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MARKET CRISIS MAY TAME RUSSIA

Oil wealth has catapulted the country to global might, but the financial turmoil threatens that.

After a decade of economic expansion, portents of a financial storm are gathering over Russia, from foundering banks to a Moscow skyline of idled construction cranes.

If oil prices keep falling, the question becomes whether the Kremlin, which so confidently went to war with Georgia just two months ago, will have to scale down its ambition of reclaiming a big role on the world stage.

A stunning stock market collapse has sent the benchmark stock index down 73 percent from its May peaks, and shown how shallow are the roots of Russia's boom. Six months from now, investors say, things could look very bleak.

In a little over eight years, the filtering down of oil cash has transformed Moscow from one of the grimmest capitals in Europe to one of the glitziest, with marble-floored shopping malls and upmarket boutiques.

The Kremlin has used its economic triumph to political advantage, dictating terms in energy spats with its European customers, sending its warships and planes across the globe, going to war with Georgia and lecturing the West about its shortcomings.

But the climate is changing, and analysts say the economy may force the Kremlin to act more cautiously.

"We're likely to see some posturing, but also less likely to see any real confrontation," said Sam Greene, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "They don't want to risk making the business climate worse."

The war, combined with concerns about Kremlin interference in business, hammered Russia's markets. But it was sliding oil prices and foreign bank failures that finally triggered the biggest stock plunges in a decade. About $33-billion left the country in August and September, said Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

The government insistsit has no plans to cut spending on major domestic programs, but some analysts say it will have no choice.

A short crisis, not too deep, could benefit Russians, who have plenty of cash to buy assets at bargain prices around the world, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But if oil falls below $50 a barrel for a long time, "the Russians will burn through their pile of cash pretty fast," he said.

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