When Vladimir Putin was given a dire forecast of the economy under the cloud of a crippling coronavirus pandemic and a sharp fall in global demand for petroleum,
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“For our economy, yes definitely, this is a very serious challenge,” Putin told Audit Chamber head Aleksei Kudrin on April 1, adding that the United States, which recently surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer, would also suffer.
Moscow engaged in a bit of chest-thumping about its chances in a price war, arguing that Russia was in a stronger position than its main competitors to ride it out.
But that was before the true impact of the coronavirus on the global economy was understood, and before Kudrin — a former finance minister and trusted ally — told Putin in a government meeting held by video that the Russian economy could decline this year by between 3 and 5 percent.
And that was a moderate outlook, according to Kudrin, who went on to warn that the situation could be as bad as the nearly 8 percent decline the country suffered in 2009 during the financial crisis.
When faced with slumping oil demand as the global economy suffered from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Riyadh’s demands for output cuts were refused by fellow OPEC+ member Moscow. After walking away from the table, the Saudis instead took the surprising route of increasing oil output, causing the largest one-day drop in prices in nearly three decades.
Putin’s comment is one sign that Russia, which always expressed openness to continue negotiations with Riyadh, may be keen on coming to an agreement. “Today’s acknowledgement by Putin shows Russia is interested in the dialogue process and wants to go ahead with it,” Rauf Mammadov, an energy analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL on April 1.
From the beginning, the price war has raised questions about who would cave first: Moscow, Riyadh, or U.S. production, which depends on shale-oil producers that have gained market share at the expense of Russia and Saudi Arabia but require higher oil prices to stay in business.
Russia is now preparing to ramp up spending to support millions of citizens and thousands of companies affected by quarantines and shutdowns. The Kremlin has thus far announced an increase of spending by $17.5 billion to counter the outbreak.
But according to Kudrin, the country may need to spend 5 percent of gross domestic product — or about $70 billion — to combat the impact of the coronavirus, which Russia has officially said has infected more than 3,500 people, but which skeptics suggest is a low-ball figure.
Those costs will be difficult to cover if oil prices are low — but on April 2, the price of Russia’s Urals crude blend fell below $11 a barrel, the lowest since Putin came to power two decades ago. The international benchmark Brent crude, meanwhile, was going for just over $26 a barrel on April 2, whereas Russia depends on a price of about $40 a barrel to balance its budget.
Russia as of March 20 had $551 billion in foreign-currency reserves at its disposal, although economists suggested that Putin would prefer not to tap into them. In just one week, however, those reserves had already fallen by $30 billion.
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