Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures answers a question after his annual call-in show in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 20, 2019. Putin hosts call-in shows every year, which typically provide a platform for ordinary Russians to appeal to the president on issues ranging from foreign policy to housing and utilities. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Latest: Russian private military contractors in Syria

June 20, 2019 - 11:56 am

MOSCOW (AP) — The Latest on Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual call-in show (all times local):

6:55 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin says that Russian private military contractors have been active in Syria, adding that they don't represent the Russian state.

Asked why the government doesn't offer veterans' benefits to private contractors who fought in Syria, Putin said Thursday that they have been there in their private capacity and engaged in "oil exploration." He added that "it has nothing to do with the Russian state or the Russian army and, therefore, we do not comment on this subject."

The statement marked Putin's first acknowledgement that Russian private military contractors were active in Syria.

Russian media have reported that the so-called Wagner Company has sent thousands of mercenaries to Syria, augmenting the Russian military. The company has been linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, indicted by the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 elections.

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6:25 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin says that Russia doesn't want to regain its Soviet-era superpower clout.

Asked if Russia has regained the Soviet Union's superpower status, Putin said it's not needed.

Speaking after Thursday's call-in show, the Russian leader told reporters that "we don't want to be like the Soviet Union that enforced its way of life and political system on its neighbors, including countries of Eastern Europe."

He noted that the Soviet policy was "counterproductive, too costly and lacking historic perspective" and "it's impossible to force other people to live according to your rules."

Putin charged that the U.S. has failed to learn from Soviet mistakes in a bid for global domination. In an apparent reference to the U.S., he said "they keep repeating the same mistakes" by conducting "imperial-style policies."

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6:05 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected charges against Russian citizens for their alleged roles in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine five years ago, saying they lack proof.

The international team investigating the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 announced murder charges Wednesday against three Russians and one Ukrainian for their alleged roles in the attack that killed all 298 people on board.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Putin claimed "there is no proof whatsoever" behind the charges and criticized the investigators, saying they ignored evidence provided by Russia. He blamed Ukraine for setting the stage for the tragedy, saying they failed to close their airspace to commercial flights despite the separatist fighting in the east.

Putin says Russia remains open for dialogue on the case.

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4:15 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he's ready for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, but doesn't expect a quick improvement of Russia-U.S. ties.

Trump said he expects to meet with Putin on the sidelines of next week's G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, but the Kremlin said that the White House hasn't yet formally requested a meeting.

Speaking during Thursday's live call-in show, Putin said that "we are ready for dialogue as much as our partners are." He added that Russia and the U.S. particularly need to talk about arms control issues.

Putin charged that U.S.-Russian relations have become part of domestic political infighting, clouding prospects for improvement of ties between Washington and Moscow. Putin added that even if Trump wants to improve diplomacy with Russia, he faces strong resistance from the establishment.

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4:05 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on Ukraine's new president to negotiate directly with separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking on his annual call-in show, Putin on Thursday berated Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was sworn in last month, for his comments earlier this week in which he refused to negotiate directly with the separatists who overran large swathes of Ukraine's east with the help of Russian funds, weapons and manpower.

The peace accords signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015 called for direct negotiations between Kiev and the separatists with the mediation of Russia, France and Germany.

Putin said the "political will of the Ukrainian leadership" is necessary to stop the hostilities between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed separatists which have killed more than 13,000 since 2014. Putin pointed out that Zelenskiy's campaign promises to bring peace to the east and stop the fighting haven't yet been fulfilled.

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3:15 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin says he's against easing punishments for drug-related crimes but considers it necessary to tighten controls in order to prevent police abuses.

Speaking during a live marathon call-in show, Putin said it's necessary to strengthen the oversight of police anti-drug actions in the wake of the arrest of a journalist on drug charges that were quickly dropped for lack of evidence.

Putin said additional controls need to be introduced to prevent police from faking evidence in drug cases.

The case against journalist Ivan Golunov case caused public outrage, and Putin responded last week by firing two senior police officers. Putin said he expects an official probe to track down all those responsible.

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1:45 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin says that Russia will not compromise on its core interests to win a respite from Western sanctions.

Putin admitted that the U.S. and the European Union sanctions have cost Russia an estimated $50 billion since 2014, but he claimed that the EU nations have suffered even greater damage due to the restrictions.

Speaking during Thursday's live call-in show, the Russian leader said that the sanctions have encouraged Russia to launch its own production of ship engines and other key industrial products and develop its agricultural sector.

He said Russia's agricultural exports topped $25 billion last year and will keep growing.

Putin charged that the Western sanctions represent an attempt to curb Russia's growing power, adding that the U.S. trade restrictions against China serve a similar purpose.

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12:35 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin is promising to boost spending on social programs as part of the government's modernization efforts.

Speaking in an annual live call-in show Thursday, Putin faced an array of complaints about low wages and pensions. Putin responded by spelling out plans to boost salaries for public sector workers.

More than 1.5 million people have sent their questions by phone, video calls or internet.

For the people across the vast country, the tightly-choreographed show provides a rare opportunity to take their grievances to the very top. The call-in is dominated by complaints about low wages, potholed roads, decrepit schools, overfilled hospitals and other social issues.

Putin noted that Russia has been hurt by a drop in energy prices and international sanctions, but added that the economy has improved.

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