Russian President Vladimir Putin kicked off an annual press conference on Thursday, his first major public appearance since announcing he would seek a new six-year term in March 2018 elections. He also discussed allegations of Russia interference in last year’s US election and the challenge posed by North Korea nuclear ambitions. The marathon event has in the past lasted up to almost five hours and this year more than 1,600 journalists were accredited. Proceedings began with a question from a Moscow radio station on the reasons the president was seeking re-election, after the long-expected confirmation of his candidacy last week. “To improve quality of life for Russians,” said Putin, who has been in power since 1999 and could become the country’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin if he wins a fourth term. Putin said he would stand for election as an independent candidate rather than with the backing of his traditional party, United Russia, despite “counting on the support of the political forces that share my point of view about the development of the country”. A journalist asked about the state of the opposition in polls in which Putin will face only nominal competition and is all but certain to cruise to victory. Is it up to me to form the opposition myself? ... There should be competition. I will strive for this Russian President Vladimir Putin According to a survey published by independent pollster Levada on Wednesday, 75 per cent of Russians would be prepared to vote for Putin in March, despite having yet to hear any specific campaign pledges. “Is it up to me to form the opposition myself?” Putin replied. “I think in politics, as in the economy, there should be competition. I will strive for this.” One of these opponents is Ksenia Sobchak, a former socialite turned liberal TV presenter who many suspect is running as Kremlin “spoiler” candidate to split the opposition and boost interest in the polls. Sobchak, whose father was Putin’s political mentor and who is rumoured to be the president’s goddaughter, was at Thursday’s event as a journalist for opposition television channel Dozhd and was expected to be allowed to ask a question. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is officially barred from appearing on the ballot paper because of a criminal conviction, which he says was politically motivated. Putin’s main challenge will be to convince Russians to vote at all in an election that he is widely expected to win. According to Levada, only 28 per cent of Russians said they were certain to vote in March. Putin also insisted opponents of Donald Trump made up allegations of Russian interference in last year’s US elections. “All this was made up by people who are opposed to Trump so as to delegitimise his work,” the president said in response to a question about allegations of Russian influence. Putin said representatives of the Russian government had met with Trump’s team but said this was normal diplomatic practice. “Our ambassador was accused of meeting with someone, but this is normal practice worldwide,” the president said. “What is so transgressive in this case and why should it take on this spy-thriller tone?” All this was made up by people who are opposed to Trump so as to delegitimise his work Russian President Vladimir Putin Putin also welcomed the United States’ “awareness of reality” in the North Korea crisis after Washington announced it was ready for talks with Pyongyang without preconditions. “This is a very good sign that shows that the American leadership is moving towards an awareness of reality,” Putin said. “We believe that both sides need to stop aggravating the situation. “North Korea is a closed country. It’s enough for one firing [of a missile] from North Korea and the consequences will be catastrophic.” According to Putin, Pyongyang feels threatened by Washington and “sees no other way for survival other than developing weapons of mass destruction”. As in previous years, there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the press conference hall with journalists holding signs to attract the president’s attention and one reporter even dressed as the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas. Signs offered an indication of the sort of question the reporters would ask if given the floor by the president and slogans included “children,” “agriculture,” “Krasnoyarsk is choking,” and “spiritual foundations”. Placards larger than A3 would be banned from the hall, the Kremlin press service said. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin spent all of the previous day preparing for his 13th such press conference. The president typically answers questions on a broad range of topics – from foreign policy to the state of provincial roads to his private life – and receives televised requests from the far corners of Russia. On Thursday, he said it was “obvious” that the Russian economy was growing and said grain exports had been “brilliant”. “We have reached a stage of confident development,” he said. A crash in oil prices in 2014, along with international sanctions imposed over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, helped push Russia into its longest recession since the Kremlin strongman came to power. The country’s economy returned to growth only at the end of last year with a tepid 0.3 per cent expansion.