Putin criticizes US but offers to cooperate on global crises

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Putin on Ukraine: 'Let's Work Together'
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) -- Despite the showdown with the West over Ukraine, Moscow wants to cooperate with Washington and its allies in dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State group and other global challenges, President Vladimir Putin said Friday as he tried to allay investors' fears over Russia's course.

Putin blamed the United States for ignoring Russia's interests and trying to enforce its will on others, but he also sent conciliatory signals, saying that Moscow wants a quick settlement to the Iranian nuclear standoff and a peaceful political transition in Syria.

Speaking at a major economic forum, Putin also insisted that Russia wants February's Ukraine peace agreement to succeed. Fighting there will stop, he said, once Ukraine provides broader rights to its eastern regions, gives amnesty to the rebels and calls local elections there.

The annual event, intended to burnish Russia's image before global investors, was tarnished by the freezing of Russian accounts in France and Belgium on Thursday as part of an effort to enforce a $50 billion judgment to compensate shareholders of the now-defunct Yukos oil company.

At a meeting with top executives of global news agencies, including The Associated Press, which began nearly three hours behind schedule at around midnight, Putin sought to downplay the freeze and said that Russia will contest it.

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Putin criticizes US but offers to cooperate on global crises
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes a seat before a meeting to mark International Women's Day, in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass of champagne after a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 10, 2016. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AFP / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA. MARCH 1, 2016. Russia's president Vladimir Putin at the 7th congress of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation (CCI). Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he leaves the Italian pavilion at the 2015 Expo, in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Pope Francis meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of a private audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, flanked on his right by Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, waves as he leaves after visiting the Russian pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Moscow's Red Square on May 9, 2015 after the Victory Day military parade. Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. Angela Merkel attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The Defenders of the Fatherland Day, celebrated in Russia on Feb. 23, honors the nation's military and is a nationwide holiday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after the peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with the leader of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia Leonid Tibilov during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / IVAN SEKRETAREV (Photo credit should read IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles, during his meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in the Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, March 16, 2015. Putin resurfaced Monday after a 10-day absence from public view, looking healthy. (AP Photo/Anatoly Maltsev, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, enter a hall for a meeting of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, gestures during his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and French President Francois Hollande, right, in Moscow, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. In a top-level diplomatic dash, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on Friday to seek a cease-fire and then a lasting peace for war-wracked eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) looks on as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban kisses the hand of a member of the Russian delegation during a signing ceremony of several agreements between the two countries on February 17, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU-member country since he attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions in France in June, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 16: Russia President Vladimir Putin waves during the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games Closing Ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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Putin argued that the arbitration court in The Hague, Netherlands, which issued the ruling last year, does not have jurisdiction over Russia.

The court ruled that Russia must pay damages to shareholders in the oil company, which was dismantled in a politically driven onslaught that saw its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sentenced to 10 years in prison.

EU and U.S. sanctions over Ukraine have helped push Russia's economy into recession and cut investment and imports dramatically. Putin, however, argued Friday that the Russian economy is on the path to recovery and that the West hurt itself by imposing the sanctions.

Putin's speech on the economy decidedly lacked any engagement on his part or specific proposals to turn around the economy. A large number of Russian and foreign investors in the audience were reading news or emails on their smartphones as Putin delivered a speech in which he did not address the severe crisis that businesses in Russia are facing.

In contrast to the economy speech, Putin was much more animated while responding to questions about foreign policy.

His emphasis on foreign policy has reflected the way the Kremlin has been running Russia since the Ukrainian conflict began. Critics have blamed Putin for sacrificing the country's economic growth for geopolitical ends such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

David Iakobashvili, founder of Russia's once-largest beverage company and head of a Russia-US business council, said businessmen have gotten used to the fact that Putin seems to prioritize foreign policy goals over domestic development.

"It's very clear today that geopolitics is more important from his point of view," he told The Associated Press. "But... we shall adapt to whatever environment has been presented by the government and act accordingly."

Addressing the forum, Putin argued that Russia wants February's peace deal for Ukraine to succeed. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of breaking the peace deal by supporting the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denies this.

Commenting on the accusations, Putin said the rebels are defending themselves against the Ukrainian military. He added that "once an attempt is made to solve the problem by political means, those weapons will be gone."

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby called on Russia to fully implement February's ceasefire agreement in Ukraine and remove heavy weapons from the country.

As for Putin linking the arms to a political solution, Kirby said it was "difficult to have a political solution when you've still got thousands of combined Russian separatist forces inside Ukraine fomenting violence and instability, and violating the agreement that they signed up to."

Putin used the investment conference as yet another opportunity to blame the U.S. and the European Union for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by refusing to take into account what he described as Russia's legitimate interests.

"They have pushed us back to the line beyond which we can't retreat," he said. "Russia isn't seeking hegemony or some ephemeral superpower status."

But Putin still said Russia wants to cooperate with the West in tackling global threats and challenges - including Islamic State, calling the extremist group an "absolute evil" that requires stronger joint efforts to combat.

Putin also said Russia wants a deal ending the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program to be signed as planned before the end of June, but cautioned against putting "unfulfillable" demands upon Tehran.

And he also voiced readiness to encourage Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the peaceful political transition. He explained Moscow's backing for the Syrian ruler was to prevent the victory of radical forces who would begin a reign of terror.

"We are ready to work with the president to ensure political transformation, so that all Syrians have access to instruments of power," he said.

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Nataliya Vasilyeva in St. Petersburg and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed reporting.

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