Putin hints at return to Russian presidency

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gives a long speech to parliament in an apparent sign he intends to reclaim the country's presidency next year.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted Wednesday that Russia must be strong to fend off foreign threats and lauded a long list of his own achievements, a show of muscle seen as a signal that the powerful leader intends to reclaim the country's presidency next year.

Putin laid out an ambitious program of weapons modernization in an annual address to parliament that sounded much like a campaign speech, promising to spend the equivalent of $700 billion by 2020.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the parliament in Moscow on Wednesday. (Alexander Natruskin/Associated Press)

The speech's broad scope — ranging from long-term economic goals to national security and defence — underlined Putin's role as the nation's No. 1 leader, though his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, technically has far broader powers.

"The nation needs decades of stable and calm development without any sharp movements and ill-conceived experiments" based on liberal policy, the 58-year-old leader said in a speech that lasted more than two hours.

Putin, who was Russia's president from 2000 to 2008, groomed his longtime aide and protege, Medvedev, to succeed him. Both men have said they would decide later who would run for president in March 2012, but Putin is widely expected to take the top job back.

His speech to the State Duma included a litany of self-praise and ambitious goals for the future. He claimed credit for quickly taking Russia out of the global financial crisis and promised that it would become one of the world's top five economies by 2020. Russia is currently ranked as the world's sixth biggest economy.

Putin said that a key lesson from the financial crisis was that the nation must be "self-reliant, independent and strong" to resist outside pressure.

"The weakness of economy and the state, a lack of immunity to outside shocks inevitably become a threat for national sovereignty," Putin said. "In the modern world, those who are weak will get unambiguous advice from foreign visitors which way to go and what policy course to pursue."

Putin said that the national economy rose by 4 per cent last year and said that the growth rate will accelerate this year allowing to fully compensate for losses from the crisis by 2012.

Vladimir Putin, who has often portrayed himself during his time as prime minister as a rugged man of the people, looks at a participant during a hockey tournament in Moscow on April 16. (Mikhail Metzel/Reuters)

Putin vowed to modernize national industries and develop new technologies to reduce Russia's dependence on oil, gas and other raw materials, venturing into Medvedev's favourite turf. He also made pledges to combat corruption similar to those Medvedev has made since taking the country's helm — though he hasn't made much progress.

Winning frequent applause from a parliament dominated by his United Russia party, Putin boasted of hikes in pensions and other social payments as well as increases of government spending on education and science. He promised to stem Russia's population decline by supporting young families and improving health care, and pledged support to industries and agriculture.

Putin put a particular emphasis on boosting defence and laid out ambitious plans to procure new weapons for the military. He said that production of missiles will double starting from 2013 compared to the current level and that a massive navy modernization program will be launched.