MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia should not "fence itself off from the outside world" despite a plunge in East-West relations over the pro-Kremlin insurgency in Ukraine.
Putin added during a visit to Crimea - seized by Russia from Ukraine in March - that an ongoing trade war with the United States and Europe did not mean Moscow "should break ties with partners. But we should also not let them treat us with disdain." The comments saw the Russian ruble shoot up to a nine-day high against the dollar because investors interpreted them as a signal by Putin that he preferred not to escalate the deadly Ukrainian crisis much further.
The Kremlin's relations with the West have hit their lowest point since the worst years of the Cold War because of Putin's alleged backing of Russian-speaking insurgents who are battling the pro-European authorities in the east of the ex-Soviet state.
The diplomatic tensions and European security fears were compounded last week when Putin banned the import of most meat and dairy products from the United States and EU nations with sanctions against Russia for its approach to Ukraine.
Russian news agencies quoted Putin as telling senior lawmakers and ministers in the Crimean city of Yalta that he was forced to announce the food ban to protect Russia's national interest.
But he stressed that the measure was also meant to help revive the domestic agricultural sector and permit Moscow's new allies in Latin America and countries such as Turkey play a bigger role on the Russian market.
"These sanctions are not just a response measure," said Putin.
"These, first and foremost, are a support measure for our producers. And they should also help open our markers to countries and producers that want to cooperate with Russia and are ready for this cooperation." Ukraine has denounced Putin's visit to Crimea and refuses to formally recognise Moscow's takeover of the strategic Black Sea peninsula of nearly two million mostly Russian-speaking inhabitants.
But Putin dismissed Ukraine's protests and said Crimea should become a symbol of a powerful and unified new Russian state.
Russians should consolidate as a society "not for the purpose of waging war, not to get into conflicts or standoffs, but for hard work - in the name of Russia and for Russia." He added that Russia "will do everything that depends on us to make sure that the (Ukrainian) conflict ends as soon as possible." Ukraine "has plunged into bloody chaos, into a fratricidal conflict," Putin lamented.
But he did not spell out how Russia intended to help the Ukrainian authorities reach a peaceful settlement with the rebels or to repair its relations with the West.
Moscow and Kiev are currently at loggerheads over the details of letting over 1,800 tonnes of Russian humanitarian aid into conflict-ridden areas of eastern Ukraine.