MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin ranged from conflict zones to U.S. politics Thursday in a news conference in which he tried to close gaps with Washington over Syria, noted that Moscow remained engaged in Ukraine, and gave a nod to Donald Trump as the "absolute leader" in the White House race.

Putin - over three hours of questions and some overtime remarks - also touched on Russia's battered economy and tense relations with Turkey over the downing of a Russian warplane.

Many of Putin's comments circled back to relations with the United States, including a bit of look-ahead musing on the White House race. Putin said Russia would work with "whomever the American voters choose," but he singled out Trump.

"He's a very lively man, talented without doubt," Putin said according to the Interfax news service after the news conference. He added that Trump is the "absolute leader in the presidential race."

"He's saying he wants to go to another level of relations - closer, deeper relations with Russia," Putin continued. "How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome that."

Trump in October gave a similar assessment of Russia's leader, saying he could "get along very well with" Putin despite differences.

During the news conference, Putin denied once again that regular Russian forces were in Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels began clashes with the Western-backed government in 2014. But Putin hinted that Russian military advisers or security forces were active in that country, an involvement that he and senior Russian officials have sharply denied in the past.

"We never said that we did not have people there who are dealing with certain issues," Putin said of southeastern Ukraine, the base for the Russian-backed separatists. "But there are no regular Russian troops there. Feel the difference!"

Putin's statement came after a Ukrainian journalist "passed on a hello from Captain Erofeyev and Sergeant Alexandrov," two alleged Russian servicemen captured by Ukrainian government forces. Russia has said they quit the army before going to Ukraine.

Asked about Russia's intervention in the civil war in Syria, Putin said Russian forces would remain there at least until a democratic process is launched.

Putin largely reiterated Russia's anger over the downing of one of its warplanes by Turkish jets last month.

"Life has shown that it is difficult to us, practically impossible, to come to terms with the incumbent Turkish administration," Putin said. "Even when and where we say that we agree, they stab us in the side or in the back, for absolutely unclear reasons."

He also did not discount the suggestion that Turkey may have given the order to shoot down the Russian jet with the goal of pleasing the United States.

"We don't know that yet," said Putin, when asked if there was a "third party" involved in the downing of the Russian jet. "But if someone in the Turkish government decided to lick the Americans in a particular place, I don't know if they were acting rightly. I don't know if the Americans need this."