Russian crisis 'to last 2 years at most'

Updated: 2014-12-19 07:46

By Agence France-Presse in Moscow(China Daily)

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Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to quell fears on Thursday of economic collapse and vowed rapid recovery from the worst financial crisis of his rule but stressed that his position on Ukraine has not changed.

Speaking at an annual news conference, he said the economic downturn will last two years at most and promised to support the poorest section of the population.

However, he indicated that the economic gloom has not swayed his stance on Ukraine, accusing the West of behaving like an "empire" and even comparing Russia to a bear who is under attack and fighting for survival.

Following the rouble's record fall in value this week, Putin said, "It goes without saying that a way out of this situation is inevitable".

He said efforts by the central bank and government - including a record increase in the key interest rate and spending billions to stabilize the rouble - have been "absolutely reasonable and in the right direction", although they could have come quicker.

Putin had remained silent earlier this week on the rouble crash, which led Russians to rush to exchange their savings and splurge at stores to dump the national currency ahead of expected price rises.

The marathon news conference, held at a trade center in central Moscow, saw the Russian leader face hundreds of journalists from all over the country. More than 1,200 signed up to attend, according to the Kremlin.

Putin said that Western sanctions imposed over Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine have contributed "25 to 30 percent" to the current economic situation.

A total of 4,700 people have died so far in fighting between Kiev's forces and pro-Moscow separatists.

Putin made clear his position on Ukraine has not changed, branding Kiev's military campaign against Russian-backed rebels in the east a "punitive operation".

He said the West is targeting Moscow not because of the annexation of Crimea and support for the rebels, but because of its "Russia's wish to survive as a nation, as a civilization, as a state". He compared the situation to attackers trying to capture a bear.

"As soon as he is chained, they will pull his teeth and claws," Putin said, referring to Russia's need to retain a nuclear deterrent. "Then the bear won't be needed at all - they will make a stuffed dummy out of it."

In a lengthy bear metaphor, Putin asked, "Do we want to remain intact and fight? ... Or do we want our hide to be put on the wall?"

He compared NATO to an "empire" that treats other countries as "vassals who need to be vanquished".

Putin's ratings have remained sky-high so far. They hit 80 percent after Crimea held a controversial referendum on becoming part of Russia, and stayed up there despite Western accusations that the Kremlin has poured troops into regions of eastern Ukraine.

Putin avoided answering a question about the troop deployments, which Moscow denies, merely saying "people whose conscience calls them" were involved in the insurgency.

However, it is unclear how much support for Putin will ebb once people see their purchasing power erode. This support has been built on years of growing oil revenues and relative prosperity.

Asked whether he could lose the support of the elite and be ousted in a so-called palace coup, Putin said: "Calm down. We don't have palaces, therefore we cannot have a palace coup. "We have the Kremlin official residence. It's well protected, and this is also a factor of our state stability."