Putin vows to wean Russia from oil and gas; says West is trying to 'defang' proud Russian bear



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Russian police arrested about 20 people outside of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual news conference. Several protesters said they wanted to ask Putin questions. (Dec. 18)

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MOSCOW — Vowing never to let the West defang his proud nation, President Vladimir Putin promised Thursday to fix Russia's economic woes within two years by diversifying and voiced confidence that the plummeting ruble will soon recover.

In a live, three-hour news conference that has become a Putin holiday tradition, the Russian leader demonstrated unwavering confidence in his domestic policies despite the catastrophic collapse in the ruble. His fierce defiance toward the United States flared throughout as he insisted the West was trying to destroy Russia to grab Siberia's great natural resources.

This year Putin held his televised extravaganza from a particularly strong vantage point: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday showed his approval rating among Russians stood at 81 percent — a level far above the ratings for other world leaders.

Putin accompanied his message with trademark images of Russian pride, with video showing him surrounded by Sochi Olympic athletes, petting a baby tiger and greeting Russian cosmonauts. And his most stirring quotes evoked a famed Russian symbol — the bear.

In his speech, the man who has led Russia for 15 years sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as fixing the ruble's rate or obliging exporters to sell hard currency, to help stabilize the battered currency.

Putin said the nation's hard currency reserves are sufficient to keep the economy stable, adding the Central Bank should not aimlessly "burn" its $419 billion in reserves.

"Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances, I think it will take about two years," he said.

Putin also acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Moscow's actions in Ukraine were just one factor behind Russia's economic crisis, estimating they accounted for roughly 25 to 30 percent of the ruble's troubles. He said a key reason for the currency's fall was Russia's failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

After Putin finished his performance, the Russian currency traded at 60 rubles to the dollar late Thursday, the same level as Wednesday. Still, the currency has lost about half its value since January.

Russia's benchmark MICEX index rallied 4.3 percent by late afternoon Thursday, but consumers voted with their feet, buying cars, electronics and home appliances in a desperate attempt to protect their savings before prices go up.

Audi was the latest major company to suspend deliveries in Russia amid the ruble's turmoil. Apple halted online sales earlier this week.

Putin struck a defiant note against the United States and the 28-nation European Union, saying the sanctions they slapped on Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia. He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia's sovereignty, saying the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.

To get his point across, he brought in the metaphorical Russian bear.

"Sometimes I think, maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace," said Putin. "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."

By fangs and claws, Putin said he meant Russia's nuclear weapons, which are protecting its valuable natural resources.

"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."

Putin urged a political solution for the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving more than 4,700 people dead.

He said Ukraine must remain one political entity, meaning that its pro-Russian, rebellious eastern regions should not break away. He also suggested the two sides hold a prisoner swap before Christmas.

Yet he defended Russia's increased military activities, including stepped-up Russian military flights in the Baltics that NATO says are putting civilian flights at risk, as a necessary response to what he described as aggressive Western action.

"We aren't on the offensive, we aren't attacking anyone, we are only defending our interests," he said.

Putin said he was sure that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sincerely wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis but other forces in Ukraine don't. He urged the Ukrainian government to grant amnesty to the rebels and offer broad rights to eastern residents.

Putin said Russia wants to have normal economic and security ties with the West but wants to cooperate on equal terms.

In Brussels, the EU beefed up its sanctions against Russia with a ban Thursday on investment in Crimea and other economic penalties, including measures aimed at keeping tourists away.

Beginning Saturday, Europeans and EU-based companies cannot buy real estate or businesses in Crimea, finance Crimean companies or supply services. EU operators will no longer be allowed to offer tourism services to Crimea's Black Sea beaches or other destinations. Cruise ships owned by any EU-based companies or flying an EU member state's flag will also no longer be allowed to call at Sevastopol or other Crimean ports except in an emergency.

Despite his strong rhetoric, Putin still held out hope for normalizing ties with the West, saying Russia stands ready to expand its gas supplies to southern Europe using a prospective hub on Turkey's border.

Turning to the ruble's collapse, he said the government should work with exporters to help stabilize the plummeting currency but not through formal orders. He said he had talked to the leaders of some of Russia's major companies to encourage them to sell more rubles — and one promised to sell $3 billion to help stabilize the currency.

Putin shrugged off the dangers of any "palace coup" by some of his lieutenants amid Russia's economic crisis, noting his broad public support. He also raised the performance of Igor Sechin, his longtime confidant who heads the Rosneft state-controlled oil giant, ignoring a question about Sechin's hefty paycheck.

In an apparent goodwill gesture hours before the press conference, a Russian tycoon under house arrest since September, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, was released.

Shares in Sistema, a company that Yevtushenkov controls and manages, shot up more than 100 percent on Moscow's MICEX stock exchange on Putin's words that he hopes that the company will regain its stance on the market.

One of Sistema's most lucrative assets — the oil company Bashneft — was transferred to the government this month, but Putin said money-laundering charges against Yevtushenkov have been dropped.


John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

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