Russia is ready to improve ties with the United States and work with whomever is elected its next president, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday. He said his talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week showed that Washington is ready to "move toward settling the issues that can only be settled through joint efforts."
Addressing Russia's strained relations with some of its neighbors at his annual news conference, attended by hundreds of Russian and foreign journalists, Putin said he saw no possibility of overcoming the tensions with Turkey under its current leadership, and wanted to see the conflict in Ukraine settled as soon as possible.
Putin said the Russian military operation in Syria will continue until a political process starts, but it is up to the Syrians to decide when to stop fighting and sit down for talks.
"We aren't going to be more Syrian than the Syrians themselves," he added.
He also offered assurances that the Russian economy was showing signs of stabilization despite plummeting oil prices, in fielding an array of questions from journalists representing state-owned media organizations about whether the government was coping with the challenges and whether the country could afford waging a war. Russian warplanes have flown thousands of combat sorties in Syria since Moscow began its air campaign on Sept. 30.
The economy is set to decline by 3.8 percent this year, and average income has dropped this year for the first time since Putin was first elected in 2000.
The president said he was unsure whether Russia needs a permanent military base in Syria, since new Russian weapons, such as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, give Moscow enough punch to strike an enemy from afar.
Putin said Moscow supports the U.S. draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. He said Russia and the U.S. agree on the need to ensure the drafting of a new constitution for Syria and create mechanisms of control over future elections, in which Syrians themselves will determine their leadership.
But some of his harshest words were reserved for Turkey. After a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian bomber along the Syrian border on Nov. 24, Putin said he was stunned that Ankara, instead of contacting Moscow to explain its actions, turned immediately to NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
With Ukraine, Putin said Russia was interested in seeing the conflict settled as quickly as possible. He urged the Ukrainian government to approve legislation on holding elections in the eastern regions, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting government troops since April 2014. More than 9,000 people have been killed.
While insisting that Russia has no regular troops in eastern Ukraine, Putin acknowledged that there have been people performing some military tasks.
"We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks including in the military sphere," Putin told an annual news conference." But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference." Putin’s assertions run contrary to the assessment of Western intelligence agencies and Ukrainian forces on the ground, who regularly document the role that Russian military forces are playing there.
Putin said Russia was ready to persuade separatists in eastern Ukraine that a compromise was needed in order to achieve a political settlement of the conflict there.
The Russian president also weighed in on the FIFA corruption scandal, saying suspended FIFA President Sepp Blatter was "a very respected person." He added that it was up to investigators to establish whether there actually were cases of corruption in the world soccer body.
"Whether there are signs of corruption in FIFA, the investigation must show. As for Joseph Blatter, he is a very respected person, he has done a lot for the development of world soccer ... That's the one to be awarded Nobel Peace Prize," Putin said.
Commenting also on U.S. politics, Putin called Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump “ a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented.” He added, “It’s not up to us to judge his virtue, that is up to U.S. voters, but he is the absolute leader of the presidential race.