* Putin meets journalists after economic conference
* Blames West over Ukraine, says economy holding up
* Popularity is high despite economic problems
By Paul Ingrassia
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 20 (Reuters) - It was two minutes before midnight when Russian President Vladimir Putin finally entered the meeting room in the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, more than three hours late, to be interviewed by a dozen exhausted journalists.
His retinue seemed wearily accustomed to the late-night regimen, but Putin himself - after back-to-back meetings, a speech and an on-stage interview at his annual business conference here in his home town of St Petersburg - was fresh, fulsome and feisty.
“We won in a free fight and we are going to host the World Cup,” he declared, slapping away suggestions that Russia cheated with scandal-plagued FIFA to snare the 2018 competition. “That’s it!”
As for whether Russia can’t, or simply won’t, control its border to stop heavy weapons flowing to separatists in Ukraine: “These people got weapons with which to defend themselves. They got them in various ways.”
To the suggestion by Canada’s premier, Stephen Harper, that Russia be expelled formally from the Group of Eight major economies: “I don’t want to offend anyone, but if the United States says Russia should return to the G8, the prime minister will change his opinion.”
All of it was pure Putin, veritable Vlad. He’s habitually hours late for meetings - with the pope, Germany’s Angela Merkel and most others - so it’s clear who’s in charge before discussions begin.
He’s seemingly indefatigable at age 62. He’s always assertive. And he clings to perceived slights at the hands of the West, particularly the United States.
“I am convinced that ... after the Soviet Union was gone from the political map of the world, some of our partners in the West, including and primarily the United States, of course, were in a state of euphoria,” he told Charlie Rose, the American television interviewer chosen by the Kremlin to do an on-stage interview at the conference on Friday afternoon.
Referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, he said: “Some of our partners seem to have got the illusion that ... a vacuum of sorts developed that had to be filled quickly. I think such an approach is a mistake.”
He added: “Is there anyone who wants to be neglected and humiliated? There is something about respect, or lack of respect. When we see an unwillingness of partners to talk to us, then we see disrespect of our side.”
The conference, officially the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, has lost lustre since last year, when the West imposed economic sanctions after Russia seized Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. In years past, Sting and other headliners provided entertainment. This year, Carla Bruni, wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, gave a concert, followed by a midnight dinner.
Few senior Western executives attended, save for some from oil companies seeking Russian deals. Last year some executives predicted Russia’s alienation from the West would pass quickly. Nobody was saying that this year.
The big-name prime ministers attending this year were all “formers” - Britain’s Tony Blair, Italy’s Romano Prodi and Francois Fillon of France. Kyrgyzstan’s president and Mongolia’s prime minister were there, but the most prominent among the small-nation chiefs was Alexis Tsipras of Greece.
The leftist prime minister, whose nation teeters on a debt default that could eventually threaten its membership of the European Union, got a prized speaking spot on Friday, right after Putin. His presence and warm embrace by Putin were a clear jab at the EU establishment. Tsipras did not make major pronouncements on the debt crisis, but spoke in general terms about the strategic importance of Greece.
Putin, however, laced his speech with enough statistics to clog a computer. Among them: Russia’s unemployment rate (a modest 5.8 percent), gold and foreign currency reserves ($361.6 billion), budget deficit from January to May (3.6 percent), “non-raw commodity” exports (up 17 percent in first quarter).
His message: Russia is weathering Western sanctions just fine. “I would like to point out that at the end of last year we were warned ... there would be a deep crisis,” he declared. “It has not happened. We have stabilised the situation...”
Putin didn’t mention the 3.2 percent economic contraction this year forecast by Russia’s central bank, or the 11.5 percent prime interest rate to prop up the rouble.
Both are pinching the lives of average Russians, though Putin’s appeal to patriotism and increasing control over the media has kept his domestic approval rating above 80 percent.
In the interview he placed blame for the Ukraine crisis squarely on the Kiev government and the West. “It was a coup d’état, an armed seizure of power,” he said, referring to last year’s revolt that ousted a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president.
Only Western pressure on Kiev for a political settlement that gives substantial autonomy to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and amnesty to rebel fighters will resolve the crisis, he said, adding: “We are against solving issues by force.”
That smacks of duplicity to Western leaders who say the Russian military is covertly fighting in Ukraine alongside the separatists. Putin stoutly denies that.
As for Western suspicions that the separatists used a Russian missile to shoot down a civilian airliner last summer, albeit probably by accident, Putin says he’s seen evidence the missile might have penetrated the plane’s tail section with a trajectory indicating it came from Ukrainian government forces.
It’s like two parallel views of reality, never intersecting, but Putin seems to revel in every rebuttal.
Well past midnight, after an hour of discussion, the Russian president did find one thing for which to compliment America: its move toward diplomatic recognition of Cuba. “We welcome that,” he said. “It is the right thing for the U.S.”
As the clock neared 1:30 a.m., Putin was asked about his personal life. “My daughters came to St Petersburg and I was up until 2 a.m. yesterday talking to them,” he said. “I have good relations with my ex-wife. I have a good plan for the future. I’m okay.” (Editing by Timothy Heritage and Janet Lawrence)