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Prominent Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov shot dead

Prominent Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov shot dead

By LAURA MILLS and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and opposition leader shot dead in Russia.

MOSCOW (AP) — Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Saturday near the Kremlin, just a day before a planned protest against the government.

The death of Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, ignited a fury among opposition figures who assailed the Kremlin for creating an atmosphere of intolerance of any dissent and called the killing an assassination. Putin quickly offered his condolences and called the murder a provocation.

Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia’s direct involvement in the separatist rebellion that erupted in eastern Ukraine last year. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons. Moscow denies the accusations.

Putin ordered Russia’s top law enforcement chiefs to personally oversee the probe of Nemtsov’s killing.

“Putin noted that this cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit and is extremely provocative,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.President Barack Obama called on Russia’s government to perform a “prompt, impartial and transparent” investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. Obama called Nemtsov a “tireless advocate” for the rights of Russian citizens.

Nemtsov assailed the government’s inefficiency, rampant corruption and the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy, which has strained relations between Russia and the West to a degree unseen since Cold War times.

Nemtsov said on radio just a few hours before his death criticized Putin for plunging Russia into the crisis by his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine.”

“The country needs a political reform,” Nemtsov said, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio. “When power is concentrated in the hands of one person and this person rules for ever, this will lead to an absolute catastrophe, absolute.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Nemtsov a personal friend and a “bridge” between the two countries. He said on his Facebook that he hopes the killers will be punished.Nemtsov’s lawyer Vadim Prokhorov said the politician had received threats on social networks and told police about them, but authorities didn’t take any steps to protect him.

The Russian Interior Ministry, which oversees Russia’s police force, said that Nemtsov was killed by four shots in the back from a passing car as he was walking over a bridge just outside the Kremlin shortly after midnight.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Alexeyeva told reporters that Nemtsov was walking with a female acquaintance, a Ukrainian citizen, when a vehicle drove up and unidentified assailants shot him dead. The woman wasn’t hurt.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister now also in opposition, said he was shocked.

“In the 21st century, a leader of the opposition is being demonstratively shot just outside the walls of the Kremlin!” Kasyanov told reporters as Nemtsov’s body placed in a plastic bag was removed on a rainy and cold night, as the Kremlin bells chimed nearby. “The country is rolling into the abyss.”Kasyanov said the rally organizers decided that instead of the planned demonstration on Moscow’s southeastern outskirts they will stage a demonstration in the center of the capital to commemorate Nemtsov.

Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who worked with Nemtsov to organize protests against Putin and now lives in the United States, tweeted: “Devastated to hear of the brutal murder of my long-time opposition colleague Boris Nemtsov. Shot 4 times, once for each child he leaves.”

Opposition activist Ilya Yashin said on Ekho Moskvy radio that he last spoke with Nemtsov two days before the killing.

Yashin said he had no doubt that Nemtsov’s murder was politically motivated.

“Boris Nemtsov was a stark opposition leader who criticized the most important state officials in our country, including President Vladimir Putin. As we have seen, such criticism in Russia is dangerous for one’s life,” he said.Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Ekho Mosvky radio station that he did not believe that Nemtsov’s death would in any way serve Putin’s interests.

“But the atmosphere of hatred toward alternative thinkers that has formed over the past year, since the annexation of Crimea, may have played its role,” Belkovsky said, referring to the surge of intense and officially endorsed nationalist discourse in Russia since it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Irina Khakamada, a prominent opposition figure who co-founded a liberal party with Nemtsov, blamed a climate of intimidation and warned that the murder could herald a dangerous destabilization.

“It’s a provocation that is clearly not in Putin’s interests, it’s aimed at rocking the situation,” she said in remarks carried by RIA Novosti news agency.

Nemtsov served as a deputy prime minister in the 1990s and once was seen as a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected president. After Putin was first elected in 2000, Nemtsov became one of the most vocal critics of his rule. He helped organize street protests and exposed official corruption.

He was one of the organizers of the Spring March opposition protest set for Sunday, which comes amid a severe economic downturn in Russia caused by low oil prices and Western sanctions.

Nemtsov said during a radio interview just before his death that it was hard to live under constant intimidation and pressure.

“I won’t hide the fact that the opposition is under strong pressure,” he said. “Lies are spread about the people, and one has to be a very strong person to cope with all this. I know this from my own experience.”

Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the top 10 most admired in U.S. Why?

Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the top 10 most admired in U.S. Why?

By Neal Gabler, Reuters

Vladimir Putin rides with enthusiasts during his visit to a bike festival in the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk

When Gallup issued its annual poll of the men Americans most admired in 2014, it featured two improbable names at No. 10: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All things considered, 2014 wasn’t a terribly good year for either.

Both found themselves embroiled in conflict and controversy. Both faced international opprobrium. And both exhibited a pugnacity that, diplomatically at least, was hardly considered admirable.

So how did Putin and Netanyahu wind up with enough admirers in this country to place them on the list? The simple answer may be that they exude certitude in an age that reveres it, and views it as strength.

This is the opposite of what we are taught in sophisticated college humanities courses — that certainty is the dominion of fools and knaves. There is no absolute truth, scholars insist, and even if there were, no one could claim a monopoly on it. We are taught to believe in ambiguity, accommodation and a certain kind of intellectual modesty — that just because we may feel something doesn’t make it true or right. This sort of modesty is regularly cited as one hallmark of great thinkers and great people. They understand their limitations.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

But in the real world, people do not necessarily find intellectual modesty admirable. What the hurly-burly of life seems to teach is that the one thing we can admire is a person’s sense of certitude — honoring deep conviction and an unwillingness to countenance doubt.

Putin and Netanyahu are, of course, very different, beginning with the fact that the first is a strongman who can impose his certitude on others while the second is not. But if they have one thing in common, this is it: Neither seems torn by internal struggle. Each projects absolute confidence in his own beliefs and visions.

It isn’t hard to understand why Americans might confuse certainty with strength, which is indeed admirable. Self-confidence is practically a secular religion in America, with everyone from Tony Robbins to Oprah Winfrey as the prefects. In the world of U.S. self-help, we hear endlessly that confidence and self-assurance are the magic elixirs to a productive and satisfying life. You can do anything if only you believe in yourself. You can invade Ukraine, for example, or resist international pressure to find some accommodation with the Palestinians.

john wayne
john wayne

In political terms, Putin and Netanyahu share a similar bravado — which is movie bravado. The kind that Americans found so appealing in John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger, neither of whose characters ever had a doubt cross their mind.

It isn’t necessarily that we believe in what Putin or Netanyahu are doing. Certainly, few Americans, quite likely even those who say they admire Putin, endorsed his annexation of Crimea. Their admiration must be for the chutzpah of it — for the willingness to act in a world so often paralyzed by inaction. It’s a vicarious thrill, even when the action is questionable. In a way, the admirers could be saying: “He’s wrong, but he’s strong.”

But if certainty has always had a powerful appeal, and if that appeal had been fortified by the self-help movement, it may now draw its greatest strength from the fact that a world of conflict, brinkmanship, inefficiency and moral vacancy — a world like ours — has had to devise a psychological antidote to the mess around us. That antidote is certainty, and we now live within a culture of certainty: We believe what we believe and no one can shake us from that. It is our anchor.

This isn’t only true of a Putin or a Netanyahu. One has only to watch cable news or listen to talk radio, both of which are beholden to certainty, to see that it has a bridgehead in the media, and one has only to read any string of comments on the Internet to see how certainty has been democratized.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swims in a lake in southern Siberia's Tuva region
Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Doubt is obsolete – an anachronism. No one seems to doubt his opinions anymore. The irony is that a culture of certainty contributes to the sense of paralysis because certainty not only precludes compromise; it turns anyone who disagrees into an enemy and every disagreement into Armageddon. Putin and Netanyahu, two of the most self-satisfied leaders in the world, also appear to be two of the most paranoid. Which leads to another irony. Certainty engenders conflict. It doesn’t resolve it.

But this sort of tough-talking swagger isn’t about political efficacy. It is about the aesthetics of leadership and about the charge we get out of seeing people try to make a video game out of reality. Putin and Netanyahu look and talk like tough guys. They cultivate the image, and though this gives a lot of people the willies, it evidently gives some people a sense of reassurance. There is some certainty in the world after all.

When everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, Putin and Netanyahu are there to tell us that they have the answers — and that John Wayne is alive and well in Moscow and Jerusalem.

Putin Obama dog leopard poodle
Putin-leopard, Obama-poodle

Putin sends Obama message in New Year’s speech

Putin sends Obama message in New Year’s speech

Putin Obama dog leopard poodle
Putin-leopard, Obama-poodle

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has used his New Year’s speech to hail his country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula as an achievement that will “forever remain a landmark in the national history.”

Putin’s comment in his pre-recorded annual address on Wednesday already has been broadcast in Russia’s far eastern regions, where the holiday was celebrated hours ahead of Moscow, given the time difference.

The Kremlin also published several dozen New Year’s messages that Putin has sent to heads of state and international organizations, including one to President Barack Obama.

Putin reminded Obama of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the allied victory in World War II, and said that should serve as a reminder of “the responsibility that Russia and the United States bear for maintaining peace and international stability.” Moscow is anxious for those bilateral relations to advance, but only as long as there is “equality and mutual respect.”

After Ukraine’s former Russia-friendly president was driven from power in February, Moscow sent troops to overtake Crimea, home to a Russian naval base. Those forces blocked Ukrainian military garrisons and set the stage for a hastily called referendum on Crimea joining Russia, which Ukraine and the West rejected as illegal.

The West has imposed crippling sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between the government troops and the rebels has killed more than 4,700 since April.

Under the combined blow of the sanctions and slumping oil prices, the Russian ruble has lost about half its value this year and the national economy has drifted into recession. Putin has promised that the economy will rebound in two years, but he has failed to offer a specific plan for easing Russia’s heavy dependence on oil and gas revenues.

In his speech, Putin praised Crimea’s “return home,” a view widely backed by many Russians who saw Ukraine’s control over the Black Sea region a historic injustice. Crimea only became part of Ukraine when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to his native land in 1954. That mattered little until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine.

Experts have warned that Putin’s popularity, which soared after the annexation of Crimea, could fizzle quickly amid his nation’s economic downturn. But the Russian leader refrained from directly referring to Russia’s economic woes in his New Year address, praising his citizens for their readiness to stay united “both in days of triumphs and at a time of trials” and to maintain their “unity and solidarity.”

Conviction of Putin foe sets off protest in Moscow

Conviction of Putin foe sets off protest in Moscow

Vladimir Putin Russian President
Vladimir Putin Russian President

MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin’s chief political foe was convicted along with his brother on Tuesday in a fraud case widely seen as retribution by the Kremlin, setting off one of Russia’s boldest anti-government demonstrations in years.

Police allowed the unsanctioned protest by several thousand people to proceed just outside Red Square for about two hours before moving in to push the rally away.

The demonstration came hours after Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner, was found guilty of fraud and given a suspended sentence of 3 ½ years. His brother was sent to prison.

The convictions are widely seen as a political vendetta by President Putin, who has shown little tolerance for dissent during his 15-year rule.

Navalny, who has been under house arrest since February, broke its terms to attend the rally and was rounded up by police as he approached the site. He later tweeted that police drove him home and blocked him from leaving his apartment.

The protesters, who gathered on the square, chanted: “We are the power!” and “You won’t be able to jail us all!” Some shouted slogans of support for Ukraine, which saw its Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia in March and has faced a pro-Russia insurgency in the east.

Alexei Mayorov, a security official in the Moscow mayor’s office, had warned that any attempt to hold a rally would be quickly blocked, but police allowed it to proceed for a while before pushing the protesters toward subway entrances. Police said they detained about 100 protesters.

Russian law requires demonstrators to receive official clearance for their actions and can impose heavy fines and prison sentences for those who disobey.

The provocateur punk group Pussy Riot had released a video supporting Tuesday’s demonstration, featuring four stylishly dressed women sweeping snow from the square, then mounting their brooms and flying off as witches across the Kremlin wall in a performance symbolizing protest.

Two of the performers, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, spent nearly two years in prison on charges of hooliganism for mounting an anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012, and won global fame.

Tuesday’s verdict had been scheduled for next month, but the court session was abruptly moved forward to the day before New Year’s Eve, the main holiday in Russia, in what was widely seen as an attempt to head off protests. Russia’s main nationwide state-controlled television stations refrained from reporting the verdict.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the US government is troubled by the verdicts against the Navalny brothers.

“The decision is a disturbing development in our view, and it appears to be designed to further punish and deter political activism. This appears to be another example of the Russian government’s growing crackdown on independent voices,” Rathke told reporters.

“And we also continue to be concerned about increasing restrictions on independent media, civil society, minority groups and the political opposition. We believe that the Russian people … deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.”

A European Union spokeswoman said the charges against the Navalny brothers hadn’t been substantiated during trial and that the guilty verdict against them “appeared to be politically motivated.”

“With the exception of a few selected representatives of the media, no public and international observers were allowed into the court building for the reading of the verdict,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement in Brussels.

Navalny and his younger brother Oleg were convicted of defrauding a French cosmetics company and given the same 3 ½ year sentence, but Oleg’s was not suspended. The court also fined each of them 500,000 rubles (about $8,800) and ordered them to pay some 4 million rubles ($77,000) in damages.

Oleg Navalny, the father of two small children and a former executive of the state-owned postal service, has never played a role in the Russian opposition movement and his imprisonment could echo the Soviet-era practice of punishing the relatives of inconvenient people.

“Aren’t you ashamed of what you’re doing? You want to punish me even harder?” Alexei Navalny shouted out as Judge Yelena Korobchenko handed down the sentence for his brother on Monday.

He briefly entered the metal cage that his brother was put into after the verdict and appeared to be holding back tears.

“This is the most disgusting and vile of all possible verdicts,” Alexei Navalny said outside the court.

“The government isn’t just trying to jail its political opponents _ we’re used to it; we’re aware that they’re doing it _ but this time they’re destroying and torturing the families of the people who oppose them,” he said, and called for people to attend the protest on Tuesday evening.

The suspended sentence means that it could be converted into a prison term at any time, by court order, in the event that Navalny offends again.

He has been under house arrest since February, and his lawyer Vadim Kobzev told The Associated Press that he will remain there until all appeals by either side are exhausted, which could take months.

Independent Moscow-based political analyst Masha Lipman said the verdict is a message to the entire Russian opposition: “All of you guys are at our mercy.”

Lipman said it was clear the Kremlin had decided not to make a martyr out of Navalny, with the aim “not to consolidate the opposition, but to demoralize and intimidate it.”

The trial seemed to be full of inconsistencies and loopholes.

The company involved, Yves Rocher, wrote a complaint to investigators about the Navalny brothers’ firm, but its representatives have insisted throughout the trial that there never were any damages. The French executive who wrote the complaint also left Russia shortly afterward and never attended the hearings.

The prosecutors insisted that the brothers forced the company “into disadvantageous contracts” and defrauded it of 26 million rubles (about $440,000).

Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger, rose to prominence with his investigations of official corruption and played a leading role in organizing massive anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 and 2012.

In a 2013 trial in a different criminal case, he was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to prison, but he was released the next day after thousands of people protested in the streets of Moscow. He was then handed a suspended sentence and finished a strong second in Moscow’s mayoral election in September 2013.

The verdict and sentencing add to anxiety over the Russian economy’s plunge this year.

Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who spent 10 years in jail before he was pardoned last year dismissed the verdict as Putin’s revenge for Navalny’s activism, adding that “Putin and his entourage are capable of vile tricks, deception, forgery and manipulation.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the verdict sends a message “to independent voices to expect a harsher crackdown in 2015.”

Russia gears up for sharp slump as bailed-out bank gets more funds

Russia gears up for sharp slump as bailed-out bank gets more funds

An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at a small private shop selling home appliances in Krasnoyarsk December 26, 2014. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at a small private shop selling home appliances in Krasnoyarsk December 26, 2014.

(Reuters) – Slumping oil prices have put Russia’s economy on course for a sharp recession next year, its finance minister said on Friday, as authorities scaled up the bailout of the first bank to succumb to the country’s currency crisis.

Russia’s economy is slowing sharply as Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis deter foreign investment and spur capital flight, and as a sharp slump in oil prices severely reduces Russia’s export revenues and pummels the rouble.

The government has taken steps to support key banks and address the deepening currency crisis in the past week, including a sharp and unexpected interest rate hike, but analysts are pessimistic on the outlook for both the economy and the rouble.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told journalists on Friday that the economy could shrink by 4 percent in 2015, its first contraction since 2009, if oil prices averaged their current level of $60 a barrel.

Siluanov also said the country would run a budget deficit of over 3 percent next year if the oil price did not rise.

Crude prices have almost halved from their June peak amid a global glut and a decision by producer group OPEC not to cut output. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it was prepared to withstand a prolonged period of low prices.

“We need to have our budget break even at $70 per barrel by 2017,” said Siluanov.

Russia’s government also imposed informal capital controls this week, including orders to large oil and gas exporters Gazprom (GAZP.MM) and Rosneft (ROSN.MM) to sell some of their dollar revenues in a bid to shore up the rouble.

Russians have kept a wary eye on the exchange rate since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when hyper-inflation wiped out their savings over several years in the early 1990s.

The slide in the rouble will inevitably lead to higher inflation next year, which after years of stability threatens President Vladimir Putin’s reputation for ensuring the country’s prosperity.

ROUBLE TROUBLE

The Russian currency slipped on Friday after hitting its strongest levels in more than three weeks earlier in the day,

At 1245 GMT, the rouble traded at over 54 per dollar, a sharp rebound from its recent all-time lows of 80 but still far weaker than the 30-35 range it was trading at in the first half of 2014.

“If oil goes down to $50 (per barrel)… I don’t think our authorities will be able to artificially maintain the (rouble) rate even with higher sales by exporters,” said the head of treasury at a major Russian bank, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to media.

On Friday, Russian authorities also significantly scaled up rescue funds for Trust Bank, saying they would provide up to $2.4 billion in loans to bail out the mid-sized lender. The falling rouble has prompted panic buying of foreign currency in Russia and a spike in deposit withdrawals, heaping pressure on a vulnerable domestic banking sector whose access to international capital markets had already been restricted by Western sanctions.

Credit agency Standard & Poor’s said this week it could downgrade Russia’s rating to junk as soon as January due to a rapid deterioration in “monetary flexibility” in the country.

Meanwhile Russian gold and forex reserves have fallen to their lowest levels since 2009. Last week, reserves dropped by as much as $15.7 billion to below $400 billion, down from over $510 billion at the start of the year.

Vladimir Putin Warns The U.S. Not To Provoke “The Bear”

Vladimir Putin Warns The U.S. Not To Provoke “The Bear”

Putin Warns The U.S. Not To Provoke "The Bear"

Vowing at the end of the year press conference in Russia that the economy would bounce back in two years, Vladimir Putin warns the US and the West to not provoke “the bear.”

Putin held his annual press conference in Russia on the very week that the ruble (Russian dollar) collapsed. Putin predicted that the Russian economy would recover in two years from the  looming recession, a severely weakened ruble, and growing fears about economic instability.

He avoided blaming the situation in the Ukraine or the flooding of the oil market by Saudi Arabia crashing the price per barrel on the biggest export of the Russian economy.

He instead says the US has re-ignited the Cold War, and warns the US about provoking “the bear”.

Putin drew an analogy with what would happen if “our most recognizable symbol … the bear who guards his Taiga (forest)”

“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.” (Foreign Policy Magazine)

He then went on to say that once they tore out the teeth and claws that the bear would no longer be necessary, and the people that chained the bear will turn it into a stuffed animal. He stated the issue is that they are not the aggressor in Crimea or elsewhere, but they are protecting their sovereignty and right to exist. He drew the analogy of Texas becoming part of the US after gaining independence from Mexico to show these sanctions placed on Russia were hypocritical.

In case there is any question from the Associated Press about what he meant by tooth and claw:

“He said by fang and claws he meant Russia’s Nuclear Weapons. And the West wants to weaken Russia to gain control over it’s vast natural resources.” (NBC)

He went on to say he would support the new Ukrainian President and that Russia is not the aggressor. He hopes all of Eastern Ukraine can live together in peace and called for a diplomatic solution to the problem. He also vowed that the Russian “bear” would not back down from protecting itself or its people against the aggressive policies of those that would exploit his country.

He ended the three hour press conference with a positive note.

“We will get through this period. It’s not easy, of course, but we will strengthen our position in the world economy,” he said. “The most important thing is to ensure social prosperity of people despite the cuts in income, the budget. And we can do that, we absolutely can.”(CNN)

Russian Nuclear Bombers Again Buzz Guam

Russian Nuclear Bombers Again Buzz Guam

Earlier aircraft incursions near Alaska and Europe

This Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006 file photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows an F-15C Eagle from the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, flying next to a Russian Tu-95 "Bear" bomber, right, during a Russian exercise which brought the bomber near the west coast of Alaska

Ruble crisis could shake Putin’s grip on power

Ruble crisis could shake Putin’s grip on power

BY TIMOTHY HERITAGE

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the inauguration of World Diamond Conference in New Delhi December 11, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the inauguration of World Diamond Conference in New Delhi December 11, 2014.

(Reuters) – Russia failed to halt the collapse of the ruble on Tuesday, leaving President Vladimir Putin facing a full-blown currency crisis that could weaken his iron grip on power.

A 6.5 percentage point interest rate rise to 17 percent overnight failed to prevent the currency hitting record lows in a “perfect storm” of low oil prices, looming recession and Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

Putin has blamed the ruble’s crash on speculators and the West, while a presidential spokesman on Tuesday attributed the market turbulence to “emotions and a speculative mood”.

The rouble lost 11 percent against the dollar on Tuesday, its steepest one-day fall since the Russian financial crisis in 1998. It has fallen 20 percent since the start of the week and more than 50 percent this year.

As Moscow faced up to the brewing crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said sanctions could be lifted swiftly if Putin takes more steps to ease tensions and lives up to commitments under ceasefire accords to end the Ukraine conflict.

“These sanctions could be lifted in a matter of weeks or days, depending on the choices that President Putin takes,” Kerry told reporters in London.

Keeping the pressure on Moscow, President Barack Obama was expected to sign legislation this week authorizing new sanctions on Russia over its activities in Ukraine and providing weapons to the Kiev government, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

But he has said he does not want to take new steps that are not synchronized with European partners.

For the Russian economy, the currency crisis means a deeper recession is more likely next year as high interest rates will crimp growth. For businesses, it means more uncertainty and less access to funding. For the central bank, it means a credibility crisis.

For Putin, it increases the risk of losing two of the main pillars on which his support is based – financial stability and prosperity – and brings an unwelcome policy headache at a time when relations with the West are also in crisis over Ukraine.

“Putin rode the wave of higher oil prices in the years after he came to power, but there is no question that the economics will start to adversely impact the politics,” said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy in London.

“The pieces are falling into place to start to affect the political sustainability of this regime,” he told Reuters.

Putin, who rose to power at the end of 1999, has enjoyed popularity ratings above 80 percent since Russia reclaimed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in March. He has no obvious rivals, with critics accusing him of smothering dissent, and much of the state’s big business is in his allies’ hands.

There has been little or no sign of panic from a public that gets most of its news from state media that propagate Putin’s view that Russia is under attack from speculators and the West.

Unlike the scenes of chaos during the country’s financial crisis in 1998, Tuesday morning saw no scramble at currency exchange points and no panic buying of food. There have been almost no protests.

But opinion pollsters say discontent with the ruble’s fall and deepening economic gloom will gradually hit the emerging middle class in the big cities and then spread to his support base in the provinces.

“I think he has a store of support that can last 1-1/2 to two years,” Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, an independent polling group, said by telephone. “We will see the first signs of discontent in the spring.”

Putin is aware that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, resigned early after a financial crisis and that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s grip on power slipped as the economy crumbled.

LIMITED OPTIONS

Such a time frame means Putin, the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the central bank governor, Elvira Nabiullina, need to act fast. But their options are limited.

Medvedev met with top central bank and government officials on Tuesday to discuss the situation, according to the government’s website.

The central bank has now made three significant interest rate rises in two months – 1.5 percentage points in October, 1 percentage point last week and the 6.5 points overnight.

But, the impact has been minimal.

Russian officials say the advantage of a weaker currency is that exports of oil, metals, grain and natural gas will earn more rubles than before – feeding government revenues.

But it makes international debt payments much more expensive in rouble terms and a credit crunch is looming in 2015, when Russian companies and banks are scheduled to repay $120 billion in debts.

This will be even harder because access to global capital markets is restricted by sanctions over Ukraine, and year-end foreign debt redemptions are looming for this year as well.

Russian officials have said repeatedly the country will not impose capital controls although many analysts say this looks inevitable. Capital flight is expected to be far above $100 billion in 2014 and 2015.

But the central bank can ill afford to keep drawing on gold and foreign currency reserves to prop up the ruble. The reserves have already sunk to around $416 billion compared to more than $509 billion at the start of the year.

Putin is left relying on a sharp rise in the oil price. It is currently below $60 a barrel, while a price of around $100 is needed for the state budget to balance.

At a Moscow currency exchange kiosk, the money changer asked for 85 rubles for a dollar, though the rate given on the door was 80 and the official rate was 60.

“I can’t keep up, changing the rates advertised. Things change every minute. People come and take whatever anyway. No one wants to be left with rubles now,” said a worker, who declined to be identified, at one currency exchange point.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Alexander Winning and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sophie Walker)

Obama: Literally Spanked in Russian Art

Obama: Literally Spanked in Russian Art

Artists hold nothing back in mocking U.S. president

Vladimir Putin spanks Barack Obama in "Targeted Sanctions," part of a new art gallery in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin spanks Barack Obama in “Targeted Sanctions,” part of a new art gallery in Moscow. (Photos courtesy Gazeta.ru)

While many artists in Moscow appear to fawn over Russian President Vladimir Putin in a brand-new exhibit, apparently they don’t have the same affection for U.S. President Barack Obama.

The political gallery titled “No Filters” opened Friday in Moscow, featuring the work of some 100 cartoonists.

Most of the caricatures depict Putin in a positive light, as a strong, savvy, global chess master, while Obama appears to be a dishonest, political midget who is weak, tuckered out and even harms the environment.

One striking image titled “Targeted Sanctions” shows Putin as a father figure holding Barack Obama, who has the body of a boy, over his knee to deliver a spanking. The caricature pokes fun at America’s economic strategy against Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Another takes the “Star Wars” route, featuring Putin as a virile Luke Skywalker and Obama as Darth Vader. Putin points to Obama’s light saber to let him know it has gone limp.

obama-putin-artwork-darth-vader-600

A third image depicts Obama and Putin both watering a tree. On the Putin side of the tree, the tree and its surrounding environment is green and fertile; but on the Obama side of the tree, there is a toxic wasteland atop a stack of human skulls.

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Some of the other images include:

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obama-putin-artwork-globe-600

obama-putin-artwork-woman-selfie-600

More of the artwork can be seen at Gazeta.ru.