MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday praised his country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and called for a stronger global response to global warming as he sought to bolster Russia’s international standing.
He also strongly defended a planned Russian pipeline to Germany as a purely business project, rejecting criticism of it from the United States which argues that it’s part of Moscow’s efforts to advance its geopolitical goals.
Putin’s speech at an economic forum in St. Petersburg came less than two weeks before his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. U.S. and Russian officials said the agenda of the June 16 meeting in Geneva will likely include climate change and efforts to counter the coronavirus among other issues.
Addressing the forum, Putin lauded the efficiency of Russian-designed vaccines and bemoaned what he described as “politically-motivated bans” in some countries on their purchase.
Last year, Russia boasted of being the first in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine, but it has since moved slowly in getting its population immunized. The slack pace of vaccination has been partly attributed to public skepticism about the vaccines amid controversial signals from the authorities.
Experts have questioned whether Russia will be able to meet the government’s target of vaccinating more than 30 million of the country’s 146 million people by mid-June, and nearly 69 million by August.
Putin on Friday again urged the Russians to move more quickly to get the shots, noting that the Russia-designed vaccines have been “proven to be the safest and most efficient” and emphasizing that there have been no fatalities linked to their use.
Putin invited foreign nationals to visit Russia to get the coronavirus shots, saying he would instruct the government to move quickly to facilitate that.
In his speech, Putin also emphasized the need to strengthen the international response to climate change, noting that melting permafrost has mounted a major challenge to Russia’s Arctic regions.
“We have entire cities built on permafrost,” he said. “What will happen if it all starts melting?”
Speaking on other issues, Putin announced that laying the pipes for the first of two lines of the prospective Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany has now been fully completed, leaving only welding works to finalize its construction. He said the second line will follow suit soon.
The Russian leader hailed the project as more economically feasible compared to an existing pipeline via Ukraine, rejecting Ukrainian and Western criticism that it’s designed to rob Ukraine of transit fees.
Putin said Russia will continue pumping 40 billion cubic meters of gas via Ukraine a year in line with the existing five-year contract, and could continue doing so after it expires if Ukraine shows “goodwill.”
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a tense tug-of-war following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatist insurgents in the country’s east.
The U.S. has strongly opposed construction of the new Russian pipeline, but the Biden administration opted last month not to punish the German company overseeing the project — while announcing new sanctions against Russian companies and ships. The Kremlin has hailed it as a “positive signal” before the Putin-Biden summit.
Putin on Friday deplored what he described as the U.S. use of the dollar as a political weapon, saying that “its use as an instrument of competition and political struggle has hurt its role as the world reserve currency.”
Russia announced Thursday it will completely remove the U.S. dollar from its National Wealth Fund and turn the dollar-denominated assets into euros, yuan and gold. Russia long has moved to reduce the dollar’s share in its hard currency reserves as it has faced waves of U.S. sanctions amid tensions with Washington and its allies.
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