President Vladimir Putin accused the West of trying to destroy Russia, drawing a parallel with Hitler's invasion, and said Moscow will never bend to the will of foreigners, talking tough in an annual address after a year of conflict and crisis that has severely strained ties with the United States and Europe.
In a combative state-of-the-nation address televised live from the Kremlin on December 4, Putin first thanked his audience for getting Russia through what he called "tests only a mature, united nation" could survive.
He said sanctions imposed by the United States and EU over Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine were meant to undermine the country, but asserted that they were instead stimulating Russia's economy.
Putin said Crimea was of "sacred importance" to Russia and that Moscow would treat it as Jews and Muslims treat holy sites in Jerusalem, signaling once again that the Kremlin will never hand the peninsula back to Ukraine.
He asserted that if Moscow had not annexed Crimea, Western governments "would have invented some other excuse to contain the rising power of Russia, to influence it or even better -- to use it in their own interests."
He said the "tragedy" in eastern Ukraine -- where more than 4,300 people have been killed in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists that Kyiv and NATO say have powerful military support from Moscow -- showed that Russia's policies were "right."
"Russia has further proved that it can protect its compatriots, by defending -- with honor -- truth and justice," Putin said, speaking in the Kremlin's ornate St. George hall to top lawmakers, officials, religious leaders, and other public figures who gave him a standing ovation after he strode in.
"Our country has done it thanks to you, citizens of Russia," Putin said.
Seeking to appeal to many segments of a population that may see his name on the presidential ballot again in 2018, when he is 65, Putin mixed myth-making references to Russia's spiritual roots with blunt street talk and Soviet-style rhetoric.
Amplifying a theme that has defined his 15 years in power -- the idea that Russia is surrounded by foes bent on its destruction -- Putin accused the West of trying to break the country apart during the 1990s, like Yugoslavia, but said "they failed, just as Hitler failed."
"Our former opponents, our close friends, and our almost-allies made their support for separatism in Russia -- be it informational, political, financial or through secret services -- absolutely obvious," Putin said.
"There is no doubt that they would have gladly steered us toward collapse and dismemberment following the Yugoslav scenario, with all the tragic consequences for the people of Russia. This failed -- we didn't allow it.
"It also failed for Hitler -- who, with his misanthropic ideas, planned to destroy Russia and push us back beyond the Urals." Putin said. "Everyone would do well to remember how this ends."
Putin said Russia would treat Ukraine as a brotherly country but railed against the pro-Western government that came to power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February following protests against his decision to abandon plans for a pact with the EU.
"How can one support the armed seizure of power in Ukraine, the violence, the killings?" Putin said, referring to violence Western governments blame mostly on the authorities under Yanukovych.
He lashed out at the United States over a missile-defense system it is building with NATO allies in Europe, and said it is senseless to threaten Russia with force or a policy of "deterrence" -- a reference to U.S. Cold War efforts to contain the Soviet Union.
"Every time somebody decides that Russia is too strong and independent these instruments are used immediately," Putin said.
Holding out Russia as an island of moral rectitude, Putin said Moscow would never "thoughtlessly follow" policies dictated from abroad.
"If national pride for some European countries is a long-forgotten notion and sovereignty is an unaffordable luxury, then real national sovereignty for Russia is an absolutely essential precondition for existence," he said.
But he portrayed the United States as the pushy ringleader in an anti-Russian plot, saying that "our American friends" are "constantly influencing our relations with neighbors, directly or rom behind the scenes. At times one is even puzzled about whom to talk to, national governments or their American patrons."
Despite his fiery language, Putin appeared eager to avoid putting reconciliation with the West out of reach, saying Russia would not isolate itself and wants good relations with Europe and the United States.
"Under no circumstances are we going to scale back our ties with Europe, America," he said near the start of the roughly 75-minute speech, adding that "at the same time we will revive and expand traditional ties with the south of the American continent, will continue cooperation with Africa, and with countries in the Middle East."
He said Russia would not get into a "costly" new arms race, but also warned that it has ways to keep pace with foreign military improvements.
While he sought to shrug off the sanctions, Putin used the speech to propose several measures aimed at rescuing the plummeting ruble and bolstering the Russian economy, which the Economy Ministry this week predicted would shrink by 0.8 percent next year.
The ruble has lost some 40 percent of its value this year, causing concern among Russians and undermining the Kremlin's portrayal of Putin as a president who has ensured economic stability.
He called on the government and central bank to "take action" against speculators, suggesting that they were the main cause of ruble's fall.
He proposed an amnesty for those returning capital to Russia, indicating they would not face tax or potential criminal penalties.
An annual speech to parliament is a constitutional requirement for the Russian president.
Along with an annual news conference and a nationwide call-in show, the address is one of the set-piece events Putin uses to portray himself as a strong leader with a firm grip on the helm of the country.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and Interfax
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.