Some 1,200 journalists packed into a hall to hear Vladimir Putin’s year-end press conference today, which came amidst Russia’s worst financial crisis since its 1998 default. The world watched for clues on how the Russian president would respond in particular to the collapse of the ruble, which is roiling savers, shoppers, and companies throughout the country.
In the end, Putin spoke for a bit more than three hours, about an hour less than last year. Facing a mix of fawning and forceful questions from the press pack, he attacked his critics, dodged awkward issues, and told a few jokes. Using the preferred gauge of the moment—the ruble versus the dollar—below are some of the highlights of Putin’s speech, and what the markets made of them at the time.
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Ahead of the press conference, which began around noon in Moscow (9am GMT), the ruble followed its usual twitchy path—up 2%, down 5%—before settling more or less unchanged on the day.
The ruble slipped a bit during Putin’s opening remarks. He said that Russia’s current economic woes were “provoked primarily by external factors.” In general, Russia’s central bank is “acting adequately” in response, and the same things that got Russia out of the global financial crisis in 2008 will be successful again today, he added. Worst-case scenario, it will take two years before the economy grows again, he said: “Inevitably the situation will return to normal.”
The ruble slumped to an intraday low as Putin addressed the first few questions, which dealt with—what else?—the economy.
The government and central bank could have acted sooner to steady the economy, he said. On the public criticism of central bank chief Elvira Nabiullina, “some of it is justified, some is not,” he added. (As an aside, one of Nabiullina’s predecessors was recently asked what he would do if he was in her position, and said “I would ask for a gun and shoot myself.”)
The talk then turned to Ukraine. Putin noted that Russia was ready to help usher in a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. And then came the quote of the day, in response to another question about whether Russia’s current woes were a direct result of its annexation of Crimea. It is worth reproducing in full:
You know, at the Valdai [International Discussion] Club I gave an example of our most recognizable symbol. It is a bear protecting his taiga [forest]. You see, if we continue the analogy, 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. 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. As soon as—God forbid—it happens and they no longer need the bear, the taiga will be taken over.
Putin later likened the takeover of Crimea to the US annexation of Texas from Mexico. Encouraged by a somewhat conciliatory tone on Ukraine, or just impressed by the bear analogy, the ruble rallied.
“As far as I know, the government and central bank are not going to place limits on exporters and that’s the right thing to do,” Putin said. Amid fears of capital controls or other draconian measures to keep capital from fleeing the country, this also calmed the markets.
A testy response to a question from the BBC about a “new Cold War” saw Putin note that Russia only has two military bases abroad, in contrast to America’s far-flung arsenal—”And it is Russia that is being aggressive?” The US defense budget is 10 times larger than Russia’s. The West’s sanctions are “completely illegitimate and illegal,” he said.
On a completely different note, Putin, a bachelor, was then asked about his love life. “Everything is just fine, please don’t worry,” he said. “I have people who love me.”
A hard-hitting question about whether the release of billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov—who was put under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering after his oil company, Bashneft, was nationalized—signaled a change in the rules for businesses. Putin didn’t answer directly, but said that Yevtushenkov would be invited to a meeting of business leaders later this year—suggesting that he (and possibly other out-of-favor oligarchs) is no longer on the Kremlin’s bad side. Shares in Sistema, the holding company controlled by the billionaire, more than doubled in trading today.
Three hours in, Putin turns to conspiracy theories. Why is the price of oil falling? The US and Saudi Arabia are conspiring to hurt Iran and Russia, he suggests. He stressed the strengthening ties between Russia and Iran, China, Turkey, and Central Asia.
Wrapping up, he says it is “too early” to decide whether he will run again for president in 2018. He doesn’t think about his approval ratings, he says. With more than $400 billion in reserves, social programs are safe. The economy will adapt to the lower price of oil. “Thank you for your attention. Happy New Year!”
The ruble fell against the dollar during Putin’s speech, but not by much when compared with the sharp moves of earlier in the week. The markets won’t take away much from the president’s musings on parking tickets in Moscow, the promotion of a regional soda, and how to help Russian children become more patriotic—all subjects addressed during the marathon Q&A session—but there was plenty of more substantive material, if no real bombshells, to chew on over the coming days.