Putin says Syria army in 'strong position' despite Russian drawdown

A Russian woman plays with her baby while watching the annual Question and Answer nationwide live-broadcast television and radio shows "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin" at their home in Moscow, Russia Image copyright EPA
Image caption The annual televised Q&A session drew a million questions from the public

Russian president Vladimir Putin has said the Syrian army is able to carry out "serious offensive operations" despite a drawdown of Russian forces.

He said Syrian government forces had achieved some recent important victories, including in Palmyra.

Russia began its campaign of air strikes in Syria last September in support of the government.

Speaking in an annual televised phone-in, he also said he backed a plan for armed monitors in east Ukraine.

He said Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko had recently proposed stepping up the presence of monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the separation line between government and separatist forces, and arming them to enforce a ceasefire.

"I think that is the right proposal," he said. "We support it."

Mr Putin also said Turkey was still a friendly nation and that it just had "problems with some politicians who have behaved improperly". Relations between the two countries have been at a low point since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its border with Syria in November.

And the Russian leader praised US President Barack Obama as "decent" and "strong" for having the "courage" to admit to failures over the US intervention in Libya following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

The hours-long Q&A event involves Mr Putin answering pre-selected questions from members of the public on issues of concern.

Image copyright Russian Defense Ministry Press Service
Image caption Russia began carrying out air strikes in Syria in September
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Putin asked that the world "respect" Russia

More than one million questions were submitted, the Associated Press reports.

Speaking on Syria, Mr Putin said the only way to end the war is for all parties to sit down for political talks, adopt a new constitution and hold early elections.

He made no specific mention of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who sees Moscow as a key ally.

Russia announced last month that it was withdrawing most of its forces from Syria but would continue to carry out air strikes.

Drowning politicians

A woman from Omsk, in Siberia, asked the first question - about potholed roads.

A 12-year-old girl later asked Mr Putin who he would save first if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were both drowning.

He replied that "if someone has decided to drown, then it's already impossible to save them".

But he added diplomatically that he would extend a hand of friendship to any partner, if they would accept it.

Asked if he planned to remarry, the divorced president joked that speculation about his private life risked affecting the rouble or oil prices. "Maybe some day I'll be able to satisfy your curiosity?" he added.

In other points

  • Mr Putin admitted that the economy was not in a good state, with real incomes down 4%. But he said he was optimistic and that there was "no danger"
  • On inflation, which was 12.9% last year, he said the rise in food prices was "a temporary phenomenon"
  • The Kremlin does not expect Western sanctions to be lifted anytime soon, and counter-sanctions will hence remain in place, he said
  • Mr Putin called the recent Panama Papers media investigation "a provocation". He said German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which obtained the trove of documents, was beholden to US bank Goldman Sachs
  • He also said foreign powers should respect Russia and treat it "as an equal partner"

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