Russian President Vladimir Putin heaped praise Thursday on U.S. real estate tycoon Donald Trump, describing the 2016 Republican presidential frontrunner as "a very outstanding man, unquestionably talented."
Putin, in his annual news conference in Moscow, said he welcomes the flamboyant Trump's call for better U.S. relations with Moscow.
"He says that he wants a different level of relations, tighter and deeper relations with Russia," Putin said. "How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it."
But the Kremlin leader took a hands-off stance on the 69-year-old American billionaire's bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
"It's not up to us to judge his virtue. That is up to U.S. voters," Putin said, "but he is the absolute leader of the presidential race."
The Russian leader said Moscow would be "ready to work with any president chosen by the American people."
Trump, a political novice and one-time television reality show host, has surged to the top of surveys of Republican voters ahead of the party's state-by-state nominating contests, which begin in February.
American political analysts note, however, that voters often switch their loyalties during the months of campaigning before the November general election.
Trump, asked Wednesday what he might do to end Russia's air campaign in Syria, said that he would first try to win Putin's respect.
"I will get along, I think, with Putin," Trump said, "and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable — stable world. I would talk to him. I would get along with him."
In October, though, Trump had a different view. He said he would like to "sit back" and watch the progress of Moscow's airstrikes against rebels in Syria, because he thought the Russians might find themselves trapped in the Middle East conflict.
The leading U.S. Democratic presidential contender is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The winner of the November election will take over the White House in January 2017, when President Barack Obama leaves office.