MOSCOW — Vowing that the West would never hold Russia down, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday promised that his nation’s troubled economy would recover in two years despite a looming recession, a severely weakened ruble and growing fears about economic instability.
In an annual year-end news conference, Putin defiantly blamed Russia’s turmoil on the West, saying that it was targeting his nation as part of a long-standing geopolitical effort to limit Moscow’s influence. He appeared to be entrenching for years of conflict with the West, even as he sounded slightly more conciliatory about fostering peace in eastern Ukraine.
But attention always circled back to Russia’s deepening fiscal quagmire, which has pushed Putin into an uncomfortable role as crisis manager. He said that the nation had grown too dependent on easy profits from oil revenues and that the crisis was an opportunity to diversify. But he offered few proposals to do so.
In a measure of just how steep the challenges are, even journalists from media outlets close to the Kremlin were questioning Russian policy Thursday. But Putin ducked, weaved and offered few regrets about the most turbulent year of his decade-and-a-half in power.
“The only thing we have done is defend our interests,” he said.
Hours after the news conference, President Obama signed legislation that gives the White House discretion to impose further sanctions on Russia and to increase military support for Ukraine. In a statement, he said that, for now, he does not intend to use those new powers. The White House had previously expressed concern that additional sanctions would open gaps between the United States and the European Union. E.U. leaders imposed new Crimea-related sanctions even as Putin was speaking Thursday.
The ruble has been on a steady downward trajectory for months, fueled by falling prices for oil — Russia’s main export — and Western economic sanctions over Russia’s involvement in neighboring Ukraine.
In the past week, the ruble has undergone wild swings in value. Exchange rates peaked at almost 80 rubles to the dollar Tuesday after the central bank dramatically raised interest rates. On Thursday, the currency was generally flat, suggesting that Russians were neither spooked nor mollified by Putin’s statements at the news conference, which lasted three hours and 10 minutes in a hall of more than 1,200 journalists. The ruble settled near 62 to the dollar, better than it was at the beginning of the week but still 46 percent lower than at the beginning of the year.
A weakened ruble drives up prices, makes it harder for companies to repay loans that were taken out in dollars or euros, and diminishes Russians’ savings.
The Russian central bank predicted a 4.8 percent contraction next year if oil remains at current prices — but that was before the bank imposed a massive interest rate hike this week to 17 percent, which will further dampen the economy. Fueled by fears of sanctions and Russia’s unpredictable politics, investors may have pulled up to $130 billion from the country this year, according to the central bank.
“In the worst-case scenario, I believe it would take two years” to recover, Putin said at the televised news conference. “After that, growth is inevitable.”
Putin had been silent as the currency collapsed this week. On Thursday, he acknowledged that Russia should have diversified its economy away from energy long ago, which would have protected it against the 45 percent drop in oil prices since June. He also said that economic policymakers could have been quicker to act in recent months as pressure built on the ruble. But he said he had no plans to replace the central bank chief or other members of the cabinet.
Instead, he blamed “external factors, first and foremost,” for creating Russia’s situation — accusing the West of intentionally trying to weaken Russia. He said that the fall in oil prices was the main culprit in Russia’s economic difficulties, and that the price decline had “maybe, maybe not” come as a result of collusion between the United States and Saudi Arabia to make life difficult for Russia and Iran, two countries with large oil reserves.
Sanctions, he said, accounted for “25 to 30 percent” of Russia’s economic problems.
The West has long tried to turn the Russian bear into a stuffed animal, he said. If the bear were to “start picking berries and eating honey,” Putin said, “someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained, they will tear out his teeth and claws.”
He defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s policies in Ukraine’s conflict, and he blasted the West for its sanctions in return. He dodged a question about whether Russian troops were in eastern Ukraine.
But he praised Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, saying the Ukrainian leader was in favor of peace. “But he is not the only one over there,” Putin added, saying that other Ukrainian officials were pushing for “a war to the end.”
He said that he wants eastern Ukraine to live alongside the rest of Ukraine in a unified nation, defying pro-Russian rebels’ calls to unify with Russia.
“We assume that a common political space will be restored,” Putin said. “It’s hard to say at this point what it would look like, but I think we should strive for this.”
Amid the fiery outbursts, Putin found time to discuss his personal life. In response to a question about whether the recently divorced leader was still “Russia’s top bachelor,” he said that he had love in his life.
“Everything is in order. Don’t worry,” he said.