Putin: West is trying to 'defang' the Russian bear

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Putin addresses falling ruble
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Putin: West is trying to 'defang' the Russian bear
In an annual news conference Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the country’s economic woes would last no longer than two years. Mr. Putin also struck a harsh tone about tensions with the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian police officers detain protesters who were going planning on asking Vladimir Putin their own questions at today's news conference, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A woman watches Russian President Vladimir Putin on TV screens in a street side cafe in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a question during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
A woman walks under a board listing foreign currency rates against the Russian ruble outside an exchange office in central Moscow, on December 17, 2014. Russia scrambled on December 17, 2014 to halt a run on the ruble, selling billions of reserves to prop up the currency in the worst economic crisis of President Vladimir Putin's 15 years in power. AFP PHOTO / YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. Putin says Russia has sufficient currency reserves and that the ruble will recover. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
A woman walks past the head office of the Central Bank in Moscow on December 17, 2014. Russia scrambled on December 17 to halt a run on the ruble, selling billions of reserves to prop up the currency in the worst economic crisis of President Vladimir Putin's 15 years in power. AFP PHOTO / YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at the cash registry inside a Forever 21 fashion store in the Afimall shopping mall during the festive retail period in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Currencies are tumbling after holding steady since President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in March. Russia's deepening crisis and the ruble's 34 percent slump over the past six months hurt economies that rely on remittances and imports from the country. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during his annual address to the Federal council (the two houses of the Russian parliament) in the Kremlin in Moscow on December 4, 2014 AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
GERMANY, BONN - DECEMBER 02: Hand with russian ruble banknotes and a framed Putin photo in the background, on December 02, 2014 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)
People walk past a sign advertising currency exchange rates at an exchange office in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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MOSCOW (AP) - Vowing never to let the West defang his proud nation, President Vladimir Putin promised Thursday to fix Russia's economic woes within two years by diversifying and voiced confidence that the plummeting ruble will soon recover.

In a live, three-hour news conference that has become a Putin holiday tradition, the Russian leader demonstrated unwavering confidence in his domestic policies despite the catastrophic collapse in the ruble. His fierce defiance toward the United States flared throughout as he insisted the West was trying to destroy Russia to grab Siberia's great natural resources.

This year Putin held his televised extravaganza from a particularly strong vantage point: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Thursday showed his approval rating among Russians stood at 81 percent - a level far above the ratings for other world leaders.

Putin accompanied his message with trademark images of Russian pride, with video showing him surrounded by Sochi Olympic athletes, petting a baby tiger and greeting Russian cosmonauts. And his most stirring quotes evoked a famed Russian symbol - the bear.

In his speech, the man who has led Russia for 15 years sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as fixing the ruble's rate or obliging exporters to sell hard currency, to help stabilize the battered currency.

Putin said the nation's hard currency reserves are sufficient to keep the economy stable, adding the Central Bank should not aimlessly "burn" its $419 billion in reserves.

"Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances, I think it will take about two years," he said.

Putin also acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Moscow's actions in Ukraine were just one factor behind Russia's economic crisis, estimating they accounted for roughly 25 to 30 percent of the ruble's troubles. He said a key reason for the currency's fall was Russia's failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

After Putin finished his performance, the Russian currency traded at 60 rubles to the dollar late Thursday, the same level as Wednesday. Still, the currency has lost about half its value since January.

Russia's benchmark MICEX index rallied 4.3 percent by late afternoon Thursday, but consumers voted with their feet, buying cars, electronics and home appliances in a desperate attempt to protect their savings before prices go up.

Audi was the latest major company to suspend deliveries in Russia amid the ruble's turmoil. Apple halted online sales earlier this week.

Putin struck a defiant note against the United States and the 28-nation European Union, saying the sanctions they slapped on Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia. He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia's sovereignty, saying the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.

To get his point across, he brought in the metaphorical Russian bear.

"Sometimes I think, maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace," said Putin. "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."

By fangs and claws, Putin said he meant Russia's nuclear weapons, which are protecting its valuable natural resources.

"Once they've taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He'll become a stuffed animal," he said. "The issue is not Crimea. The issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist."

Putin urged a political solution for the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving more than 4,700 people dead.

He said Ukraine must remain one political entity, meaning that its pro-Russian, rebellious eastern regions should not break away. He also suggested the two sides hold a prisoner swap before Christmas.

Yet he defended Russia's increased military activities, including stepped-up Russian military flights in the Baltics that NATO says are putting civilian flights at risk, as a necessary response to what he described as aggressive Western action.

"We aren't on the offensive, we aren't attacking anyone, we are only defending our interests," he said.

Putin said he was sure that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sincerely wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis but other forces in Ukraine don't. He urged the Ukrainian government to grant amnesty to the rebels and offer broad rights to eastern residents.

Putin said Russia wants to have normal economic and security ties with the West but wants to cooperate on equal terms.

In Brussels, the EU beefed up its sanctions against Russia with a ban Thursday on investment in Crimea and other economic penalties, including measures aimed at keeping tourists away.

Beginning Saturday, Europeans and EU-based companies cannot buy real estate or businesses in Crimea, finance Crimean companies or supply services. EU operators will no longer be allowed to offer tourism services to Crimea's Black Sea beaches or other destinations. Cruise ships owned by any EU-based companies or flying an EU member state's flag will also no longer be allowed to call at Sevastopol or other Crimean ports except in an emergency.

Despite his strong rhetoric, Putin still held out hope for normalizing ties with the West, saying Russia stands ready to expand its gas supplies to southern Europe using a prospective hub on Turkey's border.

Turning to the ruble's collapse, he said the government should work with exporters to help stabilize the plummeting currency but not through formal orders. He said he had talked to the leaders of some of Russia's major companies to encourage them to sell more rubles - and one promised to sell $3 billion to help stabilize the currency.

Putin shrugged off the dangers of any "palace coup" by some of his lieutenants amid Russia's economic crisis, noting his broad public support. He also raised the performance of Igor Sechin, his longtime confidant who heads the Rosneft state-controlled oil giant, ignoring a question about Sechin's hefty paycheck.

In an apparent goodwill gesture hours before the press conference, a Russian tycoon under house arrest since September, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, was released.

Shares in Sistema, a company that Yevtushenkov controls and manages, shot up more than 100 percent on Moscow's MICEX stock exchange on Putin's words that he hopes that the company will regain its stance on the market.

One of Sistema's most lucrative assets - the oil company Bashneft - was transferred to the government this month, but Putin said money-laundering charges against Yevtushenkov have been dropped.

See more images of Putin's hobbies and antics below.

26 PHOTOS
Putin with a persian leopard and doing other rugged things, like fishing
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Putin: West is trying to 'defang' the Russian bear
In this Oct. 9, 2008 file photo a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, outside Moscow. Putin said on TV Thursday Dec. 16, 2010 he loves Buffy, his new puppy, even though the Belgian shepherd leaves puddles and piles around the house. Putin, who was referred to as "Alpha Dog" by U.S. diplomats in a leaked diplomatic cable published recently by WikiLeaks, is in his element around animals. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ia seen riding a horse while traveling in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia, during his short vacation. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. As the campaign for Austrian general elections enters its grueling final phase, two leading contenders have gone beyond rolling up their shirt sleeves: They’ve taken off their shirts. Giving new meaning to a chest-to-chest race, the topless duel between populist candidate Frank Stronach and Heinz-Christian Strache who heads of the anti-immigrant and EU-skeptic Freedom Party reflects the intensity of the battle between the two for the protest vote in the Sept. 29 elections. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 file pool photo then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a tranquilizer gun in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE In this Sept. 2010 photo released on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin carries a hunting rifle during his trip in Ubsunur Hollow in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), on the border with Mongolia, Russia. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Government Press Service, file)
File - In this file photo taken on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin locks a collar with a satellite tracker on the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East as he took a part in the national program for preserving the population of the Ussuri tiger conducted by researchers of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Animal-loving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been accused of staging his famous encounter with a tigress three years ago. St. Petersburg-based environmentalists Dmitry Molodtsov says that photos of the animal that Putin tagged with a GPS collar in 2008 and subsequent images of what preservationists claimed was the same tigress in fact showed two different animals, indicating that Putin's tigress never was let out into the wild. Molodtsov claimed Friday that Putin's tigress was borrowed from a local zoo for the occasion. A coordinator at the government-funded Amur tiger conservation project dismissed his claim as untrue.(AP Photo / RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)
In this Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 file photo Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, looks at the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger as researchers put a collar with a satellite tracker on the animal in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. Russia's animal-loving leader Vladimir Putin has been accused of staging his famous encounter with a tigress three years ago. St. Petersburg-based environmentalist Dmitry Molodtsov says that photos of the animal that Putin tagged with a GPS collar in 2008 and subsequent images of what preservationists claimed was the same tigress in fact showed two different animals, indicating that Putin's tigress never was let out into the wild. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, file)
In this Aug. 31, 2008 file photo Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a head of the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger as a researcher puts a collar with a satellite tracker on the animal in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. Putin said on TV Thursday Dec. 16, 2010 he loves Buffy, his new puppy, even though the Belgian shepherd leaves puddles and piles around the house. Putin, who was referred to as "Alpha Dog" by U.S. diplomats in a leaked diplomatic cable published recently by WikiLeaks, is in his element around animals. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, File)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poses with a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday.(AP Photo. RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, pool)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poses with a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday.(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, pool)
A two and a half-month-old female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks on at the Novo Ogaryovo, residence of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, unseen, outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday. (AP Photo. RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)
In this Sept. 1, 2013 file photo, a Siberian tiger prowls at the Federal Center for rehabilitation of rare species of animals in the village of Alexeyevka in the Russian Far East during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit. A rare Siberian tiger released into the wild by Russian President Vladimir Putin is keeping farmers in northeastern China on edge. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, that the animal, named Ustin, bit and killed 15 goats and left another three missing on Sunday and Monday on a farm in Heilongjiang province's Fuyuan county. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service, File)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin pets a snow leopard cub at the snow leopard sanctuary in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Putin checked in Tuesday at a preserve for endangered snow leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the growing torrent of activity in Sochi for the Winter Games. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a big pike he caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a big pike he caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with a huntsman holding a big pike Putin caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
** FILE ** In this Aug. 15, 2007 file photo Vladimir Putin, then Russian President, fishes in the headwaters of the Khemchik River in the Tuva region of Siberia, Russia. In its September "Sexy Rating" list, Russia's Sex & the City magazine ranked now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the second sexiest politician. Ahead of the pack is Boris Nemtsov, a former leader of opposition party Union of the Right Forces now viewed by many as a spent force. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service, File)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. A sign in the spoon-bait reads ?zar Fish. Using this soon-bait Putin managed to catch a 21-kilogram pike. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
FILE - In this Sept. 2010 photo released on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin carries a hunting rifle during his trip in Ubsunur Hollow in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), on the border with Mongolia, Russia. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swims while traveling in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia, during his short vacation. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE In this Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012 file photo Russian President Vladimir Putin flies in a motorized hang glider alongside two Siberian white cranes, on the Yamal Peninsula, in Russia. Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
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