VALDAI, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin made a highly unusual gesture to his political opposition Thursday: He spoke to them at a public forum. Maybe next time he'll even give some ground.
He made no concessions to critics either at home or abroad, even though some of his aides had suggested earlier that from now on, opposition candidates could run for low-level offices without fear of arrest.
During a three-hour meeting with 200 academics and politicians from around the world, Mr. Putin suggested that the use of chemical weapons in an attack in Syria last month had been a clever ploy designed to discredit President Bashar Assad's government and trigger a retaliatory strike. Russia had no special interest in Syria, he said, referring to its support for Assad over the past two years; in opposing a U.S. plan for a strike, it was simply upholding international law, which requires U.N. Security Council authorization for the use of force.
Mr. Putin defended a new Russian law perceived as anti-gay, saying it protects minors. He spoke dismissively of political correctness and said same-sex marriages do not produce the children that Russia and European countries need to ward off demographic disaster.
He asserted that Russia does not infringe on the rights of sexual minorities. "I present these people with public awards all the time if they deserve them," he said, adding, "We need to respect minorities, but we need to respect majorities as well."
And, he said, he has not ruled out running for another six-year presidential term in 2018.
Mr. Putin arrived here on the fourth day of a Kremlin-supported conference dedicated to discussing Russia's role in the world and what it should be. It was the 10th year of what's known as the Valdai Discussion Club, which returned to its origins at a government resort in the wooded lake lands of Valdai, about 250 miles northwest of Moscow.
Mr. Putin was in the best form he has ever been in at Valdai, said Angela Stent, a Georgetown University scholar. She said he gave the impression that things are going well both domestically and in foreign policy and that he plans to stay in power for a long time.
The Valdai conferences have served as a venue for Mr. Putin to explain Russia to specialists from abroad. In other years, members of the Russian opposition have attended some events but have not been included in meetings with Mr. Putin and other high-level officials.
Just days ago, Mr. Putin stirred up Americans with an op-ed in the New York Times in which he criticized the notion of American exceptionalism. "The idea was mine," he said of the piece. "I wanted to show decision-makers my thinking."
He called an assistant and outlined what he wanted to say, he said. "After my colleagues prepared it for me, I looked through it. I rewrote some of it." An aide persuaded him to wait a day, until President Barack Obama's speech to Americans about Syria. That's when Mr. Putin added the ending, chiding the United States for seeing itself as exceptional.
"Then I gave it to my assistants, and they sent it to The New York Times," Mr. Putin said. "There was no anti-Americanism. I only presented our position."
He scolded Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for being unfamiliar with Russia when he said he wanted to answer Mr. Putin with an article in Pravda. "Pravda is certainly a very respected publication," he said, "but its circulation in Russia is very low."
In a combative essay published Thursday in the online newspaper Pravda, Mr. McCain, declared himself to be "pro-Russia" but delivered a blistering attack on Mr. Putin, describing him as presiding over a failed petro-state, a quasi-dictator who rules "by corruption, repression and violence."world
The New York Times contributed.