MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has weathered the worst of its economic troubles and is on the road to recovery, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday during a marathon call-in TV show, offering to normalize ties with the West if it treats Moscow as an equal partner and not a "vassal."
He also defended the delivery of a long-range air defense missile system to Iran, casting it as a reward for Tehran's flexibility in nuclear talks and vowing to continue working with global partners to reach a definitive solution to the country's contested nuclear program.
Putin mixed promises with stern warnings and some humor during the carefully choreographed four-hour national broadcast, an annual affair intended to burnish his father-of-the nation image and secure his control over the Russian political scene.
His main message was that the gravest challenges are over and the slumping economy will be back on track soon.
He also made it clear that Russia wants an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine and is interested in rebuilding damaged ties with the United States and other Western nations. The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia over Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and accusations of supporting separatists in Ukraine.
At the same time, he reaffirmed his long-held criticism of what he sees as U.S. aspirations of global domination, saying Washington must learn to treat Russia as an equal partner.
"The main condition for restoring normal relations is to have respect for Russia and its interests," Putin said, adding that the United States "doesn't need allies; they need vassals."
While Putin sounded confident and looked relaxed while discussing the economy and global crises, he appeared uneasy and tense while responding to questions about the killing of top opposition leader Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin on Feb. 27.
Putin described the shooting death as "tragic and shameful" and commended police for quickly tracking down the suspects, but said he wasn't certain if law enforcement agencies would be able to find those who organized it.
Five men, all ethnic Chechens, were arrested days after the killing. Investigators, however, have been unable to reach a senior officer in the security forces of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. The officer is suspected of involvement in the killing and reportedly has remained under strong protection in Chechnya, a region of southern Russia in the Caucasus mountains.
The investigation has highlighted tensions between the leadership of Russian law enforcement agencies and Kadyrov, who has relied on Putin's personal support and generous Kremlin subsidies to stabilize Chechnya after two separatist wars. Some observers say the federal authorities' apparent inability to question a suspect in Chechnya reflects limits to Putin's authority and portends future threats to national stability.
The slickly produced broadcast focused heavily on the economy.
He pointed to the ruble's recent recovery — it lost about half its value last year — as a sign that the nation had gone through the worst part of the economic upheavals caused by a sharp plunge in global oil prices and the Western sanctions.
Putin, whose approval ratings top 80 percent despite the recession, said the country can overcome any challenges if it remains united.
"If we preserve a stable situation in domestic politics, preserve the current consolidation of society, we shouldn't fear any threats," he said.
Official estimates say Russia's economy will shrink 3 percent to 5 percent this year in the sharpest decline since 2009, but Putin said the slump would likely be less significant.
On foreign policy, Putin said his decision to lift a 2010 Russian ban on the delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Tehran followed a preliminary deal earlier this month on Iran's nuclear program. The framework agreement on the deal was reached earlier this month between Iran and the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany earlier this month.
He said Iran should be rewarded for showing "a great degree of flexibility and a desire to reach compromise" in the talks. He added the S-300 is a defensive weapon that shouldn't pose any threat to Israel, and may in fact serve as "a deterrent factor in connection with the situation in Yemen."
Putin appeared to signal that Russia has shelved a contract to deliver the same missile system to an unidentified "Arab country" following an Israeli plea, in what could be a reference to Syria.
Russia will continue to cooperate with its international partners on negotiating a definitive nuclear deal with Iran, Putin said, arguing that the sanctions in place on Tehran don't ban the delivery of the S-300s, which Russia had halted voluntarily.
He dismissed as "useless and senseless" the economic sanctions slapped on Russia by the United States and the European Union over the Ukrainian crisis. Despite the friction with the West over Ukraine, Putin said, "we don't see anyone as enemy, and we don't recommend anyone to see us as enemy."
He warned France that Russia expects it to return an advance payment if it fails to deliver a Mistral-class warship built for the Russian navy. France has suspended the order amid tensions over Ukraine.
The Russian leader accused Ukraine of violating its obligations under a February peace deal by maintaining an economic blockade on rebellious eastern regions, refusing to deliver pensions and other social payments, and shutting financial services to the industrial area, known as the Donbass region.
"The Ukrainian authorities are cutting off Donbass with their own hands," he said, adding that Ukraine's integrity "will depend to a large extent on flexibility and political wisdom of the leadership in Kiev."
Putin said he remains committed to cooperating with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to overcome the crisis, adding that the Minsk agreement signed in February provides "the only way out."
Pressed again about claims of a Russian military presence in Ukraine, he said: "There are no Russian troops in Ukraine."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf disputed the assertion.
"I think we know, as of early April, that Russian military forces continue to operate in eastern Ukraine," Harf said. "This isn't just our word for it. There are pictures. There is evidence out there for everyone to see about this."
Putin said Russia would firmly defend its interests, "but it doesn't mean that we should pout, get angry and isolate ourselves."
An ambitious weapons modernization program will go ahead despite the economy, although it could be pushed beyond its 2020 target, Putin said. He insisted that Russia doesn't harbor any aggressive plans.
"We have no intention to rebuild an empire, we have no imperial ambitions," he said.
When a jittery resident of southwestern Russia near the border with Ukraine asked Putin if they should fear a war, Putin replied: "No."
"I proceed from the assumption that it's impossible. You live in calm," he said.
Putin received more than 3 million questions before and during the show, which involved live feeds from Russia's regions as well as a studio audience. Inquiries about global crises alternated with callers seeking support for industries and agriculture, subsidies for expensive medical treatment, and even advice on personal issues.
One woman asked Putin how she could give a dog to a female friend whose husband — a retired colonel — doesn't want one. She asked the president to order the man to change his mind. Putin, a dog owner himself, said he couldn't issue such an order but suggested that the friend feign disinterest in the dog. That, he said, might soften the husband's heart so that he agrees to the dog — and even buys his wife a fur coat, too.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.