Russian President Vladimir gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. Speaking at news conference Thursday, Putin pointed at the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He said that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Latest: Putin welcomes announced US departure from Syria

December 20, 2018 - 6:05 am

MOSCOW (AP) — The Latest on Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual news conference (all times local):

2 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcoming the U.S. decision to withdraw its military from Syria.

Speaking Thursday at his annual news conference, Putin said he agrees with U.S. President Donald Trump who said Wednesday that the defeat of the Islamic State group removes the need for the U.S. military presence in the country.

He reaffirmed the long-held Russian argument that the U.S. presence in Syria was illegitimate because it hasn't been vetted by the United Nations Security Council or approved by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. Putin added that "if the U.S. decided to withdraw its contingent, it has done the right thing."

The Russian leader added that it remains to be seen whether the U.S. delivers on its plan, noting Washington's repeated promises to end its 17-year presence in Afghanistan.

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1:35 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking a naval standoff with Russia to boost his electoral prospects.

On Nov. 25, the Russian coast guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 seamen when they tried to sail from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov. The U.S. and its NATO allies have condemned what they described as unjustified use of force by Russia, and urged Moscow to release the boats and their crews.

Speaking at his annual marathon news conference Thursday, Putin charged that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko organized the naval foray to bolster his sagging popularity before March's election.

The Russian leader noted that while Poroshenko has managed to slightly improve his rating, he has hurt his nation by doing that.

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12:55 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is warning about the rising threat of a nuclear war.

Speaking at his annual news conference Thursday, Putin pointed at the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He said that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.

He also noted that Western analysts are talking about the possibility of using low-yield nuclear weapons.

Putin warned that "there is a trend of lowering the threshold" of using nuclear weapons, adding that "lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe."

Putin also emphasized that the U.S. pondering the use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, saying that the launch of such a missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped one and trigger a global catastrophe.

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12:20 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin is hailing another year of Russian economic growth after a previous period of stagnation.

Putin said at an annual news conference summing up the results of the year that Russia's gross domestic product is set to grow by 1.8 percent this year, while industrial output has grown faster at 3 percent.

The Russian president noted Thursday that the nation's hard currency reserves have increased from $432 billion at the start of the year to $464 billion now.

The positive statistics follow a difficult period in recent years when Russia's economy has suffered a combined blow of low oil prices and Western sanctions, resulting in stagnation.

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