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Putin says Russia's economy is growing despite heavy international sanctions as he courts investors


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said Friday that the Russian economy is growing despite heavy international sanctions and the country has expanded economic ties with countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as he sought to court investors.

Addressing the presidents of Bolivia and Zimbabwe and business leaders at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin said Russia “remains one of the key participants in world trade,” despite the fact that the country is under sweeping sanctions for sending troops into Ukraine.

The forum has been used by Russia for decades as a showcase for touting the country's development, though Western officials and investors have steered clear of the session since sanctions cut off much of Russia’s trade with Western Europe, the U.S. and their allies.

The main driver of Russia's economic growth is the fighting in Ukraine — now as important to the Kremlin economically as it is politically.

Russians are finding a few imported staples, and most global brands have disappeared — or been reincarnated as Russian equivalents. But not much else has changed economically for most people, with massive state spending for military equipment and hefty payments to volunteer soldiers giving a strong boost to the economy.

Putin has heavily controlled his media appearances since sending his forces into Ukraine but he took questions Wednesday from international journalists, including some from Western countries he has criticized, on the sidelines of the forum.

At that meeting, Putin warned that Russia could provide long-range weapons to others to strike Western targets in response to NATO allies allowing Ukraine to use their arms to attack Russian territory. He also reaffirmed Moscow’s readiness to use nuclear weapons if it sees a threat to its sovereignty.

Last year, journalists from countries that Russia regards as unfriendly — including the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union — were not invited to the forum.