NOEL KING, HOST:
Today, Russia's President Vladimir Putin is holding his annual end-of-the-year press conference. These are often marathon events, with Putin taking reporters' questions for hours on end. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow listening in. Good morning, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So what is the headline so far? What has Putin been saying?
KIM: Well, it's hard to say exactly right now because his press conference is still going on. These events usually cover, really, a lot of ground, but they do traditionally fall into two large areas - foreign and domestic policy. Putin is actually pretty bored by domestic policy right now. There's not a lot to boast about. And Russian journalists mainly want to know about things like the new sales tax starting in January, about the lack of recycling and growing landfills and why local communities still don't have natural gas even though Russia is such a big exporter of that.
I guess one headline could be that Putin says that one day he'll get remarried. Putin is divorced, and he famously doesn't like to talk about his private life. But one tabloid journalist did put that question to him.
KING: OK. Well, there you have it. Breaking news. So you said President Putin likes to talk a lot about foreign policy. What has he said to that end today?
KIM: Well, he was first asked about returning fears of a nuclear war. Sort of these Cold War fears have been returning. And he really used that as a chance to assail the United States. He recalled that the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And now the Trump administration wants to leave the INF treaty, which bans medium-range missiles. He said Russia is interested in keeping strategic parity. And he also sort of warned that Russia knows how to ensure its own security.
He was asked if he wants to rule the world, if that's maybe really his secret goal. And he pointed out the U.S. defense budget is $700 billion, and Russia's is considerably smaller than that.
KING: Well, let me ask you. We had a very big announcement from the White House yesterday. President Trump said the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria. That caught a lot of people off guard in Washington, and it drew a fair amount of pushback. What has the response been in Moscow?
KIM: Well, the response here in Moscow is actually very welcoming. President Putin's position has consistently been that the U.S. presence in Syria is illegal and that it's the Russian forces, who have been there since 2015, who are there legitimately because they were invited by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Putin was asked about that, and he said he, quote, "agreed with Donald that ISIS had been largely defeated." And he said it would be the right thing for the U.S. to withdraw, even though Russia hasn't observed any signs of that yet.
What's also interesting is, though, that Putin praised the existing cooperation between the U.S. and Russian militaries in Syria designed to avoid any kind of inadvertent clashes. And he said he was very satisfied with that level of cooperation.
KING: Why did that come as a surprise?
KIM: Well, it was surprising to hear Putin actually praise something. He usually is very critical of what the U.S. is doing in Syria. There have been accusations in Russia that, actually, the U.S. helped create ISIS and is somehow backing them.
KING: OK. So those positive words sort of notable this morning - this afternoon where you are. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks so much, Lucian.
KIM: Thanks, Noel.
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