Putin sure of his victory in presidential vote, maintains criticism of US

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has voiced full confidence that he will win Sunday's presidential election in Russia, bluntly dismissing opposition demands and maintaining his strong criticism of the United States.

Putin, who is all but certain to regain the presidency, sought to put a positive spin on massive protests that have been held against his 12-year rule, saying they were a "good experience for Russia."

"That situation has helped make government structures more capable, has raised the need for them to think, search for solutions and communicate with the society," Putin said during a meeting with editors of top Western newspapers. The remarks were broadcast by state television and released by his office Friday.

Putin promised to engage in dialogue with the protesters, but rejected the opposition's main demand to hold a rerun of December's parliamentary election, which were tainted by widespread voting fraud that was reported by foreign and Russian election observers as well as The Associated Press and other media. Putin's United Russia party barely hung onto its majority of seats in Parliament.

The evidence of vote-rigging fueled protests in Moscow that drew tens of thousands of people in the largest show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse. The opposition is gearing up for another massive protest against what it fears will be manipulations in Sunday's vote.

Putin insisted Friday that he is favored by a majority of Russians, but admitted he enjoys less support in Moscow and other big cities. "Yes, there is a smaller number of my supporters there, but they are still a majority," he said.

Putin's claim is in line with recent opinion surveys that showed he was backed by some 60 percent of respondents, paving the way for an easy victory against his four contenders.

September's announcement that Putin and his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, will seek to trade jobs angered many Russians, who saw it a show of contempt for democracy. Putin insisted Friday that he and Medvedev made their decision because Putin is the more popular of the two.

Putin served as president from 2000 to 2008 before shifting into prime ministerial post due to term limits. With Russia's presidential term now increased from four to six years, he is eligible to serve another 12 years as president.

He reaffirmed his promise to name Medvedev as Russia's prime minister if he wins Sunday's vote, saying that post would allow Medvedev to implement reforms he has announced.

Putin's popularity has been dented by the opposition protests, but he has managed to recoup the losses thanks to massive daily coverage by state television. Those broadcasts have cast him as the defender of nationalist interests against foreign expansion and the protector of economic and social stability.

In a message to the nation broadcast Friday night on state Channel One television, Putin invoked the strong support he received in the past.

"The wide support of an overwhelming majority of citizens in a most difficult period helped in the fight against terrorism, restoration of the terrirtorial integrity of the country, in the economic and social spheres and in overcoming the consequences of the world economic crisis," he said.

Putin has accused the U.S. of instigating the opposition protests to weaken Russia and strongly criticized plans for the U.S.-led NATO missile defense around Europe.

Putin insisted Friday the planned shield would target Russia's nuclear deterrent and undermine global stability, adding that Washington's refusal to offer Moscow written guarantees that its missile defense system will not be aimed against Russia deepened its concerns.

"When one party gets an illusion that it's invulnerable for a retaliatory strike by another, that stokes up conflicts and aggressive behavior," Putin said. "We consider that extremely dangerous."

He said President Barack Obama's policy of "resetting" ties with Russia has helped reach the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty and successfully negotiate Russia's access into the World Trade Organization, but has brought "practically nothing" on the divisive missile defense issue.

At the same time, he praised Obama as "absolutely sincere" in his course of improving ties with Russia.