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.
At the marathon annual event he also trumpeted ambitious efforts to boost Russia’s economy and warned that US plans to leave a key nuclear weapons treaty raised the risk of a new arms race.
Asked about Western sanctions against Moscow, Putin said these were “connected to 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 Russian leader also 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.
‘Collapse’ of arms control’
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.
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.
Raising 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 United States, Putin praised President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, but at the same time condemned his threat to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
“We are currently looking at a collapse of the international system of arms control,” Putin said, warning that there was a growing tendency to “underestimate” the threat of nuclear war.
Putin also weighed in on key elections in the West, insisting 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 Orthodox Church.
And he repeated Kremlin claims that Ukraine’s 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 for Putin 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.
Putin’s 14th end-of-year press conference ran to three hours, 43 minutes — roughly an hour shy of the personal record he set in 2008.
The president began the annual press event in 2001. Since 2004, all December press conferences have surpassed three hours.
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.