Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected accusations that his country is "aggressive," insisting that Russia has simply started asserting its interests “more vigorously and consistently.”
Speaking Friday during a question-and-answer session at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Russian president responded to former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who said Russia is behaving increasingly more aggressively.
For a long time, Putin said, Russia "quietly offered all the elements of cooperation," but was increasingly “squeezed out ... to the point beyond which [it] cannot go.”
Earlier this week, President Putin announced Russia's military will add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year. The announcement was strongly criticized by some Western leaders, including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who called it "nuclear saber-rattling" that is "destabilizing" and "dangerous."
Putin also said during his speech and Q&A, which was broadcast live Friday on the state-owned Russian news channel Rossiya 24, that Russia had prevented Western sanctions from causing a deep economic crisis in his country. He attributed this to what he called the Russian economy's "inner strength."
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby disagreed with Putin's assessment, saying "we know that sanctions on Russia have made the country's economy vulnerable." He said the cost of the sanctions has been high.
Meanwhile, the European Union announced Friday that it has extended for another year sanctions against Russia for its March 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The sanctions include prohibitions on imports from and investment in Crimea, financing or providing goods and technologies to Crimean companies, and tourism involving the Black Sea peninsula.
Putin also said during his Q&A, that his country is ready to cooperate with the West despite continuing tensions over Ukraine. Russia, he said, wants “to build relations on an equal footing . . . and on a mutually respectful basis" with the United States, Europe and Asia.
Still, he once again accused the United States and its European allies of supporting what he called an "anti-government and anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power" in Ukraine -- a clear reference to last year's removal of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's pro-Moscow president.
The West, Putin said, should pressure Kyiv to help resolve a crisis that he said has led to "a tense stand-off on the territory of Ukraine and practically to a civil war."
"It is being repeated like a mantra that Russia should use its influence on Ukraine's southeast. We do influence it, but it is impossible to resolve this issue only through our influence on Ukraine's southeast region. The influence should be applied on the current official authorities in Kyiv. And we cannot do this. This is the path our Western partners - Europeans and Americans - should embark upon." said Putin.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing Ukrainian rebels with troops or hardware, and said that Russian soldiers seen or captured in Ukraine were there as volunteers.
NATO chief Stoltenberg charged again this week that Russia has transferred more than 1,000 pieces of heavy weaponry to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, including tanks, artillery and advanced air defense systems.
More than 6,400 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, when Russia-backed separatists there launched a rebellion against the Kyiv government.