- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — 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.

Mr. 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. The speech’s broad scope — ranging from long-term economic goals to national security and defense — underlined Mr. 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 during an appearance that lasted more than four hours.

Mr. Putin, who was Russia’s president from 2000 to 2008, groomed his longtime aide and protege, Mr. Medvedev, to succeed him. Both men have said they would decide later who would run for president in March 2012, but Mr. 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 currently is ranked as the world’s sixth biggest economy.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Putin said that the national economy rose by 4 percent last year and said that the growth rate will accelerate this year, compensating fully for losses from the crisis by 2012.

“Our economy has made a successful post-crisis leap forward,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Putin, venturing into Mr. Medvedev’s favorite turf, vowed to modernize national industries and develop new technologies to reduce Russia’s dependence on oil, gas and other raw materials. He also made pledges to combat corruption similar to those Mr. 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, Mr. Putin boasted of increases 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 he pledged support to industries and agriculture.

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

He dismissed fears that Russia could face popular uprisings similar to those that have spread across the Arab world, saying that his Cabinet’s social policy should keep people happy and supportive of the government.

“If our immunity weakens, we can get some sort of influenza,” Mr. Putin said. “But if we preserve a robust social-economic immunity of the nation, no quasi-political influenza could challenge us.”

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