Putin takes on disarming tone with West as oil prices plunge

Oil bounces as traders buy dips
Oil bounces as traders buy dips

Russian President Vladimir Putin's tone is sounding more conciliatory toward the West these days, and there may be more of that coming.

With oil prices reaching lows for the last decade, the ruble tumbling, and U.S. and European sanctions continuing to take a toll on some of Russia's most important economic sectors, some are questioning whether an opportunity is opening for the United States and European Union to get concessions from Russia on multiple geopolitical fronts.

Putin exhibited a disarming manner in a recent set of interviews with Germany's Bild magazine, saying among other things that he would like to see Russia take part again in meetings of the G-8, the Western-dominated political bloc whose members account for almost half of the global economy. He also said he hopes to see greater cooperation between Russia and NATO.

"He's hoping to rebuild relations with Europe, to be sure, and Japan too ... as he doesn't want to be too reliant on China," which will drive a hard bargain with Russia on a variety of issues while they're in a favorable position, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer told CNBC.

Putin has admitted that low energy prices have led to "dangerous revenue losses," since Russia relies on oil and gas exports as the main drivers of its economy. The country's gross domestic product began shrinking in 2015, with the most recent figures showing a 4.1 percent year-over-year contraction to GDP for the third quarter.

Instead of acceding to Western demands in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, Putin's first option for dealing with oil at below $32 a barrel is and will be to impose major domestic spending cuts, said Robert Legvold, the Marshall D. Shulman professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University.

"Putin and his colleagues count on the economy returning to low positive growth by the second half of the year — which I believe is too optimistic, but probably still leaves them believing they can tough it out," Legvold said.

According to International Monetary Fund data, Russia's official reserve assets stood at around $365 billion as of November. But those totals, Legvold said, "include Russia's two sovereign wealth funds that were about $75 billion at the beginning of last year, and they burned through half of that dealing with the budget deficit and efforts to manage the ruble exchange rate."

To be sure, it does not appear that any sort of Russian economic collapse is imminent.

"He is far from desperate," Bremmer said. There's more opening for dialogue, particularly on Syria" — where Russia is at odds with the West over a vicious, three-way civil war — "but Putin's not suddenly becoming an easy mark because oil has crashed."

Still, wealthy Russian and foreign investors have been worried for some time about Russia's deteriorating economic situation.

Edward Mermelstein, a New York attorney who advises high net worth individuals in Russia and the former Soviet Union, told CNBC that there have been signs of panic among his clients, who range from real estate investors to wealthy Chinese who invest in Russia.

"Reserves are being depleted, and the credit rating is expected to drop if oil goes below $30 per barrel," Mermelstein said. "We are hearing that a repeat of a major (currency) devaluation is expected within months if the status quo continues into the spring."

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, told CNBC that while ordinary Russians are feeling the economic contraction, they don't support Putin any less as a result, and if anything,they support an even tougher line against their perceived enemies abroad.

Putin "can't be seen to give in to Western, especially American, pressure. … Otherwise the very political forces he has created and unleashed in Russia are likely to turn on him."

Geopolitical research firm Stratfor said in a note on Tuesday that if oil prices remain low and Russia continues to exhaust more of its financial reserves, "it will be slowly destabilizing."

"A weak Russia may reach out more to wealthier European countries like Germany. However, the danger is that a fearful Kremlin may try some desperate moves abroad, becoming more aggressive externally as it weakens internally."