MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the United States to the Soviet Union on Thursday and said the West must respect Moscow's interests if it wants to normalize diplomatic relations.
During his annual live televised question-and-answer session with ordinary citizens, the Russian president said that “certain big powers” — including the U.S. — “don’t need allies, they only need vassals.”
Russia would “never accept” that role, he added, but admitted Soviet-era Moscow had made mistakes by having imperial ambitions.
“After WWII we tried to impose our development model on whole Eastern European nations, and this ended in nothing good, this wasn’t good, and we’ve got to admit it,” Putin told viewers. “By the way, this is what the United States is doing across the entire world now.”
He added: “We are not going to restore the empire. We don't have those ambitions.”
Still, Putin said that despite frictions with the West, "we don't see anyone as enemy," and that "we don't recommend anyone to see us as enemy."
When asked if Russia had troops in Ukraine, Putin replied: “No.”
He described the power shift in Ukraine as “an armed coup d'etat” and said Kiev was guilty of “extreme nationalism,” but added: “It’s out of our control as it's a completely different state. And we can't get too involved, that would be wrong.”
More than three million questions were submitted to Putin, according to the television channel hosting the event.
Most focused on domestic issues, including one from a farmer who complained that milk prices were too low and another from a political opponent who said Russia's economy had stalled.
"Agriculture is our priority," Putin told the farmer. "More will be done."
While the president said Russians shouldn't expect sanctions imposed by the West in response to the Ukraine crisis to be lifted anytime soon, he insisted the country's economy can remain strong.
Among the more bizarre questions was a request from a woman called Yelena who asked Putin if he would persuade her friend's husband, a retired colonel, to get her friend a puppy.
"You've really put me in a tight spot," the president replied. "So let's ask: Boris, please let your wife have a dog."
A four-year-old boy said he wanted to be president one day and asked Putin how many hours he slept “because I really like sleeping.”
Sleep is “very good … will make you healthier,” Putin replied.
He also made the studio audience laugh with an anecdote about former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
“Me and former Gerhard once went to my [Russian steam bath] banya. And it went on fire. And he just poured himself a beer. And I tell him ‘Gerhard, we’ve got to get out of here.’ And he says: ‘Hang on, let’s finish the beer first.’ And he did. A tenacious man. The banya burned to the ground, by the way.”
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