MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the West on Thursday for causing his country’s economic crisis, saying it would take two years to recover.
«Sometimes I think, maybe they’ll (the West) let the bear eat berries and honey in the forest, maybe they will leave it in peace,» Putin said at a news conference in Moscow, using a metaphor to refer 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.»
Putin’s address comes amid plunging oil prices, sanctions from the West over his actions in eastern Ukraine and a ruble currency that has lost more than half of its value in recent months.
Elected to the presidency for the first time 15 years ago, Putin has presided over significantly raised Russian living standards during his three terms in office. The solid economic growth has been tied to a boom in oil exports.
Now, amid oil prices that have dropped over 40% since June, and as forecasters say Russia’s economy next year will move into recession and inflation may hit 25%, Putin is facing the first real domestic test of his leadership.
Over the course of the three-hour-long news conference, markets traded volatile. The ruble moved lower against the dollar. Earlier it gained 1%. Russia’s benchmark MICEX index rallied by 5.5%. Oil added about 3%.
Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said the lack of detail in Putin’s remarks indicate neither the president nor the government has any specific vision of how to bring the country out of the crisis.
«They are counting that oil prices will resume growth. That’s the only strategy our government has,» Stanovaya said. «A lot depends on whether Putin can maintain the cohesion of the elites. Irritation could grow within the elites about the course the country is taking.»
Putin said sanctions were responsible for up to 30% of Russia’s economic crisis and added the ruble would stabilize.
«The current situation has been provoked by external factors, but it’s worth noting that we haven’t done what we planned to do to diversify our economy,» he said.
The European Union banned investment in Crimea on Thursday as part of fresh sanctions and Washington may impose further measures this week. The sanctions target Russia’s energy, finance and defense industries.
Putin rejected the idea that Russian firms would be forced to sell their foreign currency reserves to help prop up the ruble and said Russia’s central bank had sufficient reserves — $419 billion — to keep the economy stable.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday nonetheless found that about 80% of Russians still support the president despite slipping confidence in the economy.
Speaking about Ukraine, Putin said that country must remain one political entity. He urged Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government to grant amnesty to pro-Russian rebels operating in eastern Ukraine.
Putin also accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia’s sovereignty, adding the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.
«We are not attacking anyone, we are not warmongers,» Putin said.
Ahead of the speech, Russian tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov was released from house arrest in a move that echoed Putin’s freeing of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky when he gave his address last year.