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Defiant Putin Criticizes West, Promises Russians Economic Recovery

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the West of building a new "virtual" Berlin Wall and promised his compatriots that the country's economy will recover, as he seeks to soothe anxiety over the falling ruble and present an image of strength in the face of adversity from abroad.

In a marathon annual news conference ahead of a holiday season darkened by the ruble's decline, impending recession, and severe tension with the West over Ukraine, Putin said Russia's economy would "inevitably" snap back to health and predicted that this would happen within two years.

Speaking at the Kremlin before hundreds of reporters on December 18 on topics ranging from geopolitics to his love life, Putin said Russia's financial straits were "provoked" by mostly external factors, including low world oil prices, and vowed to diversify its energy-reliant economy.

Using combative language in a three-hour, 20-minute press conference in an event broadcast live on state television and subject to attention worldwide, Putin portrayed Kyiv as the culprit in the conflict in Ukraine and the United States as the main aggressor in the broader confrontation between Moscow and the West.

"We are not attacking anyone, in the political sense...We are defending our interests," he said, adding that the "our Western partners, especially the Americans, do not like this."

Putin said Kyiv was conducting a "punitive operation" in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,700 people have been killed since April in a conflict between government forces and pro-Russian rebels who NATO says have direct Russian military support.

Putin promised fair treatment of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who is jailed in Russia and faces trial on charges of killing two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin said, "Should pretrial investigation and the trial itself determine that she had nothing to do with it and that she is totally innocent, she will be released immediately."

Savchenko, 33, says she was captured in June by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and transferred to Russian custody in July. Russia claims she was detained on its territory.

Putin said the sanctions that the United States, the European Union, and other Western nations have imposed on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists violated internatonal law and World Trade Organization rules.

Putin said that Ukraine should remain a single political entity but suggested it was up to others to end the conflict, saying that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wants a peaceful solution but that others want to "fight to the victorious finish" and are hampering peace efforts.

He repeated Russia's demand for "direct, equal" talks between Kyiv and Ukraine's regions, including those partially held by the pro-Russian separatists in the east.

'Trying Chain The Bear'

Putin cited NATO's eastward expansion after the 1991 Soviet collapse and the ongoing deployment of a U.S.-led antimissile shield as evidence of efforts to build a new barrier in Europe and said Russia's position on Ukraine should be a signal to the West that it must stop.

He accused the West of providing "direct, full support to terrorists" in Russia's North Caucasus in the past and suggested that the United States and the EU would never stop trying to hold Russia back -- amplifying a theme he has turned to repeatedly over the years.

Putin said the West wants to defang the Russian "bear" and tack the bearskin up on its wall, and suggested that will not change regardless of how Russia behaves, stressing that Moscow must be firm.

"I sometimes wonder whether our bear shouldn't sit down, relax, stop chasing pigs in the taiga, and go on a honey and berry diet. Maybe he would be left alone," Putin said. "No, he would not, because they will always try to chain him. Once they succeed in chaining him, they'll rip out his fangs and claws."

Putin accused the West of trying to dictate what Moscow can do on its own territory, claiming that "almost official figures" in the West have said it is unfair that Siberia's rich mineral resources belong to Russia alone.

"How is this unfair? And was grabbing Texas from Mexico fair?"

The annual news conference is one of several set-piece events Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, uses to burnish his image at home and send signals to the West.

This year, it came with Russia in the global spotlight over the conflict in Ukraine and the fall of the ruble.

Russia annexed Crimea in March, after protesters drove Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych from power over his decision to abandon plans for a landmark deal with the EU in favor of closer trade ties with Russia.

The new pro-Western government in Kyiv and NATO accuse Moscow of sending weapons and troops into Ukraine to help the rebels, who have seized large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and defied the West by electing leaders in the areas they control.

WATCH: Putin Says Kyiv To Blame For Ukraine Crisis

The ruble has lost nearly half its value this year, driven down by low oil prices and the effects of U.S. and EU sanctions, which have decreased the attractiveness of doing business in Russia and restricted its companies' access to credit on international financial markets.

The United States has held out the prospect of swift sanctions relief if Russia changes its tack on Ukraine, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying on December 16 that the sanctions could be lifted within "weeks or days, depending on the choices that President Putin takes."

Putin said the sanctions violated international law and World Trade Organization rules.

He said Russia is "always ready to take part" in a new round of the talks that produced a September 5 agreement on a cease-fire and steps toward peace, but gave no indication that Russia would substantively change its policy on the conflict.

Without using clear language, he repeated Russia's denials that it has sent troops into Ukraine, suggesting any Russian citizens fighting there were volunteers following "the call of their hearts."

He also said that Moscow's recent "turn to the East" has nothing to do with what he called "external economic factors."

Answering a question regarding Russian efforts to seek more economic cooperation with China and Turkey following Western sanctions, Putin said economic projects with China and Turkey had been planned long ago and are not linked to sanctions.

Putin added that Moscow's cooperation with Ankara would lead to a new European gas hub at the Turkish-Greek border, but that the implementation of the project is up to European counterparts.

Before taking questions, Putin painted a positive picture by saying the economy has grown this year and that the revenues would surpass spending despite the ruble's fall and slowing growth.

He acknowledged Russia faces tough times but said it would take steps to diversify its energy-reliant economy during that two-year period.

Defending Ruble Response

Putin said Russia's government and central bank, which have faced criticism for failing to avert a sharp decline in the ruble's exchange rate, were working together "adequately" but sometimes were slow to react to factors affecting the economy.

The government has spent billions of dollars from its hard currency reserves and on December 17 vowed to make further interventions to strengthen the ruble, which has lost nearly half its value against the dollar this year and hit a low of about 80 to the dollar on December 16.

Putin said the key interest rate, which the central bank raised sharply to 17 percent on December 15 in an effort to shore up the ruble, is unlikely to remain that high for a long time.

The ruble was trading at about 61 per dollar before, during, and after Putin's press conference.

The central bank said on December 15 that the Russian economy may shrink by 4.7 percent next year, the most since 2009, if oil averages $60 a barrel.

It said capital flight from the country may reach $134 billion by the end of the year.

Putin reiterated his offer of an amnesty for Russians bringing capital back to the country from abroad, saying he would personally make sure that nobody who does so would be prosecuted.

Putin has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings since annexing Crimea from Ukraine, but economic troubles increase the political risks for the longtime leader, who has cast himself as a guarantor of stability.

Asked whether he feared a palace coup, Putin dismissed the idea that he could be ousted by people in his circle, saying that he feels the support of the nation and that Russians understand he is acting in their interests.

Outside the press conference venue, police detained 19 activists from a group of about 40 who gathered near the building and said they wanted to ask Putin "inconvenient questions." They were later released without charge.

Putin, 62, dodged a question about whether he will seek a fourth presidential term in 2018, saying it was too early for him -- or anyone else -- to plan for the vote.

Putin, who was divorced last year after more than 30 years of marriage, hinted that he is in a romantic relationship, recounting how a friend had asked him whether he was in love and he said, "Yes."

"Everything's OK. Don't worry," Putin said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and Interfax
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