President Vladimir Putin has said that Western sanctions are aimed at restraining Russia and demanded respect on the world stage, adding that Moscow is not trying to "resurrect the empire" but will never be a "vassal" of the United States.
In an annual question-and-answer session that lasted nearly four hours and was shown live on state television, Putin told Russians their country faced challenges from abroad but can repel any threat if domestic political stability is preserved.
Speaking after a year in which Western governments say he has dangerously upended the post-Cold War balance by annexing Crimea and supporting armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Putin mixed defiant warnings with assurances that Russia "has no imperial ambitions."
At the same time, he said Moscow would act to support Russians in the former Soviet republics -- words that will do little to reduce alarm in the Baltics and other neighboring states about Russia's intentions.
He indicated that Moscow would push ahead with plans to deliver high-precision S-300 missiles to Iran despite Israeli and U.S. opposition, but said Russia will work "as one" with its UN Security Council partners in efforts to end years of confrontation over Tehran's nuclear program.
The "Direct Line" question-and-answer program is one of a handful of annual televised events that Putin uses to bolster his image, reassure Russians on the state of the economy, and send signals about foreign policy.
Patrons in a bar in Russia's Stavropol region pay no mind as Putin answers questions from the public on a TV overhead.
As in previous programs, he portrayed himself as the resolute leader of a strong country that is protecting its people and its interests in the face of outside aggression.
Putin blamed the West for the severe tension in ties, and he lashed out at "superpowers" he said "consider themselves the only center of power in the world."
Such nations "do not want allies, they need vassals. I am talking about the United States here," he said. "Russia cannot exist in that system of relations."
Putin also accused Washington of putting pressure on some world leaders not to attend events in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Many heads of state have refused to attend a May 9 military parade because of Moscow's backing for separatists in Ukraine.
Putin said whether to come to Moscow or not "is the personal choice of every political leader," but added that "some are prohibited [from coming] by the 'Washington Obkom'...although many would like to [go]."
"Obkom" is a Soviet term for a Communist Party committee and Putin's use of it suggests some former Soviet states take orders from the U.S. government.
Putin said Western sanctions imposed on Russia in the past year are aimed at its "containment," asserting that Moscow's role in the crisis and conflict in Ukraine is only a pretext for the punitive measures imposed by the European Union, United States, and other nations. He predicted they would not be lifted soon.
The United States and EU say the sanctions are aimed at changing the behavior of Russia, which they say illegally annexed Crimea and has sent troops and weapons to eastern Ukraine to support separatists in a war that has killed more than 6,000 people since April 2014.
Putin claimed that Russia is abiding by the terms of a cease-fire and peace deal agreed in Minsk in February and that the sanctions have nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine.
"The Minsk agreements need to be implemented -- we are doing everything to implement them, the Kyiv authorities are in no hurry, but the sanctions againstus remain," Putin said.
Putin, who has been in power for more than 15 years as president or prime minister and is accused by critics of stepping up efforts to silence dissent in his third term, said Russia can overcome any challenges if it is united.
"If we preserve a stable situation in domestic politics, preserve the current consolidation of society, we shouldn't fear any threats," he said.
Putin (center top) is surrounded by journalists and members of the public during his question-and-answer session.
Putin called the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemstov just steps from the Kremlin "tragiuc and shameful" but praised invesigators for making arrests days after the February 27 killing.
He called the suspects "perpetrators" even though they have not been tried, and said he did not know if any mastermind of the killing would ever be found.
Putin said the Western sanctions are making a "contribution" to the economic challenges facing Russia but that the country should use them as a basis to reach "new frontiers" in economic development.
He focused on positive economic developments at the start of the program.
Putin pointed to the recent rise of Russia's ruble currency, which has gained more than 20 percent in 2015 after a steep decline last year due to a plunge in oil prices and the effects of Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.
"The ruble has stabilized and strengthened," Putin said. "Experts believe that we have passed the peak of the problems."
He also touted high oil production figures and a good harvest.
He said Russians are living longer and death rates decreasing.
The World Bank predicted on April 1 that Russia's gross domestic product would decline by 3.8 percent during 2015 and by 0.3 percent in 2016 as the effects of sanctions and the oil price decline set in.
But Putin, who has not ruled out seeking a fourth term in 2018, said the Russian economy could return to growth in less than 2 years.
"It may be quicker. With what we are seeing now, the strengthening of the ruble and the growth in the markets...I think that it may happen faster," Putin said.
As in past programs, the question-and-answer session cast Putin as a wide and powerful leader owith his finger on the plse of the nation -- the go-to guy for all problems, big and extremely small.
Speaking for nearly four hours, Putin fielded questions from a wide range of people, from farmers and university professors to War War II veterans and Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime former finance minister who played the devil's advocate in an exchange over state of the economy.
As in previous years, questions on political and economic issues were interspersed with more mundane, sometimes laughable requests from citizens pleading with Putin to intervene in private matters.
One woman asked him to persuade a retired military officer to allow his wife's friends to give her a dog for her 40th birthday, while workers at vast cosmodrome under construction in Russia's Far East region complained about unpaid wages.
Another woman, speaking in a prerecorded video message from a Siberian region where fires this month killed dozens of people and destroyed hundreds of homes, burst into tears as asked for help.
Putin started to ask her questions, apparently unaware that she was not speaking live.
In the days ahead of the program, a trailer showed footage of cheering crowds and a split-screen image engineered to look as if Putin was staring down U.S. President Barack Obama -- a prime target of a wave of anti-Americanism that critics say the Kremlin has whipped up during Putin's third term.
An announcer said just before the program began that nearly 2.5 million people had submitted questions to the Kremlin by phone, text message, and e-mail.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said there were "many demands" for Putin to recognize the separatist entities that Russian-backed rebels have established in eastern Ukraine as independent -- a hint that he could make a significant announcement about the conflict.
But did not do so in the first 200 minutes of the show.
He accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of making "colossal mistakes" in handing the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but said it can only be resolved through implementation of a deal on acease-fire and steps towrd peace signed in Minsk in February.
Putin said that "the Russian army is not in Ukraine," repeating Moscow's denial that it has sent troops to aid pro-Russian rebels.
Kyiv and NATO reject those denials, saying there is clear evidence of direct Russian military involvement.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, TASS, and Interfax