by the Trump campaign as the result of infighting that has "inflicted damage to the domestic political situation" in the United States and showed a "lack of respect for voters" who chose Trump. He also said Trump has notched significant achievements as president, pointing to growing markets, and said he hopes U.S.-Russian ties will recover.
Arms Control Pact
Putin also repeated Russia's accusation that the United States has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), saying that Washington has "de facto" quit the key Soviet-era arms control pact. Russia's claim is a response to U.S. allegations that Russia has developed a missile that violates the treaty.
Putin said that Russia does not plan to withdraw from arms-control treaties, but will develop its military without being drawn into a budget-draining arms race -- again echoing remarks he has made before.
At the same time, in what seemed to be an attempt to show that Russia needs to fund the military, possibly at the expense of social spending, he made a dark joke about a boy whose family is killed by marauders after he trades a naval dagger that was kept at home for an expensive watch, leaving them defenseless.
Amid global tension over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests, Putin warned the United States against using force against North Korea, saying the consequences would be "catastrophic." He repeated Russian accusations that the United States has "provoked" Pyongyang but voiced hope that the Russia and the United States can work together to neutralize the threat posed by North Korea.
Repeating long-standing Russian positions on the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,300 people, Putin said the effectiveness of the 2015 Minsk peace accord has been "low" and blamed Kyiv, asserting that the Ukrainian government is dragging its feet on several aspects of implementation including prisoner exchanges and legislation.
He repeated the claim that the "primary cause" of events in Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula and threw its backing behind separatists in the east, was what he called a "coup d'etat" in Kyiv that February.
Ukraine and Western countries reject that narrative, saying that Russia unleashed aggression after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned power and fled amid massive protests that erupted following his decision to scrap plans for a pact with the European Union.
Putin criticized the governments of countries including Ukraine, the United States, and Poland. But he trained his most vehement disdain on Mikheil Saakashvili, who was Georgia's president when Russia fought a five-day war against the South Caucasus country in 2008 and is now a prominent opposition politician in Ukraine, where he faces what he calls absurd charges of abetting a "criminal group" led by Yanukovych.
"I think what Saakashvili is doing is a spit in the face of the Georgian and Ukrainian people," Putin said. "How do you still tolerate that? Saakashvili was president of a sovereign Georgian state. And now he is running around in Kyiv and shouting that he is a Ukrainian."
The press conference lasted about three hours and 40 minutes. In December 2016, Putin answered 50 questions in a press conference that lasted three hours and 53 minutes. His longest appearance was four hours and 39 minutes in 2008.
INFOGRAPHIC: A Fine One To Talk: Measuring Putin's Marathon Press Conferences (click to view)
In addition to his end-of-the-year press conference, Putin also does the annual, lavishly produced Direct Line call-in show, in which he responds to questions posed by average Russians. This year, Direct Line was held on June 15.
Putin also presents an annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament. That speech, which usually takes place around December 1, has been postponed this year and, according to unconfirmed reports, will be given in February 2018 --– just weeks before the election.
Putin, 65, removed some of the suspense surrounding his press conference earlier this month when he confirmed that he would seek a fourth term in that election. Putin, 65, has been president or prime minister since 1999. Given Russia's strictly controlled political environment and heavily managed elections, analysts believe he is all but certain to be declared the winner.
But the Kremlin could be worried that turnout for the pallid election might be low and cast doubt on the legitimacy of Putin's continued rule. The independent Levada Center polling agency has predicted turnout for the vote will be 53 percent.
In what was widely seen as a ploy to boost turnout, the date of the election was moved to the fourth anniversary of the date on which he signed a treaty that Moscow claims made Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula part of Russia. Russia's takeover of Crimea brought international condemnation on Moscow but was popular among Putin's supporters.
Opposition leader and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny has been barred by the authorities from participating in the election because of a felony fraud conviction that he dismisses as politically motivated.
Other declared candidates include Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, business ombudsman Boris Titov, and television personality and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, a journalist and TV personality who was among the reporters at the press conference on December 14.
Levada's polls put support for Putin at 61 percent, followed by 8 percent for Zhirinovsky, 6 percent for Zyuganov, and 1 percent or less for the others.
This year's press conference comes shortly after Putin traveled to Syria to declare Moscow's military intervention there a success and order a partial withdrawal of Russian forces that have given crucial backing to President Bashar al-Assad's government in a devastating war.
It also follows the December 5 decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea after investigations revealed evidence of a massive, state-supported doping violations system that severely tainted the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which was a key prestige event for Putin.
With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan, Robert Coalson, Steve Gutterman, Interfax, TASS, RIA, AP, and Reuters