Vladimir Putin Chides Turkey, Praises Trump and Backs Russia’s Economy

With his customary swagger and salty language, PresidentVladimir V. Putin held forth on a sweeping array of topics in his traditional year-end news conference on Thursday, even throwing in a glowing assessment of Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Putin drew applause from the crowd of journalists when he lashed out at Turkey for having shot down a Russian bomber, daring the Turks to try it again with Russia’s advanced air defense system in place.

Using a crude expression to describe the Turks as ingratiating themselves with Washington, he said perhaps they “wanted to lick the Americans in a certain place.”     

The Russian leader was alternately pugnacious and conciliatory during the news conference, which was more than three hours long. In years past, he has had sharp words for Washington, but this time he praised the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to find a political solution to the war in Syria.

Mr. Putin also veered close to an admission that Russian soldiers had fought in the war in eastern Ukraine, saying, “We never said there were no people there solving certain questions, including in the military sphere,” but he denied that they were on active duty with the regular army. “Get a sense of that distinction,” he said.

He even gave a few hints of his closely guarded family life, talking proudly of his two grown daughters, who he said were living in Russia and “taking the first steps of their careers.”

Mr. Putin likes to throw in a few surprises on these occasions, as he did two years ago by announcing the release of the imprisoned oil tycoon, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. This year, he rose to the defense of Sepp Blatter, the embattled president of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, who is under criminal investigation for corruption, saying Mr. Blatter should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And he even inserted himself into the Republican presidential primary contest in the United States, speaking highly of Mr. Trump in remarks after the news conference ended.

“There is no doubt that he is a very bright and talented man,” the Russian leader said. “It is not our business to assess his merits; that is up to the U.S. voters. But he is an absolute leader of the presidential race.”

Beneath the pyrotechnics, Mr. Putin seemed most concerned with driving home the point to his domestic audience that Russia’s battered economy had bottomed out, an indication that Russia’s recession had his full attention.

Peppered with dozens of questions, Mr. Putin lingered, as he did at last year’s session, on those that allowed him to reassure Russians that their living standards were not imperiled.

He went out of his way to say that Russia’s economy had hit bottom this year, and that it was now bouncing back — though independent economists and even Russia’s central bank, in a report released this month, have contested that view.

At times, Mr. Putin sugarcoated grim economic news Russians were bound to discover in any case. While the government might soon lift the retirement age to save money, that is cause for celebration, he said, because Russians are now living longer — to an average age of 71.

Mr. Putin backpedaled on his prediction a year ago that Russia would pull out of its current slump within two years, and blamed the tumble in oil prices. “After this fall in prices in energy resources, all the indicators slipped,” he said.

Despite the recession, Mr. Putin’s popularity remains extraordinarily high, with support above 80 percent in some polls. While the economy is biting at home, even as Mr. Putin pursues a swaggering foreign policy, the hardship has not yet translated into widespread political discontent.

Surveys and the answers to questions posed to focus groups show that the pillars of Mr. Putin’s popularity shifted in early 2014, just before the current downturn. Russians now say they admire Mr. Putin more for a role as a “protector” from external threats than for the role of “provider,” a study by an influential Russian sociologist, Mikhail E. Dmitriyev, concluded this year.

Over the years, these events have provided a chronicle of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy thinking as it grew progressively anti-interventionist.

In 2008, he complained bitterly about the United States’ backing independence for Kosovo, and railed about Washington’s propensity to intervene in countries’ internal affairs where and when it sees fit. “We are told all the time, ‘Kosovo is a special case,’” Mr. Putin said. “It is all lies. There is no special case, and everybody understands it perfectly well.”

He propounded the same anti-interventionist theme in later years in the case of Libya, where he was embittered at having been misled into supporting a “humanitarian” intervention that ended up in what he saw as a disastrous exercise in regime change.

“No matter how they explained their position, the state is falling apart,” he said in 2012. “Interethnic, interclan and intertribal conflicts continue.” He added, “And you want us to constantly repeat these mistakes in other countries?”

He argued against intervention by outside powers in Syria as well, adding that Russia was “not concerned with the fate” of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “Of course, changes are being demanded, but it’s something else that concerns — what will happen next?”

Mr. Putin brushed aside a question about the cost to Russia’s struggling economy of the bombing campaign in Syria. It would be paid for, he said, out of the Defense Ministry’s training budget.

“It’s hard to imagine a better training drill,” he said of the bombing in Syria.

Since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it said had violated its airspace, Mr. Putin has engaged in a war of words with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and ordered a number of retaliatory measures. On Thursday, he made clear that Russia has made Syria a no-fly zone for Turkish airplanes.

“Turkey used to violate Syrian airspace all the time,” Mr. Putin said. “Let them try and fly there now,” he said, noting that Russia’s most advanced air-defense system, the S-400, can hit any target in Syria.

Russia under Mr. Putin has deployed its military in several countries, and at one point on Thursday the president suffered a slip of the tongue in answering a question about Georgia, where Russia fought a war in 2008 and later recognized two separatist regions.

“Concerning the territorial integrity of Ukraine, ah, excuse me, of Georgia. … ” he said, going on to say that the breakup of Georgia was the fault of that country’s former leaders, not of Russia.

Speaking about his daughters, he said that they “have never lived in the limelight” but that they speak three European languages that they use “in their daily work.” He did not directly deny reports published this year that the pair held jobs at Russian universities.

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