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President Vladimir Putin launched a defiant and patriotic defense of Russia’s relations with the West Thursday as he faced the public in his annual live televised news conference.
He said 25 percent of Russia’s economic crisis — including its faltering currency — was caused by sanctions imposed following the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Putin said Russia was unfairly criticized for looking after its own interests, and compared his country to the United States. “To chop Texas from Mexico is fair, but when we make decision about our territories it is unfair,” he said. “Do they want our bear to become a stuffed animal?”
"We’re not aggressive"
In a defense of Russia’s defiance of NATO and the West, said: “Maybe our bear should sit quietly, not chasing any piglets around, but just eating honey and berries. Maybe they should just leave him alone? They will not. They are trying to put it on a chain. And as soon as they do it they will tear his teeth and claws out.”
The president also insisted Russia's economy and the ruble would quickly recover from the current crisis. In opening remarks, he acknowledged that the ruble could slide further because of falling oil prices and warned that spending cuts might be necessary — but said the economy would return to growth in two years.
Putin denied Russia was embarking on a new Cold War. "The only thing we’ve done is protecting our interests in a tougher way," he said. "We’re not aggressive. We’re not attacking anyone in the political sense of the word.”
He added: "There are American bases all over the world and you’re trying to say that we’re being aggressive. What about nuclear weapons. Our budget is $50 billion — the Pentagon budget is 10 times higher. Does anyone listen to us at all? Does anyone have a dialogue with us? No. All we hear is ‘mind your own business.' In the Ukrainian crisis I believe we are right and our Western partners are wrong."
He also took a swipe at U.S. justice in response to a question about the killing by pro-government forces of suspected terrorists in Chechnya. “Everyone should obey the Russian constitution. But the reality is usually more complex,” he said. “After 9/11 in the USA they legalized torture.”
Putin looked mostly relaxed during the session, sipping occasionally from a coffee cup embossed with the Kremlin logo and cracking jokes.
He gave an enigmatic answer to a question about his private life, saying he was still on good terms with his ex-wife. "Everything is fine, don't worry," he told a reporter. "My friend from Europe asked me, 'Do you have love? Do you love someone?' I said, 'Yes.' 'And does someone love you?' I said, 'Yes,'"
However, there was a tense moment when a prominent anti-Putin activist and television journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, asked about the suppression of political opposition.
“Why did you give her the floor?” Putin snapped at the moderator.
More than 1,200 journalists were accredited for the more than three hour question-and-answer session. Many waved bright banners or toy animals in the hope of being chosen to ask a question.
Putin is enjoying historically high poll ratings. Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday found that about 80 percent of Russians still support him — an increase compared to 2012.
Earlier, a tycoon under house arrest since September was reportedly released just hours before the news conference. Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s release was reported by Interfax news agency citing his lawyer, Vladimir Kozin. The last-minute release echoes a similar move last year, when Putin announced after his annual press conference that another tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, would be set free.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.