President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said the West was trying to hold back an increasingly powerful Russia, during an end-of-year press conference that took aim at sanctions and “made-up” spy scandals.
Domestic concerns also loomed large at the annual event, after Putin’s approval ratings took a beating in recent months over unpopular pension reforms.
Asked about Western sanctions against Moscow, Putin said these were “connected with the growth of Russia’s power.”
“A powerful player appears who needs to be reckoned with. Until recently it was thought there was no longer such a country,” he said from behind a large wooden desk to an audience of hundreds of journalists.
The president dismissed spy scandals — such as the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England — as invented to damage Russia’s standing.
“If there hadn’t been the Skripals, they would have made up something else. There is only one aim: to hold back Russia’s development,” he said, later lamenting that relations with Britain were at a “dead end”.
Putin began the press conference, as usual, by reeling off economic growth figures.
“The main thing is that we need to get into a new economic league. We could very well take the fifth place in terms of size of economy. And I think we’ll do that,” he said.
Russia’s economy is currently ranked 12th in the world by the International Monetary Fund, which lists the United States first, followed by China, Japan, Germany and Britain.
– West’s ‘disrespect’ of voters –
Putin said the economy grew 1.7 percent over the first 10 months of the year, roughly in line with predictions, while unemployment was down. Full-year growth is estimated at 1.8 percent.
But he appeared to damn his prime minister, former president Dmitry Medvedev, with faint praise, saying that he was “generally” happy with the work of his government.
Putin was re-elected to a fourth term in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, but recent polls have seen his support drop below 50 percent.
His previous term in the Kremlin was defined by a decline in living standards for many Russians, despite what were perceived as foreign policy wins.
An increase to the retirement age this year provoked anger and rare street protests but Putin said the hike was “unavoidable” when questioned on the subject.
Against a backdrop of strained ties with the US, Putin praised President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria though condemned his withdrawal from a Cold War arms agreement.
There was a growing tendency to underestimate the threat of nuclear war, the Russian leader said.
But Putin insisted Trump was legitimately elected president and that any attempt to cast doubt on this — or the result of the Brexit referendum — showed “disrespect” to voters.
In the wide-ranging session, Putin dismissed a recent crackdown on Russian rappers as pointless and condemned the creation of an independent Ukrainian church.
– Costumes, tambourines –
And he repeated Kremlin claims that Ukrainian actions in the Kerch Strait off Crimea were a “provocation”, following a naval confrontation and Russia’s arrest of several Ukrainian sailors.
The Kremlin demands questions be sent in advance, but reporters every year go to great lengths to encourage the president to call on them.
On Thursday one journalist was dressed as a Russian fairytale character, the snow maiden, while another came holding a tambourine.
Organisers, however, put a size limit on the placards media representatives traditionally hold up to attract Putin’s attention.
The president began the tradition of such end-of-year press events in 2001, but with time they have evolved into marathon events. Since 2004, all December press conferences have surpassed three hours.
His record was in 2008, when questions and answers went on for four hours and 40 minutes.
The appearance was shown live on several TV stations, with some channels trailing the event with a day-long countdown clock.
As Russia has become increasingly centralised under Putin, questions at the conference have begun to resemble lobbying attempts to resolve specific problems.
This year he promised to help open a new football pitch for children in Saint Petersburg, and coyly answered questions on his health and love life.