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Putin Says Russian Bear Isn’t About to Sit Back and Just Eat Berries and Honey

Putin remains defiant in face of economic collapse.

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The year 2014 was supposedly one in which a chess-playing Vladimir Putin outsmarted the checkers-playing West. But even with Crimea in Russian hands, it ends on what must surely be a sour note for the Russian president. His country’s economy is in a tail-spin amid Western sanctions. The ruble is tanking. And Russian meddling in Ukraine now looks less cunning and more blundering.

That didn’t stop Putin from striking a defiant, weirdly metaphorical note when he addressed a massive crowd of at least 1,200 journalists crammed into Moscow’s World Trade Center. “Sometimes I think that maybe it would be best if our bear just sat still. Maybe he should stop chasing pigs and boars around the taiga but start picking berries and eating honey,” Putin said, using the metaphor of the bear as a stand-in for Russia. “Maybe then he will be left alone. But no, he won’t be! Because someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained they will tear out his teeth and claws. In this analogy, I am referring to the power of nuclear deterrence.”

In his first public comments since Tuesday’s collapse of the ruble, Putin vowed that the Russian economy would rebound and stabilize within two years from the current crisis. He assured his jittery public that he has a plan to pull Russia out of crisis, even if that plan was short on details.

Known for its marathon length, Russian Putin’s annual press conference has become a widely-watched spectacle that serves as a platform for the leader to showcase the country’s progress, thumb his nose at the West, and roll out carefully-designed phrases designed to underscore his own machismo. Though Putin came to power pledging to put an end to the economic crises that plagued the Russian economy in the late 1990s, on Thursday he showed no sign of mollifying his confrontational stance toward the West, though he did once more call for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine.

This year’s presser was highly anticipated, with both markets and the public eager to hear Putin’s response to the country’s sundry crises. Earlier this week, the Russian media hyped the conference like an action movie with a series of Michael Bay-style trailers.

These are actual trailers broadcast across the country ahead of the press conference.

The Russian president was pressed with some hard questions. One Russian journalist referenced corruption within Putin’s inner circle, asking him how much Igor Sechin, one of the president’s closest allies and the current head of Rosneft, the state oil company, made in a year. Putin carefully dodged the question, saying that Sechin was an effective manager and that he did not know his salary.

Putin remained his usual charismatic self for the three-hour event, joking with reporters and smiling to the cameras. And while Russia’s economy might be on the brink of collapse, the president’s popularity is still intact. On Tuesday, for the 15th consecutive year, Putin was named Russia’s “Man of the Year.” According to a poll released Thursday from Russia’s Levada Center, the Russian leader’s approval rating remains around 80 percent.

On Monday, the Bank of Russia predicted that the Russian economy may contract between 4.5 and 4.7 percent next year if oil prices remain at their current low levels. With the Russian economy already being hammered by Western sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea, the drop in oil prices, which are now hovering around $60 per barrel, has further strained Russian performance.

Putin confidently stated that an economic rebound was in the cards within two years, but the Russian leader failed to identify concrete measures that he planned to take and made vague references to the strong global demand for energy — despite a demonstrable decline in demand for oil and gas.

“It is equally certain — and I would like to stress this — that there will be what experts call a positive rebound,” Putin said, referring to his domestic economy. “A growing world economy will require additional energy resources. However, by that time I have no doubt that we will be able to do a great deal to diversify our economy, because life itself will force us to do it. There is no other way we could function.”

Putin’s words failed to rally the slumping market. The ruble continued to weaken Thursday against the dollar and euro. Russian central bankers have this week intervened in the market to prop up the currency, following a sharp hike in interest rates Monday, from 10.5 to 17 percent.

In all, the Central Bank has spent more than $80 billion in foreign reserves this year to halt the ruble’s slide. Tuesday saw the Russian currency hit a low of 80 to the dollar, sparking a frenzy across the country as Russians moved quickly to buy goods and appliances that would hold their value, rather than watch their savings depreciate.

Russia’s current economic isolation, Putin argued, should be used to make Russia’s economy more independent.

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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