MOSCOW: Russia has climbed out of recession despite continuing Western sanctions, President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, adding that the restrictions have forced the country to "switch on our brains" to reduce its dependence on energy exports.
Speaking in a live call-in show televised nationwide, Putin deplored the US Senate's decision yesterday to impose new sanctions on Russia as a reflection of Western efforts to "contain" Russia, but insisted that the measures only have made the country stronger.
The Republican-led Senate voted Wednesday to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 election by approving a wide-ranging package of sanctions that targets key sectors of Russia's economy and individuals who carried out cyberattacks.
The Senate bill follows up on several rounds of other sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
Putin argued that Russia has done nothing to warrant the Senate's move, saying it highlights the West's policy of containing Russia and also reflects domestic infighting in the United States.
"It's evidence of a continuing internal political struggle in the US," he said.
Putin said that the sanctions have given Russia an incentive to shed its dependence on oil and gas exports and "switch on our brains and talents" to develop other industries. He emphasised that electronics, aerospace industries and agriculture have all received a boost.
Russia has responded to the US and EU sanctions by halting most Western food imports, a move that has helped increase Russian agricultural output.
Russian farmers have pleaded with the Kremlin to keep the import ban even if the West lifts its sanctions, but Putin said that if "our partners lift the sanctions against our economy, we will respond in kind."
The Russian leader claimed that the "crisis is over," pointing at modest economic growth over the past nine months, low inflation and rising currency reserves.
Putin said that a slump in oil prices had been a more important factor in Russia's economic slowdown than the sanctions.
He acknowledged that the Russian economy hasn't yet shed its dependence on exports of raw materials, but noted that non-energy exports have been growing.
Putin recognised that people's incomes have fallen and 13.5 per cent of Russians now live below the poverty line currently equivalent to $170.
Most of the questions during the tightly-choreographed show were about low salaries, decrepit housing, failing health care and other social problems.
Putin said during the show that both of his daughters live in Moscow and "work in science and education." He said one of his grandchildren goes to pre-school and the other, a boy, has just been born. He said he doesn't want to give details about his family for fear of hurting their privacy.