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Russia's Putin: Pussy Riot duo to be freed despite 'disgraceful' protest

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Thursday. Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP - Getty Images

MOSCOW – Two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot will be freed under an amnesty that will also see the release of 30 environmental activists, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, eliminating two points of tension with the West as the country gets set to host the Winter Olympics.

In a surprise move, Putin also pledged to free one of his most prominent foes, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has spent a decade in jail after falling out with the Russian leader.

"I feel sorry for Pussy Riot not for the fact that they were jailed, but for disgraceful behavior that has degraded the image of women,” Putin said during his annual and wide-ranging televised news conference.

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Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, who are serving a two-year sentences for a crude "punk prayer" against Putin and the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow's main cathedral had been due for release in March but are now expected to be freed sooner under the amnesty.

Thirty people detained in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic drilling will avoid trial, and 

Putin also described Edward Snowden, as “noble,” but denied he had never met or worked with the NSA leaker who has been given asylum Russia.

"Thanks to Mr. Snowden, a lot has changed in the minds of people around the world," Putin added. "We don’t help him - we just gave him temporary asylum.” 

"He has to make his own decision for his future. How is he going to live? Where is he going to live? ... He has made such a decision for himself...he's noble - but he has his own activities and I have my own."

Putin also said Russia’s economic deal with Ukraine, announced Tuesday, was motivated by “brotherhood” rather than political hostility to Europe.

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"This has nothing to do with Maidan [protests in Kiev] or the European Union, we just see that Ukraine is in trouble and we want to help them,” he said. "We must act like close relatives and help this nation.”

He added that Moscow did not oppose Kiev signing a trade deal with Europe as long as it did not harm Russia's economy.

The interview session, which is aired live on Russian television, often lasts several hours.

Putin also mounted a defense of his often anti-Western rhetoric. "It’s important for me to protect our values for our citizens,” he said, adding that he was protecting Russians from those “that are trying to aggressively dictate their values.”

He also said no decision had been made on whether to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad - its westernmost outpost, between Poland and Lithuania – a move that has caused concern in Washington

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"But let no one worry - we have not done this yet,” the president said, adding that it would be a way of countering the U.S.-led missile defense system based in Eastern Europe.

There was also a political slap-down for his former president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

When asked who is “number two” in Russian politics, Putin replied: "You really have put me in a difficult situation..." before going on to name Communist Gennady Zyuganov and right winger Vladimir Zhirinovsky ahead of Medvedev.

NBC News' Alastair Jamieson, F. Brinley Bruton and Reuters contributed to this report. 

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