MOSCOW Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid out his case for a return to Russia's top office in a televised interview on Monday, casting himself as the best guarantor of a bright future in a country haunted by upheaval in the recent past.
Putin also offered hints of the foreign policy he might pursue during his presidency, saying Russia will not "put on the mantle of some superpower" and punch above its weight, but warning that it would fiercely defend its interests.
In some of his most extensive comments since he revealed plans to reclaim the Kremlin in a March vote, Putin, who could serve two six-year presidential terms, made clear he intends to stay in power until he feels his job is done.
"When I take something on, I try to take it to its logical conclusion, or at least to the maximum effect," he said.
"It's not the number of terms or years in power" that matters, said Putin, who was president from 2000-2008. He invoked the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died during his fourth term, to support his case.
"He led the country in the toughest times of economic depression and during World War Two -- and he was elected four times, because he acted effectively," Putin said in the interview with the three leading Russian channels.
"When a country is experiencing difficult, hard conditions, when it is emerging from crisis and getting back to its feet, these elements of stability -- including in the political sphere -- are extremely important," Putin said.
Putin steered Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency in 2008 after serving the legal limit of two straight terms. Last month, they revealed plans for a job swap, with Putin running for president in March and making Medvedev his prime minister.
But while the popular Putin is expected to have little trouble winning the presidency, he suggested Medvedev's appointment as prime minister would depend on the ruling United Russia party's performance in a December 4 parliamentary election.
Medvedev will lead United Russia's list of candidates for the State Duma election, making him responsible for the tough task of maintaining the party's two-thirds majority in the lower house in the face of declining popularity.
"If the voters vote for this list and we manage to form an effective parliament in which United Russia retains its leading position, then ... Dmitry Anatolyevich (Medvedev) will be able to form an effective government," Putin said.
THREAT FROM THE PAST
Putin targeted United Russia's biggest opponent in the parliament vote, the Communist Party, by taking aim at its Soviet-era predecessor.
"This political force brought the country to collapse and ruin," he said, adding that Russia needed a firm hand to keep it from sliding into chaos.
"Two or three missteps would be enough to bring all that back upon us so fast we wouldn't even see it coming," he said. "Everything's hanging by a thread, in politics and the economy."
He also hinted he believed most Russians want him back.
"I very often hear from people, ordinary people ... whom I meet often in different regions of the country -- that in fact many would like events to develop precisely this way."
Putin dismissed fears voiced in Russia and the West that his Kremlin return would lead to Soviet-style stagnation, echoing Medvedev's more liberal tone with a promise of political and economic reform, but he offered no details.
"We need to strengthen the fundamental basis of our political system and democratic institutions, we need to create the conditions for progressive development and diversification of the economy," he said.
On foreign policy, Putin said Russia would protect its interests -- a warning to the United States and Europe not to interfere with his efforts to forge closer ties among former Soviet republics.
"It would be a big mistake for us to put on the mantle of some superpower and try to dictate our demands to somebody when it does not concern us," Putin said. "As for what does concern us, here we will, of course, defend to the end all that interests us and all that enters our sphere of interests."
Critics in the West, he said, should tackle their own problems before accusing Russia of imperial ambitions.
"Mind your own business: fight against rising inflation, against growing government debt, against obesity -- get to work," Putin said.
(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Matthew Jones)