MOSCOW, February 1 (RIA Novosti) - President Vladimir Putin's annual encounter with Russian and foreign journalists in the Kremlin Thursday highlighted Moscow's security concerns, tensions with post-Soviet neighbors, and nuclear non-proliferation issues.
At the televised news conference running for three and a half hours, his sixth since coming to power in 2000, the president highlighted concerns over the United States' plans to deploy a missile shield in Central Europe, a part of Moscow's former backyard now within the European Union.
Washington officially proposed placing a radar network in the Czech Republic 12 days ago, and soon after that announced plans to start formal talks with Poland on the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems on its territory, arguing the defenses could intercept possible intercontinental ballistic missiles from 'rogue' regimes, such as Iran and North Korea.
Putin called Washington's arguments unconvincing and pledged to amend the country's military strategy, in view of the new developments: "We must think - we are thinking - of ways to ensure our national security. All our responses will be asymmetric, but highly effective."
Contradicting the U.S. argument for the missile shield, Russian experts said earlier that neither North Korea nor Iran had missiles capable of reaching Europe, and would not develop any in the foreseeable future.
Russia has consistently taken a softer stance on sanctions against both countries on the nuclear issue, and is actively working on an initiative to build international uranium enrichment centers under the UN nuclear watchdog's supervision, to quell international fears over secretive nuclear programs within countries like Iran.
Putin said international centers to produce fuel for nuclear power plants - an initiative Moscow and Washington put forward almost simultaneously last year - would also take responsibility for the disposal of nuclear waste.
"We are in a difficult situation where many countries want and plan to develop nuclear power. There is a subtle boundary between the development of nuclear energy and non-proliferation issues, as it is hard to control the level of military uranium enrichment," he said.
Last October, Russia and Kazakhstan, which holds 15% of the world's uranium reserves, established their first joint venture to enrich uranium in Angarsk, East Siberia.
"Encircled by foes"
Putin brushed aside a Russian journalist's suggestion that Russia's policies have resulted in the country being 'encircled by foes'.
Tensions between Russia and some of its former Soviet allies, as well as Western nations, have intensified in recent years, particularly over oil and gas supplies. Russia's neighbors and the West have accused Moscow of using hydrocarbons as a political tool. Russia has insisted it takes a "pragmatic" approach to the issue.
"This is not true... building pragmatic relations and promoting one's own interests is not always possible without tensions and is often a trying experience," he said.
The president further dismissed any serious rift in relations with the West, saying Russia's relations with the Group of Eight industrialized nations had become more stable and reliable following the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg, although the event was overshadowed by the Israel-Lebanon conflict and highly-publicized assassination of an anti-Kremlin journalist.
"We [G8] members never act in confrontation. Last year, we hosted the G8 summit, and I cannot say that relations worsened. On the contrary, I would say they became more pragmatic, stable and reliable."
In 2006, Russia held the rotating presidency in the elite club, despite strong-worded objections from some U.S. and European politicians over undemocratic trends under Putin's rule.
Tensions also exist in Russia's relations with EU-member Estonia, which approved a law in January to demolish Soviet-era memorials and rebury Soviet World War II soldiers, to end divisions in society. The initiative infuriated Russia, triggering appeals to impose energy sanctions against the former Soviet Baltic state.
Putin reiterated an earlier offer that Russia could rebury the soldiers on its own territory.
"If it comes to demolishing the memorials and reburying the sacred remains of our soldiers, we will suggest to the Estonian authorities that we rebury them on Russian soil," Putin said, calling the move short-sighted and ultra-nationalist, and at stark odds with present-day reality.
No Putin-appointed successor
With Putin's second term in office coming to a close in March 2008, there were several questions over who might replace him as leader.
There has been widespread speculation that Putin, who has consolidated power around himself and enjoys huge popularity domestically, will name a successor or amend the Constitution to stay at the top post, but the president has repeatedly dismissed both options as undemocratic.
"I have said on many occasions that there will be no successor. There will be candidates for president of Russia," he said, adding that he reserved the right to express his opinion regarding candidates during the campaign.
Several figures have been frequently mentioned as Putin's proteges for the presidency, including First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, the president's long-time allies who also trained in St. Petersburg. Medvedev has received much coverage recently for sensitive national welfare projects, whereas Ivanov has hit the spotlight in crucial international talks.
The president joked that journalists were virtually "kicking him out" of office ahead of time, and reminded them he would perform his duties for more than a year and would then "depart voluntarily."
A total of 65 questions were asked in the news conference, which passed in a seemingly relaxed atmosphere, with both the president and journalists exchanging jokes and Putin sounding generally upbeat on the progress of Russia's economy and global standing.
Along with questions on acute diplomatic rows and sensitive domestic issues, Putin was asked personal questions such as what he does to raise his spirits. The president spoke fondly of his pet labrador Koni, who often accompanies him at talks and news conferences in his residence, and a collection of poetry by Omar Khayyam presented by his wife.
One woman reporter addressed Putin as "incomparable Vladimir Vladimirovich," before she took up a more serious tone to talk about a Far Eastern region.