MOSCOW (AP) — Mixing wry jokes with economic statistics, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to reassure the nation during his annual marathon call-in TV show Thursday, promising that its troubled economy will rebound and vowing to make other countries take account of Russia's interests.
Putin answered questions from adults and children from around the country during the highly scripted event, which he used to burnish his image as a strong leader who protects Russia from foreign threats and cares about ordinary people's needs.
In the days before, and during the show, Russians sent more than 3 million questions to Putin, ranging from bread-and-butter troubles at home to the war in Syria.
Asked about strained ties with Turkey, Ukraine and some other nations, Putin said Russia is ready for friendly relations with all but will retaliate against any hostile moves.
"We must respond, or otherwise they will sit on our neck and whip us," Putin said.
He said the United States must abandon what he described as its "imperial ambitions" and learn to respect Russia's legitimate interests.
"If they talk to us in a respectful way, we will always be able to find solutions that will satisfy everyone," he said. "They must simply work with Russia as an equal partner."
He praised U.S. President Barack Obama's courage in saying that the failed aftermath of the 2011 intervention in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. "Only a very strong man could do that," Putin said.
Asked if he would miss Obama, Putin answered with a philosophical "we all shall leave one day," adding that he's continuing to work actively with Obama and will also be ready to cooperate with his successor.
He refrained from picking a favorite in the U.S. presidential race, but noted that if Hillary Clinton wins it would be yet another example of members of one family winning the presidency. "Where is the change?" he said.
Putin wouldn't say whether he will seek another six-year term in 2018, although he is widely expected to run.
On Syria, Putin said Russia has shored up the national army there to the point where it can conduct offensive operations despite a Russian military drawdown, pointing to the Syrian forces' success in recapturing Palmyra from the Islamic State group.
He said Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began on Sept. 30, helped advertise the latest Russian weapons to international customers, with accumulated foreign orders currently at about $50 billion. The demand for air defense systems, in particular, was so high that it was necessary to build three new factories to produce them, he said.
Despite the current strain in relations with Turkey, Putin said Russia considers it a friendly nation but has "problems with some politicians who have behaved improperly."
When a 12-year-old girl asked if he would save Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko if they were drowning, and which one he would save first, Putin responded wryly that "if someone decides to drown, it's impossible to save him."
But he added that "we, of course, are ready to extend the hand of assistance and the hand of friendship to any of our partners if they themselves want this."
Russia-Turkey ties worsened dramatically after a Turkish jet shot down a Russian warplane at the Syrian border last November. Putin responded by halting the sale of package tours to Turkey and banning most Turkish agricultural imports.
Just as in last year's show, the bulk of the questions reflected the pain caused by the stagnant economy, which was driven into recession by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Putin spoke with confidence, promising modest economic growth next year.
The president rebuked the regional leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has branded Russian opposition activists as traitors and enemies of the people.
"I hope the leader of Chechnya and other leaders of Russian regions will be aware of the degree of their responsibility ... and will come to realize that to act and to formulate their attitude to opponents in extreme ways will not be helpful to political stability, just the other way round," Putin said.
Last month, Putin nominated Kadyrov for another term in office, shrugging off demands for Kadyrov's dismissal over his alleged role in the killing of a Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov has rejected opposition accusations of involvement in the killing.
In one of the more personal questions, the divorced Putin was asked whether he planned to marry again. He said he understood the public interest in his private life, adding that his answer could "affect the ruble rate and the oil price."
Putin, 63, said he was quite content with his current status and said he and his former wife, Lyudmila, have remained friends.
"We have a very good relationship, we probably even get along even better than before," he said, avoiding comment on media reports that his former wife has re-married.
Lynn Berry contributed.