efe-epaSaint Petersburg, Russia

The heads of the world's leading international news agencies faithfully gathered for the fifth straight year at an economic forum here presided over by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who receives us with great pomp and circumstance.

But this year's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum has featured a more accessible Putin, who set aside a small table for the meeting, had a small number of advisers and television cameras on hand, as well as some hot red tea with raspberries and a personal touch that made us feel like family.

Yours truly was seated face-to-face with the Kremlin chief the entire time, just two meters away, allowing a close look at his mostly unwrinkled face, the almost shamanistic way he holds back the further intrusion of gray hair and his warm expressions, smiles and laughter and jokes about current events or our questions.

"I think Mr. Trump is calling. Please answer that phone," he teased a European colleague of mine who had left his cellphone turned on and received a call during the meeting. "You must be a very important person; or maybe it's President Xi. Tell him I said hello."

There was constant laughter among the 10 news agency presidents in attendance. He was in a good mood, surely aware of the success represented by the presence at the forum of major international figures: Emmanuel Macron, Christine Lagarde, Japan's prime minister and China's vice president, who captured people's attention with his practical wisdom and well-reasoned arguments.

Putin expressed his ideas in his typical clear and convincing fashion. He said his relationship with Trump was not improving but instead getting worse.

He made that remark to me with the same conviction he shows in denying being behind the Russian hackers who allegedly interfered in the internal affairs of countries like the United Kingdom and Spain.

"That's nonsense. These are your own internal problems: Was Boris Johnson, as a backer of Brexit, a Russian agent?" he asked ironically. He was emphatic when referring to Spain: "the fact that we respect people's right to self-determination doesn't mean we don't equally respect sovereign states and existing borders."

Putin has a fondness for Spain. La Roja "is one of the favorites to win the World Cup because you play soccer very well," he said with the same complicit smile he showcased during the long meeting.

Throughout the gathering we observed a politician, fresh off his latest electoral triumph and Friday's forum, who was more ebullient than ever and more convinced of the correctness of his ideas: he operates under the principle of never ceding any ground because otherwise he would be perceived as a weak leader.

And he is a forceful leader, one with fixed ideas.

He no longer makes statements along the lines of "we'll rub (terrorists) out in the outhouse," but he clearly expressed the poor state of his relations with Trump, speculating that that is because "he has too many internal problems."

Putin, who regards his foreign policy as neat and tidy and doesn't like playing games, says the Americans' policy is "somewhat disoriented," much or more so than the Europeans'.

Now 65 but still looking 10 years younger than his age, Putin argues with the same forcefulness and clarity as always. He presents a picture of order and democratic centralism that contrasts with the volatility of those who say one thing one day and the opposite the next. "You can't solve problems like those of (North) Korea, Iran, the Middle East or nuclear proliferation without negotiating, and now unfortunately no negotiating is taking place."

Putin rose from the table, bid farewell one by one and left the room laughing and joking, headed to another meeting in the room next door.

Such is life for the Kremlin chief at this upbeat moment marked by successful forums and election victories.

By Jose Antonio Vera