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Putin Touts Russian Economy as Western Investors Steer Clear of St. Petersburg Event

Alexei Danichev/Photo host Agency RIA Novosti via AP
In this handout photo provided by Photo host Agency RIA Novosti, Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves a podium after addressing a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 16, 2023.

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Friday touted Russia’s prospects at the country’s main international economic forum despite heavy international sanctions imposed because of the war in Ukraine.

Western officials and investors steered clear of the year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which began Wednesday and continues through Saturday. For decades, the gathering has been Russia’s premier event for attracting foreign capital, sometimes likened to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland.

The Kremlin banned journalists from “unfriendly” countries from covering the proceedings. Moscow gave that designation on scores of countries that sanctioned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, including the United States, Canada, European Union members and Australia.

Officials did not provide a list of the foreign businesses attending, but the program for the more than 100 panel discussions showed a marked majority of the speakers hailing from Russia.

“We haven’t turned onto the self-isolation path. Quite the opposite,” Putin said at the forum’s plenary session. “We have widened contacts with reliable and responsible partners in the countries and regions that serve as the engine, the drivers of the world’s economy today. I’d like to reiterate: These are the markets of the future; everyone clearly understands it.”

While one of the sessions listed in the program touted Russia as a “global tech hub,” descriptions of other panels tacitly acknowledged Moscow’s economic exclusion since its troops moved into Ukraine nearly 16 months ago.

Putin also vehemently defended Russia’s sending troops into Ukraine and repeated his unfounded claim that the Ukrainian government is a neo-Nazi regime, despite President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots.

“My Jewish friends say that Zelenskyy is not a Jew, but a shame to the Jewish people,” Putin said, although some Jewish organizations have praised Zelenskyy.

Putin confirmed that Russia has deployed its first tranche of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a plan that was announced earlier, but he gave an ambiguous assessment of Russia’s willingness to use them.

“Nuclear weapons are created to ensure our security in the broadest sense of the word and the existence of the Russian state. But we, firstly, do not have such a need,” Putin said.

But he added: “Extreme means may be used if there is a threat to Russia’s statehood. In this case, we will certainly use all the forces and means that the Russian state has at its disposal.”

Putin also rejected the possibility of reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal, chuckling mildly as he used a vulgarity: “We have more such weapons than the NATO countries. They know about it, and all the time we are being persuaded to start negotiations on reductions. The hell with them, you know, as our people say.”