MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict should not be underestimated and criticized the United States for abandoning Cold War-era arms treaties, while casting his country's economy in a positive light but calling for improvements.
Putin had plenty of harsh words for the West and for Ukraine's government in the press conference on December 20, an annual event he uses to burnish his image, reassure Russians that they are in good hands, and send signals to the United States and the rest of the world.
The televised press conference, which lasted three hours and 44 minutes, was held at a time when tensions with the United States, the European Union, and NATO are high and his ratings at home have fallen early in a six-year fourth term that could be his last stint in the Kremlin.
Putin said that a nuclear war could lead to "the death of all civilization," at least the second time in months he has publicly raised the prospect of such a catastrophe, but said he hopes common sense will prevail.
With the world "witnessing the collapse of the international system" of arms control there is a dangerous "tendency to underestimate" the risk of nuclear war, Putin said, blaming the United States.
There is also "a trend of lowering the threshold" for the use of nuclear weapons, he asserted, saying that "lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe."
He said that the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 undermined the "strategic balance" and that the U.S. plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was "yet another step" in this direction.
Putin also said it was bad that the United States and Russia are not holding talks about New START, a long-range nuclear weapons treaty that expires in 2021 but can be extended by five years if both countries agree.
Putin reiterated Russian denials of a series of accusations of what Western officials have called "malign activities" around the globe.
He suggested accusations that Moscow was behind a nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March were an excuse for Britain and other Western countries to impose new sanctions.
"This is a pretext, just a reason to organize another attack against Russia," Putin said, lamenting what he called a "politicized, Russophobic approach" and adding: "If there were no Skripals, they would find out something else. For me that is obvious."
He said that there was "absolutely no reason" for the arrest of Maria Butina, a Russian woman who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent in a case the U.S. government said highlighted Moscow's efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.
He said she pleaded guilty "under pressure" -- a claim that dovetailed with unsubstantiated Russian assertions that she was subjected to torture-like conditions, and added: "I can assure you, Butina was not carrying out any state-ordered activities there."
IS Has Been 'Defeated'
In another jab at the United States, Putin said that U.S. plans to withdraw its troops from Syria -- announced a day earlier by President Donald Trump -- was "not fully clear to us."
"U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 17 years and every year they say they are being withdrawn, but they are still there," Putin said.
He reiterated Russia's assertion that the presence of U.S. forces in Syria is "illegal" because, unlike the Russian military, they have not been invited by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
However, Putin said: "As for victory over [the extremist group Islamic State], on the whole I agree with the president of the United States. We...have delivered serious blows to IS in Syria."
Trump said in a video posted on Twitter on December 19 that "we've beaten" IS in Syria "and we've beaten them badly."
In another remark about Syria, Putin called Trump by his first name, saying that "Donald is right."
Putin also voiced support for Trump -- who has called for better ties with Moscow but whose presidency has been clouded by questions about Russia's role in the U.S. presidential election in November 2016 -- but couched it in a suggestion that the United States and Britain are enveloped in political chaos.
The "Anglo-Saxon world" is going through "serious problems," Putin said. "Look, Trump won and that is an obvious fact. But nobody wants to recognize his victory. Efforts to de-legitimize his victory are under way."
He said efforts to avoid Britain breaking away from the European Union defy democratic principles because the matter was decided in the Brexit referendum in 2016.
On an issue that has raised tensions closer to home, Putin lashed out over the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, where a church linked with Russia has long dominated.
He blamed the Ukrainian government for what he called "another step to divide the Russian and Ukrainian people" and seemed to mock Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is considered the "first among equals" in Orthodox Christianity.
Putin referred to the Constantinople Patriarchate as the "Turkish" and "Istanbul" patriarchate and claimed that its decision to back the Ukrainian bid for an independent church was influenced by the United States.
He alleged, without citing evidence, that the Constantinople Patriarchate's support for the move was "about money. I think this is the main motive of Bartholomew, who wants to take over that territory and then make money on it."
Putin repeated Russian claims that both the church rift and an incident in which Russian forces fired on Ukrainian naval vessels off Crimea in November were the result of efforts Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to boost his popularity ahead of a March 31, 2019 presidential election.
He said that the fate of the 24 Ukrainian crewmen now jailed in Moscow would be decided after the legal process is complete, suggesting they will not be released or swapped and returned to Ukraine until a trial is at least held.
"They were counting on one of the sailors being killed," Putin said without citing evidence. "That didn't happen. An investigation is under way, and after the criminal proceedings it will be clear what to do next."
At the same time, he said that Moscow was willing to respect a Russian-Ukrainian accord governing the joint use of the Sea of Azov, which is the focus of the maritime tensions.
Kyiv blames Moscow for the dire state of their ties and Putin tried to turn the tables, criticizing Poroshenko's government ahead of the upcoming presidential election.
"As long as Russophobes remain in the corridors of power in Kyiv -- those who do not understand their own people's interests -- that kind of abnormal situation will continue no matter who is in power in the Kremlin," he said.
In addition to seizing Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Russia supports separatists in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.
Putin began the press conference by reeling off economic performance figures that he cast in a positive light, saying that unemployment was decreasing and that Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) was growing -- if modestly.
He repeated his calls for a "breakthrough" that would bolster the economy and improve living standards, saying that Russia needs a "new technological foundation" and must "concentrate its resources" and use them effectively.
Asked how a breakthrough is possible when annual GDP growth is not expected to exceed 2 percent any time soon and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has said it is mired in "stagnation," Putin blamed external factors for some of the troubles.
Russia must break into a "new economic league" in terms of size and quality, he said, adding that "if we don't set ambitious goals, nothing will be achieved."
"We could very well take the fifth place in terms of size of economy. And I think we'll do that," Putin said.
Russia's economy is ranked 12th in the world by the International Monetary Fund, after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, Britain, and six others.
The Kremlin said a record number of journalists -- 1,702 -- were accredited to cover Putin's 14th such press conference as president.
The latest one comes amid what opinion polls indicate is a drop in Putin's popularity at home. A plan to raise the retirement age has prompted anger and protests. Regional elections in September saw several Kremlin-backed candidates lose.
On the international stage, Russia's relations with the West remain strained over its actions in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria and other factors including its alleged interference in elections abroad and the attack on Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, which may have led to the death of a British woman who came into contact with the nerve agent Novichok in a fake perfume bottle.
Putin, 66, has been president or prime minister since 1999. The press conference was being watched for any indication of his plans for what comes after 2024, when a constitutional limit of two straight terms bars him from seeking reelection.
No question about that was asked -- a possible indication that the Kremlin does not want Putin to look like a lame duck.
Answering one about when he might marry again -- and whom, he said: "As a respectable person, I will have to do this at some point."
The Russian leader was married to Lyudmila Putina from 1983 until their divorce, announced in 2013.
On a broader issue, he responded to a question about whether he wants to rule the world by quipping: "We know where the headquarters of those who want to rule the world are located. And it's not in Russia."
The press conference is closely managed by the Kremlin, which chooses who can attend and ask questions. Once relatively modest, with a few hundred journalists attending, the annual event is now heavily hyped by the Kremlin and state media.
State TV ran a 24-hour countdown onscreen ahead of the press conference, and some of the questions seemed aimed at pumping up his image.
It is also known for its theatrics, with many reporters waving signs and standing up to attract attention, and for its length. The record was four hours and 40 minutes, in 2008, but it has not exceeded four hours in several years.
It has become a magnet for criticism by Kremlin opponents. This year, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny organized a live commentary show that was running at the same time as the press conference.
"If Putin begins to talk about patriotism and spirituality it means either he is going to steal something or he has already stolen something and wants us not to notice it and distracts us with these talks about spirituality," said the host of Navalny's show, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov.
Putin "was telling you about a non-existent Russia, I will tell you about the real one," said Milov, who questioned the president's presentation of economic data and other statistics,
"Again we heard how everything is growing, how everything is rising, " Milov said. "He did not say...that we have a natural population decline more than 180 thousand people in 10 months. That yesterday [the state statistics service] published data in which it calculates the dynamics of real incomes of the population -- in annual terms it is negative. This means real incomes are declining."
Navalny was barred from the ballot when Putin won his fourth term with more than 76 percent of the vote in a March 2018 election that international observers said gave Russians no "real choice."
Polls show that Putin's popularity has dipped amid growing anxiety over the state of the economy and plans to raise the retirement age.
The Levada Center, a leading independent Russian pollster, published a survey on November 22 showing the electoral rating of Putin had fallen under 60 percent for the first time in five years.
In a March state-of-the-nation speech and his inaugural address in May, Putin called for a technological "breakthrough" to bolster the economy and raise living standards.
But there are few signs of a turnaround. Kudrin, Putin's longtime former Finance Minister and now Audit Chamber chief, warned in late November that the economy is in one of its longest, deepest slumps since World War II.
Russia is in a "serious stagnation pit" and any additional Western sanctions could make it much worse, said Kudrin, Putin's finance minister in the era of oil-fueled growth in 2000-2008.
He said new sanctions could restrict technology transfers with the West -- a development that would dampen hopes for the kind of breakthrough the president has been seeking.
With or without new sanctions, Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP by 2021 may be unrealistic.