Putin: Russia military not building long-term in Syria

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said Russia has no plans to pull its military out of Syria, but isn’t building permanent facilities there.

The troops “will stay there for as long as it is to Russia’s advantage, and to fulfill our international responsibilities,” he said during his annual televised call-in show. But, he said, “we are not building long-term installations there and if necessary can withdraw our servicemen quite quickly without any material losses.”

Syria is Russia’s only military foothold in the Middle East, using leased facilities for ships at Tartus and for an air base in Khemeimee. Putin didn’t elaborate under what circumstances Russia could leave or on Moscow’s broader strategy.

In the nearly 4 ½ hours of the call-in show, Putin addressed a wide range of questions, largely domestic concerns such as road conditions, health care and village schools.

On international questions, he said he believes other countries wrongly regard Russia as a threat and that mistaken concept can end if they see that the economic sanctions the West has put on Russia don’t serve their interests.

Russia has been hit with sanctions by the U.S. and the West over its 2014 annexation of Crimea, its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east and its alleged interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Britain has also blamed the nerve agent poisoning in the U.K. of a Russian former spy and his daughter on Russia, which it denies. Both the West and Russia have expelled more than 150 diplomats on each side over that issue.

“This pressure will end when our partners become convinced that the methods used by them are ineffective, counterproductive and harmful to all,” Putin said Thursday. “They see Russia as a threat. They see that Russia has become a competitor to them … we propose that this is a very mistaken policy.”

The annual call-in show, like Putin’s marathon news conference each winter, is an elaborate demonstration of Putin’s stamina, reinforcing his dominance of Russia’s politics.

The phenomenon itself is treated as being as interesting as Putin answers, with a tally of the number of messages submitted (about 2.5 million), questions answered (79, plus four that he fielded from foreign journalists after the show) and frequent shots of squads of workers at computers monitoring questions submitted by viewers.

This was Putin’s first show since being inaugurated for a new six-year term last month, in which he promised extensive efforts to get Russia’s economy to grow into one of the world’s top five.

On Thursday, he said Russia’s gross domestic product is currently 1.5 percent higher than a year ago. He described it as modest but said he’s confident that future “growth is guaranteed.”

Putin also said the government will be looking to streamline the tax system in order to fight poverty, but denied speculation that Russia was considering abandoning its flat-rate income tax.