Russia and the U.S. agree on a general approach to settling the Syrian crisis, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, saying that Moscow stands ready to improve ties with Washington.
Putin also said that Russia will continue its air campaign in Syria until a political process starts, and lashed out at Turkey for trying to "lick the Americans in some of their private parts" by downing a Russian warplane.
Speaking with emphasis and gesturing energetically throughout a news conference that lasted more than three hours and was televised live, Putin also vowed that the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov will be solved and no one will be immune from prosecution.
Commenting on relations with Washington, Putin said that Russia supports a U.S.-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on settling the Syrian crisis, presented by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Moscow earlier this week."
In general, we like it," Putin said. "I believe that the Syrian authorities should be OK with it too, although they may not like something in it.
"He added that "concessions must be made by both sides" to end the conflict that has killed more than 250,000 and turned millions into refugees since 2011. He said the Russian approach, "strangely as it may seem, coincides with the U.S. vision: joint work on a constitution, creation of instruments of control over future early elections, holding the vote and recognizing its results on the basis of that political process."
"We will help settle this crisis in every possible way," Putin said. At the same time, he reaffirmed Russia's stance on the key issue that divided Russia and the West, the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying the Syrians themselves must determine who rules them.
Putin added that Kerry's visit has shown that "the American side is ready to move toward joint settlement of the issues that can only be tackled jointly."
Already on his way out of the hall, he was asked about U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and praised him as a "very bright and talented man," adding that he welcomes the Republican's pledges to establish closer ties with Russia.
Putin said that Russia's air campaign in Syria, launched on Sept. 30, will go on until a peace 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.
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 used in recent strikes on targets in Syria, give Moscow enough punch to strike an enemy from afar.
Addressing Russia's strained relations with some of its neighbors at his annual marathon news conference, attended by hundreds of Russian and foreign journalists, Putin said he "it's practically impossible" to overcome the tensions with Turkey under its current leadership after its downing of a Russian warplane at the border with Syria.
Ankara said its fighter jet shot down the Russian bomber after it violated the Turkish airspace for 17 seconds despite repeated warnings, while Moscow insisted that the plane has stayed in the Syrian airspace.
Putin said that Russia was particularly annoyed because instead of offering apology over its "hostile" action that left one of the plane's pilot and a Russian marine dead, Turkey turned to NATO for help. Both of the Russian servicemen were killed by militants on the Syrian side of the border.
He said that he had previously agreed to accommodate Turkey's concerns regarding Syria, adding that the Turkish leadership had never asked Russia to refrain from striking that specific area."
"Couldn't they just make a call or warn the military via the communications channels that existed and say: 'Look, there are our interests here so please don't hit it,'" Putin said, adding that Turkey hurt its own interests by downing the Russian plane."
Did they think that we will leave?" Putin said. "Russia isn't that kind of a country. We only have increased our presence there."
He said that Russia has responded by sending additional warplanes at a base in Syria and deploying the long-range S-400 air defense missile systems there, putting an end to what he said were regular violations of Syrian airspace by Turkish jets."
Turkey had constantly violated Syria's airspace, but let them try to fly over there now," he added menacingly.
Putin added that "someone in the Turkish leadership may have decided to lick the Americans in some of their private parts" in the hope that Washington would turn a blind eye to Turkey's deployment of additional troops to Iraq if they down a Russian plane.
Russia has introduced economic sanctions against Turkey, including a ban on the sale of tour packages, a significant blow to the Turkish tourist industries estimated to cost it billions of dollars a year.
At the same time, Putin said that Russia was working with Egypt to restore air links severed following the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian passenger in the Sinai desert.
Moscow has said that the crash that killed all 224 people on board was caused by a bomb. The Islamic State group claimed that it brought down the plane with a bomb.
Putin said the suspension of flights wasn't political and only intended to ensure the safety of Russian citizens.
He praised Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for his "remarkable personal courage" in the fight against terror and said that the flights will resume once Russian and Egyptian officials work out the necessary safety measures, including the presence of Russian experts at Egyptian airports.
Turning to the conflict in eastern 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."
Asked whether Moscow is ready to exchange two men Ukraine says are Russian soldiers for Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko and other prisoners, Putin said any exchange must be equal and details could be discussed with Ukrainian authorities.