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Russians Feel Pinch as U.S. Sanctions Bite, Oil Prices Plummet

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MOSCOW — With the ruble tumbling and their economy in tatters, Russians are wavering between despondency and defiance in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions.

Natalia Shumskaya, 34, is feeling the pinch. Her daughter Sasha has outgrown her winter clothes, but she can't afford to buy the five-year-old new ones since all of the family's budget is being spent on food.

“Sasha starts school next year, and we wanted to treat her to some nice overseas trip,” Shumskaya, a freelance video editor, added in her cozy but run-down Moscow apartment. “Now we’re not going anywhere.”

That’s because the ruble has fallen 53 percent against the dollar over the past year — and took another dive last week when the Central Bank dropped the key interest rate two percentage points to 15 percent. The devaluation pushed inflation to 11.4 percent in 2014 and hiked import costs — a tough blow for the import-heavy Russian economy. Prices in Russia for everything from food to consumer electronics — even winter clothes — have been climbing across the board.

"There's an economic war going on between Russia and the U.S."

Some Russians deny there's a problem. “There is no crisis and there won't be,” one 63-year-old retiree who only gave her name as Tatiana told NBC News. But optimists like her are few.

“Everyone knows it's gotten worse, not better,” said 77-year-old Alla, who also declined to provide her surname. “I hope it won't get worse, but I realize it will.”

The ruble's fall has been attributed to two primary forces: dropping oil prices — from $115 a barrel last June to around $58 this week — and a sanctions war with the West over Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

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President Barack Obama has said it was Western sanctions left the Russian economy "in tatters," but the country's Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in an interview with CNBC last week that oil prices have played a bigger role in the downturn.

The Russian economy has been slowing down since 2013, a fact President Vladimir Putin attributed at the time to domestic mismanagement. But in the face of the latest crisis, many ordinary Russians are heaping blame on the U.S. and loath to place any responsibility for the current crisis on Putin.

“What about the sanctions?" asked Alla. "If only they just leave Putin alone."

Putin’s approval rating still stands above 80 percent, according to Russia’s three top polling agencies. But concern is growing: 79 percent of the population said they or their families faced economic trouble because of the sanctions, independent pollster Levada said Tuesday. Sixty-nine percent, however, said Russia should not bow to Western pressure.

“Sooner or later they would have imposed the sanctions anyway, and the fact that there's an economic war going on between Russia and the U.S., it was inevitable,” explained Nikita, an 18-year-old engineering student. “Either this, or a real war, the Third World War.”

Amid the struggles facing ordinary Russians, one bright spot has emerged. Starting Sunday, the state is slashing the minimal price for a 0.5-liter bottle of vodka almost 16 percent to 185 rubles ($2.77).

The move has not inspired confidence in Shumskaya, the video editor, who said it appears the government does not truly care about the real needs of its citizens.

“If people drink vodka, they’re just gone," she said. “I think it’s a good idea for the government, but not so good for us.”

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