In an annual question-and-answer session, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin claimed there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and defended the renewal of a contract to deliver an S-300 missile defense system to Iran. (Reuters)

In a measure of Russia’s grinding economic difficulties, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday devoted the bulk of an annual call-in program to assuring his nation that life would soon improve after a year of confrontation with the West.

The highly choreographed show is a barometer of the message the Kremlin wants to deliver to the nation.

Last year’s edition had a triumphant tone as Putin exulted in the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But the president this time took a far more conciliatory approach over nearly four hours on the air as he answered questions about rising prices, the falling ruble and Russia’s economic prospects.

Putin also defended Russia’s decision to greenlight plans to send an advanced air defense missile system to Iran, saying it does not contradict international sanctions against Tehran and poses no threat to Israel.

For Ukraine, he said he wanted to work with Ukrainian authorities to resolve the burning conflict and held back from calling for the independence of a region held by pro-Moscow separatists.

Overall, the image that Russians received from the marathon performance was of a leader confident in his control and promising better times as Russia works to boost its independence from global markets.

More than 3 million Russians were said to have sent inquiries to the call-in show, which was heavily promoted on Russia’s state-run television networks.

Putin told viewers that he expected sanctions against Russia to last for years. But the challenges will ultimately strengthen the country, he said.

“It’s highly unlikely that sanctions will be lifted anytime soon, because it’s a politicized issue,” Putin said. “They want to restrain our growth.”

But he said he was more optimistic about Russia’s financial future than he was in December, saying he expected the economy to return to growth within two years. The ruble has strengthened considerably in recent weeks. On Thursday, it was hovering close to 49 to the U.S. dollar, after briefly falling to 80 in December.

Inflation also significantly slowed in March, Putin said, although it remains at an annualized rate of 11 percent.

Putin often uses the annual call-in forums to boost his image as a leader intimately involved in the lives of his citizens, bypassing layers of officials for those lucky enough to have their questions selected. On Thursday, he commented on wide range of subjects including the purchase of exercise machines in provincial health centers and a marital dispute about getting a new dog. (He told the man to get his wife the dog.)

Putin devoted the first hour of the call-in show almost exclusively to the economy, returning frequently to the topic during the course of the program — which totaled 3 hours 57 minutes without interruption.

In foreign affairs, he insisted the Kremlin’s clearance of the S-300 missile system shipment to Iran did not violate international sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Russia is among the world powers seeking a deal with Iran that would ease sanctions in exchange for a rollback of Tehran’s nuclear work and an expansion of international monitoring inside Iran.

It was not clear when the S-300 missiles would be shipped, but the decision this week brought swift criticism from Washington.

The S-300 agreement was reached in 2007, but Russia held back because of Western pressure. The surface-to-air missiles — similar to the U.S. Patriot system — are designed to destroy incoming aerial targets.

Putin said he wanted to reward Iran’s willingness to make a nuclear deal — and he also suggested that Russia needed the nearly $1 billion in revenue that will come from sending over the missile system to Iran.

Russia’s tensions with the West have been sharply escalated by the conflict in Ukraine between pro-Moscow separatists in the country’s east and the Western-backed government in Kiev. More than 6,000 people have died during a year of fighting, according to the United Nations.

Putin said that Russia did not seek to be any nation’s enemy, but he held out little hope of improved relations with the United States.

“The United States doesn’t need allies; it needs vassals,” Putin said. “Russia cannot exist in this system of relationships.”

But Putin held back from stoking the hopes of rebels that they might receive open Russian support for independence, saying that he did not expect a war on Russia’s borders. He said that the ultimate outcome of the conflict would depend on the flexibility of Ukraine’s leaders, criticizing them for imposing an economic blockade on the rebellious regions of the country’s east.

He urged them to implement portions of a February cease-fire agreement in which they promised to restore pension payments and the free movement of goods to the east.

Back on domestic issues, Putin described the killing in February of top Kremlin critic Boris Nem­tsov as “tragic and shameful,” but he suggested that authorities still had not identified a mastermind.

Russian authorities have charged five suspects from semiautonomous Chechnya. All have denied involvement in Nemtsov’s death, and Putin’s opponents have claimed that the investigation has avoided touching the possible organizers of the killing. Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin.

Despite Putin’s largely conciliatory tone, Russian authorities showed little sign of backing down from their hard line against the opposition, searching the Moscow offices of an organization backed by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky while Putin was speaking. The officers seized computers and materials from the offices of Open Russia, saying they were investigating “extremist activity,” employees said on Twitter.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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