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Russian economy, sanctions & Ukraine conflict: Key takeaways from Putin’s marathon press conference

Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on key international issues during a marathon Q&A on Thursday. Topics ranged from the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts to Moscow’s relations with the US and its allies, as well as the transformation of the global economy amid unprecedented sanctions imposed by the West on Russia.

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The president hosted his annual press conference, during which both Russian and foreign journalists, as well as members of the general public, were able to ask him questions directly.

The ‘The Results of the Year’ event, which was broadcast live on TV, lasted more than four hours. Here are the key takeaways.

Sovereignty & Economic Growth

Putin said Russia’s economy had demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of outside pressure over the past year, noting that GDP was expected to grow by 3.5% by the end of 2023. He specifically pointed to industrial production at 3.6% growth, as well as a decrease in external public debt from $46 billion to $32 billion.

Real wages in Russia also continue to grow and real incomes are set to increase 5% by the end of the year amid a historically low unemployment rate of 2.9%, Putin said.

The nation has also reduced its reliance on the US dollar in foreign trade and started to use its national currency, the ruble, more actively, according to the president, who insisted that strengthening Russia’s sovereignty in the economic and other fields would remain a priority for Moscow.

“Existence without sovereignty is impossible for Russia,” he said.

State of Russian Armed Forces

Putin said as many as 617,000 troops were currently involved in Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine and Russia’s new regions, and that hundreds of volunteers join the army almost on a daily basis. The president also said that the nation was capable of maintaining its military power without any need to resort to additional mobilization measures.

Out of some 300,000 who entered the ranks during the partial mobilization last autumn, around 244,000 soldiers are still in the combat zone and are “fighting hard.” He said 14 of them had been awarded the nation’s highest military honor and named Heroes of Russia.

Up to 1,500 people sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry every day, according to Putin. “The flow of men who want to protect the interests of the motherland with weapons in their hands does not stop.”

Ukraine Conflict & Moscow’s Goals

The conflict between Moscow and Kiev is essentially a “civil war” instigated by the US and its allies, said the country’s leader. Russia spent decades trying to build normal relations with Ukraine “at any cost.” He called the latest developments a “great tragedy.”

“After the coup d’etat of 2014, it became clear to us that we would no longer be allowed, by force, to build any sort of normal relations with Ukraine,” Putin said. The president added that Washington had publicly admitted to spending $5 billion on the Maidan coup.

Russia’s goals in the conflict have not changed, Putin said, explaining that Moscow seeks the “de-Nazification and demilitarization of Ukraine” as well as “neutral status” for the country. Peace will come as soon as these goals are reached, he claimed.

Relations with the West

Moscow cannot trust the US and its allies amid NATO’s “uncontrollable desire to creep towards our borders” and Western policies which led to the current conflict in Ukraine.

“So how are we supposed to build relations with them?” Putin asked, referring to the West. The US and its allies are largely “shooting themselves in the foot” by slapping Russia with new sanctions, which he said ended up hurting them more than they did Moscow.

The EU and other US allies have also “largely lost [their] sovereignty.” Most Western nations, with the exception of nations like Hungary or Slovakia, repeatedly take decisions that only benefit Washington while hurting those nations themselves, Putin maintained.

“Many European officials act on the surface like General [Charles] de Gaulle, who fought for the interests of France with arms in his hands… but end up de-facto acting like Marshal [Philippe] Petain… who submitted to the occupants and became a collaborator during WWII.” Putin was referring to the leader of the Free French Forces and the general who signed an armistice with Nazi Germany and headed the collaborationist Vichy government during World War II.

‘Catastrophe’ in Gaza

The events currently unfolding in Gaza are nothing short of a “catastrophe.” The president cited UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called the Palestinian enclave a “graveyard for children.”

“Such an assessment speaks volumes,” he said of Guterres’ comment.

Putin related that the disaster in Gaza is “nothing like” the Russian military operation against Ukraine. Moscow insists on the recognition of a State of Palestine along UN-endorsed lines, and “a fundamental basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement should be established.”

He also pointed to the fact that some nations were blocking UN Security Council decisions regarding the situation in Gaza, thus essentially hindering its core function.

“This is the way it has always worked, especially during the Cold War,” he said, and warned that the UN would lose its clout if “no decisions are made.” The US has vetoed several resolutions aimed at a ceasefire in the Palestinian enclave.

Fate of US Nationals Jailed in Russia

Moscow is willing to exchange US nationals Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, but wants such deals to be “mutually acceptable.” Whelan was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison for espionage, while Gershkovich is still awaiting trial on similar charges.

“We have not refused sending [them] back [to the US] and we do not refuse to do so. We just want to reach an agreement,” according to the president. He stated that such a deal should be palatable to both sides, not just Washington.

Russia is still in contact with the US on the issue, and the “the dialogue continues.” Although the talks are “not easy,” the two sides are “speaking the language they both understand,” according to the Russian leader. Putin called on Washington to “hear Moscow” on the issue, adding that “humanitarian reasons” should be at the core of any deal.

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