The Russian government has ordered state-controlled exporters to sell part of their foreign currency holdings, a move which could marshall some $50 billion to support the sagging ruble.
After touching record lows last week the Russian currency has rebounded, a development which analysts explain by Russian export giants intervening in the market alongside the central bank and finance ministry supporting the ruble.
Revealed by the business daily Kommersant, the government published later on Tuesday a decree ordering gas company Gazprom, oil firms Rosneft and Zarubezhneft, and diamond exporters Alrosa and Kristall to reduce their holdings of foreign currencies.
Foreign exchange market insiders cited by Kommersant estimated that the move could free up $40 to $50 billion (33 to 41 billion euros), or about $1 billion per day in sales to the market through a March 1 deadline set by the government.
The foreign currency sales by the companies follow near daily interventions by the central bank, which has spent more than $10 billion this month to support the ruble.
The finance ministry announced last week it was also using $7 billion to support the battered currency, which crashed by 20 percent during trading one day, leaving the ruble at less than half the value at which its started the year against the dollar and euro.
The central bank said Tuesday it plans to hold talks with exporters in order "to develop an optimal plan of action" for the currency sales.
"Regular sales of currency earned from sales throughout the year is advantageous both for ensuring stability on the foreign currency market and for export companies as it protects them from risks from swings in the exchange rate," the Bank of Russia said in a statement to AFP.
- Battle of the ruble -
A Rosneft official welcomed the fact that the decree didn't order sales of specific amounts, with actions to be coordinated by the central bank.
"We need to battle together to save the ruble as there are forces working against it," Rosneft Vice President Mikhail Leontyev was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.
The ruble has now recovered its losses from last week and more. In afternoon trading on Tuesday it stood at 54.69 to the dollar, far off the record of over 80 to the greenback it hit last week. Against the euro it was trading at 66.77 rubles, compared to over 100 last week.
VTB24 bank analyst Alexey Mikheyev said the main reason for the rebound is "a ruble deficit on the market" due to tighter monetary conditions imposed by the central bank.
The ruble's rebound comes as a relief for the government following last week's panic, which also saw Russians rushing to shops to buy imported goods before stores raised prices.
Numerous retailers halted sales while others quickly hiked prices. Some supermarkets returned to the practice during the hyperinflation of the 1990s of not marking price in rubles.
But the stability could come at a steep price.
The central bank jacking up its main interest rate from 10.5 to 17 percent helped support the ruble, but be a shock to economic activity as the cost of credit becomes much more expensive for businesses and consumers.
"The economic situation requires extremely precise measures, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday.
"If we set targets that are too modest we risk falling in a deeper recession" than necessary, he was quoted as saying by Russian media during a meeting of the ruling United Russia party.
The government had been forecasting that after eking out 0.6 percent growth this year the economy would slump by 0.8 percent in 2015.
- Depositors panic -
But after the fall of the ruble, the rise in interest rates, and the plunge in the global oil price which is key for government revenues, certain economists see the Russian economy contracting by 5 percent next year.
And while the ruble is for the moment being propped up by the government, there remains the risk it could be hit again as nervous Russians are withdrawing their money from banks en masse.
"It is a real panic," said Mikhail Zadornov, the head of the country's second largest bank, VTB24.
"People are also withdrawing their deposits in foreign currencies" and not just rubles to convert into dollars or euros, he told the daily Vedomosti.
Russians are no strangers to bank failures since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the central bank on Monday rushed to bail out the country's 15th largest bank by deposits.