Putin voices confidence ruble will recover, accuses West of trying to corner Russia



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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to fix Russia's economic woes within two years, pledging to diversify the gas-dependent economy and persuade businesses to help prop up the collapsing ruble.

While using a litany of accusations against the West, Putin acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Russia's course on Ukraine was just one factor behind the Russian economic crisis, saying a key reason was the nation's failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports. He estimated that sanctions accounted roughly for 25 to 30 percent of the ruble's troubles.

As Putin spoke, the Russian currency was trading around 62 rubles a dollar, slightly lower than last night but up 12 percent after plummeting to historic low of 80 earlier in the week. Russia's benchmark MICEX index rallied by 5.5 percent by midday Thursday.

Speaking with strong emotion, Putin sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as obliging exporters to sell their currency earnings, to help stabilize the ruble.

He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia's sovereignty, adding that the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.

Putin struck a defiant note against America and the European Union, saying that sanctions slapped against Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia.

"Sometimes I think, maybe they'll let the bear eat berries and honey in the forest, maybe they will leave it in peace," said Putin, referring to Russia's famed symbol. "They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws."

He spelled out his metaphor, saying that by fangs and claws he means Russia's nuclear weapons.

"Once they've taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He'll become a stuffed animal," he said. "The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist"

Despite his tough anti-Western rhetoric, Putin spoke in support for political solution of the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving 4,700 people dead.

Putin said Ukraine must remain one political entity, meaning that the rebellious eastern regions should remain its integral part. He also suggested that the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine should conduct a quick "all for all" prisoners swap before Christmas.

Putin added that he feels sure that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sincerely wants a peaceful solution to the crisis but other forces in Ukraine don't.

Putin urged the Ukrainian government to fulfill its end of a peace deal reached in September and grant amnesty to the rebels and offer broad rights to residents of the country's east.

Putin also held out hope for normalizing ties with the West, saying that Russia still hopes to expand its gas supplies to southern Europe using a prospective gas hub on Turkey's border with Greece.

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