MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin had sharp words for his critics and stark reminders of Russia's nuclear might at an annual news conference Tuesday in which he sought to burnish his image as a competent leader at the helm of a great and fast-growing country.

Playing to a crowd of about 1,000 journalists in a nearly 3 1/2-hour session, Putin gave an upbeat assessment of his six years in office and a defiant warning against foreign meddling in Russia's affairs.

At least three times during the marathon news conference most of it televised live nationwide Putin voiced pride in the economic achievements during his two terms, reeling off indicators that improved last year and favorably comparing the situation to the state Russia was in when he came to power on the last day of 1999.

High oil prices have helped Russia's economy rebound significantly from the economic collapse of 1998, and Putin said gross domestic product grew by 6.3 percent in 2005, with real incomes also rising.

He found cause for celebration in Chechnya, ravaged by two wars in the past 12 years, saying one of the greatest political achievements in 2005 was bringing the republic into the "constitutional fold" with November parliamentary elections that completed a campaign to restore local government structures.

The news conference coincided with Russia joining the United States, Britain, France and China in deciding they would recommend Thursday that the International Atomic Energy Agency should report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear activities.

But it also came amid growing concern in the West over Putin's moves to curtail representative democracy and tighten control over the economy and politics.

Defending a new law that restricts activities of non-governmental organizations, Putin called NGOs an important check on the authorities but emphasized they must not be "governed by puppeteers from abroad."

Putin said Russia welcomes constructive criticism but has no use for the words of Cold War throwbacks "who do not know what is going on in our country."

"There's only one response they deserve," Putin said, making a dismissive spitting sound that drew titters from the crowd.

Putin defended Moscow's support of Uzbekistan's bloody crackdown during unrest in the ex-Soviet Central Asian country in May and dismissed critics who say Russia is unfit to chair the Group of Eight leading industrial nations this year.

He said Russia's economic progress proves its policies are effective and that as a nation still developing and dealing with poverty, it "understands the problems of developing nations better than other G-8 members."

Besides, he added, "Can anyone in this room imagine solving nuclear security problems without the involvement of Russia, a key nuclear power?"

Dismissing accusations he has replaced Cold War nuclear strength with energy supplies as a lever of political influence, Putin quipped: "We still have enough missiles."

He went on to boast that Russia has tested new nuclear-capable missiles that he said can easily penetrate any defense system.

"How can I put this mildly?" he said. "It's not that these missiles are a response to missile defense systems: for them, it's all the same whether there's a missile defense system in place or not."

But as he often does, Putin alternated his warnings with reassurances for the West, saying Russia will be constructive in providing energy security and has no plans to further nationalize the crucial oil sector.

Along with his state-of-the-nation address and a question-and-answer session with ordinary Russians connected via video links, the news conference is one of a series of annual performances for Putin, who clearly enjoyed himself as he fielded 64 questions in the soaring Kremlin auditorium.

Few of the questions were challenging or combative. One reporter wished him a Happy Lunar New Year and asked when he would visit Buryatia; another said that she had come prepared to ask a serious question but decided instead to inquire, on behalf of blondes, what he does to keep looking so good. (Answer: No smoking or drugs, little drink, plenty of sports and even more work.)

Journalists from far-flung regions held up signs with place names or messages to attract his attention: "Kamchatka" or "Kostroma" or "We Want to Ask a Question!"

Putin appeared relaxed and confident as he sat facing the press with an abstract map of Russia in the white, blue and red colors of the national flag behind him.

He played to the crowd, sighing as the third hour passed and hands remained raised, repeatedly saying it was time to stop. At one point, he said he would wrap it up because "I don't think anybody preparing to come to this event put on Pampers."

For Valentina Maslova, a pensioner watching at home in Moscow and worrying about rising utility costs, the charm was less effective.

"People in Russia have always been poor, under the czars and under all other rulers," she said. "We pinned great hopes on Putin, of course, but it is very unlikely these hopes will materialize."