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Bleak Assessments of Russian Economy Contradict Putin’s Rosy Claims

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APRIL 18, 2022

Contrary to President Vladimir Putin’s optimism, two senior Russian officials cautioned on Monday that the real economic pain was yet to come. – Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Russia’s central bank chief warned on Monday that the consequences of Western sanctions were only beginning to be felt, and Moscow’s mayor warned that 200,000 jobs were at risk in the Russian capital alone, stark acknowledgments that undermined President Vladimir V. Putin’s contention that sanctions had failed to destabilize the Russian economy.

The diverging assessments showed how the impact of the West’s sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and their ability to weaken Mr. Putin’s grip on power — remains uncertain nearly two months into the war.

While experts say Russia faces an economic time bomb as its inventory of imported goods and parts runs low, Mr. Putin is using the fact that the Russian economy has not yet collapsed to bolster his contention that sanctions will not deter him.

Western sanctions, Mr. Putin said on Monday in a televised videoconference with senior officials, were meant to “rapidly undermine the financial and economic situation in our country, provoke panic in the markets, the collapse of the banking system and a large-scale shortage of goods in stores.”

“But we can already confidently say that this policy toward Russia has failed,” he went on. “The strategy of an economic blitzkrieg has failed.”

Mr. Putin was in part addressing a domestic audience, seeking to reassure Russians who have had to endure worries about cash shortages, a battered stock market and the shuttering of popular Western retailers like Ikea.

Mr. Putin said he was prepared to increase government spending to stimulate the economy, an indication that continued revenues from energy exports are giving the Kremlin the flexibility to soften the blow of sanctions.

Aggressive capital controls imposed by the central bank have helped the ruble recover from its crash in the days after the invasion, though economists question the reasoning behind defending currency’s value. And there are few reports of major layoffs or of extensive food shortages in grocery stores.

But contrary to Mr. Putin’s optimism, two senior officials cautioned on Monday that the real economic pain was yet to come. Mayor Sergei S. Sobyanin of Moscow announced a $40 million program to help people laid off by foreign companies find temporary employment and new jobs; according to his office’s estimates, he said, “around 200,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs” in the city of 13 million.

Mr. Sobyanin wrote in a blog post that the newly unemployed can work in the city’s parks, service centers and public health pavilions, “an opportunity to do useful work and acquire new skills.”

In an appearance at the lower house of Parliament, Elvia Nabiullina, the chairwoman of the Russian Central Bank, gave a more far-reaching, negative assessment. She told lawmakers that while the sanctions’ impact had largely been on the financial markets at first, they “will now begin to increasingly affect the real sectors of the economy.”

For example, she said, “practically every product” manufactured in Russia relies on imported components. Factories for now may still have them in stock. But because of new Western export restrictions, Russian companies will be forced to shift their supply chains or start making their own components.

“At the moment, perhaps this problem is not yet so strongly felt, because there are still reserves in the economy, but we see that sanctions are being tightened almost every day,” she said. “But the period during which the economy can live on reserves is finite.”

Ms. Nabiullina, an internationally respected central banker who reportedly tried to resign in the days after the war, said about half of the central bank’s $600 billion foreign currency and gold reserves remained frozen because of sanctions. Those reserves that the bank still controlled, she said, were mainly gold and yuan — of little use in trying to stabilize the ruble — forcing the bank to resort to capital controls like limiting how much foreign currency can be taken out of the country.

In his televised videoconference later in the day with Ms. Nabiullina and several other officials, Mr. Putin acknowledged that the Russian economy did face some problems, including inflation. He said he had already directed the pensions and salaries of state employees — part of Mr. Putin’s political base — to be adjusted for inflation and indicated that he supported greater government spending to stimulate the economy.

“The budget should actively support the economy, saturate the economy with financial resources, and maintain its liquidity,” Mr. Putin said. “There are opportunities for this. Of course, we need to act carefully.”

But as he has in the past, Mr. Putin couched the acknowledgment of economic challenges in Russia with the insistence that its adversaries are faring far worse. He told officials on Monday that because of its sanctions against Russia, the West was seeing “the growth of inflation and unemployment” and “the decline in the standard of living of Europeans.”

It was an echo of a common refrain on Russian state television, which has been airing frequent reports on rising energy prices in Europe and the United States. The Kremlin’s message to the Russian public is that it is only a matter of time before Western unity over the invasion of Ukraine collapses.

On Sunday, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the vice chairman of Mr. Putin’s Security Council, wrote in a social media post that “hyperinflation” in Europe would soon stoke protests in the form of “smelly bonfires made of tires on the streets of well-groomed European cities.”

He added: “Then the Brussels aunts and uncles will have to change their rhetoric.”


Courtesy/Source: NY Times

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