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Putin Remains Defiant On Crimea, Ukraine At Annual Press Conference

Russian president Vladimir Putin gave his annual press conference on Thursday. He defended his actions in Ukraine, but failed to offer a strategy to cope with the looming financial crisis.

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Vladimir Putin held his end-of-the-year news conference today, and even though Russia's economy has been battered by low oil prices and Western sanctions, he didn't offer much in terms of solutions. Despite some unusually tough questions from reporters, Putin remained defiant on the annexation of Crimea and Russia's involvement in Ukraine. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Putin's annual news conference has often contained the clearest signals on the Russian leader's thinking about the issues facing the country. This one was heavily promoted by state media with an ad that thundered like the trailer for Hollywood action movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: It promised to revisit the great moments of Putin's year, from the winter Olympics in Sochi to the annexation of Crimea. But if viewers were looking for excitement, they didn't find much. One of the president's tasks was to reassure Russians, who've been told that their economy will shrink by at least 4.5 percent next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) Our economy will overcome this situation. How long will it take? At the worst scenario, I think about two years. After that, growth is inevitable.

FLINTOFF: But the president didn't offer any new initiatives beyond suggesting that the crisis will force Russia to diversify its economy away from its dependence on oil and gas exports. Observers were also watching closely to see whether Putin would take a conciliatory tone on the issues that triggered Western sanctions, which are now making Russia's economic situation worse. He defended Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, saying it was done, quote, "to preserve our nation in the face of aggressive NATO expansion."

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

PUTIN: (Through translator) After the fall of the Berlin Wall, didn't they tell us there wouldn't be any NATO expansion to the east? But it started immediately. They decided they were the winners, they were empire now and the rest of the world were vassals. This is the most important problem of today's international relations.

FLINTOFF: Putin has said in the past that Russia annexed Crimea in part because it feared that if Ukraine became part of NATO, Russia would lose its strategic naval base in the Black Sea. Almost as he spoke, the European Union imposed a new ban on investment in Crimea, striking at the region's tourism and Black Sea oil development. The Russian leader returned to a theme that he's used in the past, the idea that his country is like a peaceable bear that will fiercely defend its territory when it's threatened.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

PUTIN: (Through translator) Maybe they will leave him alone? No, they will not. They will always try to chain him. And as soon as they succeed, they will pull out his fangs and claws. In today's terms, that means our nuclear deterrent forces.

FLINTOFF: It didn't bode well for easing tensions with the West, whose leaders accuse Russia of supporting separatist militants in eastern Ukraine. Putin did say that Ukraine must remain a united political entity and that he believes Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, genuinely wants to seek peace. So far, Russia's economic and political problems have had little effect on the Russian leader's popularity. A new poll released just before the press conference showed that Putin still has the support of 81 percent of the Russian public.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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