In a measure of Russia’s grinding economic difficulties, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday devoted the bulk of an annual call-in program to assuring his nation that life would soon improve after a year of confrontation with the West.
The highly choreographed show is a barometer of the message the Kremlin wants to deliver to Russia.
Last year’s edition took a triumphant tone as Putin exulted in the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But the president this time took a far more conciliatory approach over nearly four hours on the air as he answered questions about rising prices, the falling ruble and Russia’s economic prospects.
Putin also defended Russia’s decision to green-light plans to send an advanced air defense system to Iran, saying it does not contradict international sanctions against Tehran and poses no threat to Israel.
For Ukraine, he said that he wanted to work with Ukrainian authorities to resolve the burning conflict and held back from calling for the independence of a region held by pro-Moscow separatists.
In all, the image that Russians received from the marathon performance was of a leader confident in his control and promising better times ahead as Russia worked to boost its independence from global markets.
More than 3 million Russians were said to have sent inquiries to the call-in show, which was heavily promoted ahead of time on Russia’s powerful state-run television networks.
Putin told viewers that he expected sanctions against Russia to last for years. But the challenges will ultimately strengthen Russia, he said, not weaken it.
“It’s highly unlikely that sanctions will be lifted anytime soon, because it’s a politicized issue,” Putin said. “They want to restrain our growth.”
But he said that he was more optimistic about Russia’s financial future than he was in December, saying that he expected Russia’s economy to return to growth within two years. The ruble has strengthened considerably in recent weeks. On Thursday, the ruble was hovering close to 49 to the dollar, after briefly touching 80 in December.
Inflation also significantly slowed in March, Putin said, although it remains 11 percent for the year.
Putin often uses the annual call-in forums to boost his image as a leader intimately involved in the lives of his citizens, bypassing layers of officials for those lucky enough to present a question. On Thursday, he commented on everything from the purchase of exercise machines in provincial health centers to a marital dispute about whether to get a new dog. (He told Boris to get his wife the dog.)
Putin devoted the first hour of the call-in show almost exclusively to the economy, returning frequently to the topic during the course of the program — which totaled three hours, 57 minutes without interruption.
In foreign affairs, he insisted the Kremlin’s clearance of the S-300 missile system shipment to Iran did not violate international sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.
Russia is part of world powers seeking a deal with Iran that would ease sanctions in exchange for a rollback in Tehran’s nuclear work and expand international monitoring.
It was not clear when the S-300 missiles would be shipped, but the decision earlier this week brought swift criticism from Washington, which was taken by surprise.
The S-300 agreement was reached in 2007, but Russia held back due to Western pressures. The surface-to-air missiles — similar to the U.S. Patriot systems — are designed to intercept incoming targets.
Now, however, Putin said the shipment can move forward because Iran “has shown a great degree of flexibility” in the nuclear talks. He also said the S-300 is a defensive weapon that does not pose any threat to Israel.
He said he wanted to reward Iran’s willingness to cut a nuclear bargain – and he also suggested that Russia needed the nearly $1 billion in revenue that will come from sending over the missile systems.
Russia’s tensions with the West have been sharply escalated by the conflict in Ukraine between pro-Moscow separatists and the Western-backed government in Kiev. More than 6,000 people have died during a year of fighting, according to the United Nations.
Putin said that Russia did not seek to be enemies with any nation – but he held out little hope of improved relations with the United States.
“The United States doesn’t need allies, it needs vassals,” Putin said. “Russia cannot exist in this system of relationships.”
But Putin held back from stoking hopes of rebels that they might receive open Russian support for independence, saying that he did not expect a war on Russia’s borders. He said that the ultimate outcome of the conflict would depend on the flexibility of Ukraine’s leaders, criticizing them for imposing an economic blockade on the rebellious regions of the east.
He urged them to implement portions of a February cease-fire agreement in which they promised to restore pension payments and the free movement of goods to the east.
Back on domestic issues, Putin described the killing in February of top Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov as “tragic and shameful,” but suggested that authorities still had not found any alleged mastermind.
Russian authorities have charged five suspects from semi-autonomous Chechnya. All have denied the allegations, and Putin’s opponents have claimed that the investigation has avoided touching the possible organizers of the slaying. Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin.
Despite Putin’s largely conciliatory tone, Russian authorities showed little sign of backing down from their hard line against the opposition, searching the Moscow offices of an organization backed by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky as Putin was speaking. The officers seized computers and materials from the offices of OpenRussia, saying they were investigating “extremist activity,” employees said on Twitter.