Putin's speech wasn’t aggressive – it was a plea to the US to start talking again

The military half of Putin’s address was not only – or perhaps even primarily – directed at the Russian audience. This message of new, and world-beating, defence prowess surely had another intended recipient: the United States

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 01 March 2018 18:42 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Manezh, Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Manezh, Moscow

Donald Trump was so impressed by France’s Bastille Day parade that he recently called for a similar military extravaganza to be staged in Washington. He may now be considering whether the venerable US State of the Union address might need some radical revision, too, after Vladimir Putin’s pre-election tour de force took the Russian President’s annual state of the nation address to a whole new level.

Putin’s two-hour address was in two distinct parts. The first was electoral bread and butter: a detailed blueprint for modernising Russia, with an emphasis on social policy and demographics, illustrated with graphs to show how far the country has come in the 18 years of Putin (and how far it still has to go). But it is the second part that most of his audience – in the hall and around the world – will surely remember best.

It turned out that this year’s speech had been moved from the usual ornate Kremlin venue to a Moscow exhibition hall with all the latest gizmos, and it was soon apparent why. Starting in a slightly crotchety tone, Putin repeated for the umpteenth time Russia’s condemnation of President George W Bush’s decision to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That, though, was just the prelude. Putin then presented a virtual parade of Russia’s latest military wizardry – in the skies, on land and beneath the sea.

He seemed to be enjoying himself – a lot. Russia, Putin said, now had a new nuclear-powered cruise missile that was unique in that it could beat any missile defence system. His widescreen diagrams illustrated how it worked; simulations showed rockets whizzing through the skies at hypersonic speeds, turning corners, and penetrating now obsolete “star wars” defensive shields.

Putin went on to show drones performing global acrobatics at the behest of their Russian masters, and unmanned submarines darting through the ocean depths. There were real world scenes, too, of weaponry emerging from silos and missile tests, and dedicated researchers doing their bit.

And, of course, the audience of Duma members and other dignitaries lapped it up, rising to their feet in successive standing ovations. The whole dazzling display culminated in calls from Putin for national unity and lusty singing of the national anthem (Soviet-era tune, post-Soviet words).

Now, for accuracy’s sake, it is worth noting what Putin did not talk about, or hardly talked about. He did not mention the presidential election as such, which takes place on 18 March. He did not need to. This might have been the President’s latest state of the nation address, but it was by way of doubling as a mammoth prime-time party political broadcast.

Nor, did he say anything about the conflict in Ukraine, announcing only that the new bridge linking Crimea with the Russian mainland would soon be completed. Russia’s intervention in Syria was also given short shrift except for a brief passage praising the work and professionalism of those serving in Russia’s armed forces and how operations there had shown off Russia’s enhanced defence capability.

Putin’s reticence here may be partly because, after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and Russia’s two Chechen campaigns, many Russians have distinct misgivings about military engagements, and the spectacle of returning coffins is as much of a political liability in Russia as it would be in many other parts of the world. But the omissions might also suggest that Russia is still pondering its endgame here and be wary of hailing a Bush-style “mission accomplished”.

It is also worth noting Putin’s demand for a daily five-hour pause in the fighting in Eastern Ghouta to provide for a humanitarian corridor. That could be a hint that Western indignation about the scale of the bloodshed might also be causing some concern in Russia. Whether or not this was a consideration, these are pre-election times, and Putin may have calculated that it would be foolish to tempt fate, even with an election whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.

But the military half of Putin’s address, with its virtuoso demonstrations of gee-whizz technology, was not only – or perhaps even primarily – directed at the Russian audience. Yes, you could see the Duma members in the hall, especially the men, positively swelling with pride at the proof (as they saw it) that Russia was “catching up and overtaking” the most advanced arms producers in the world. Still, this message of new, and world-beating, defence prowess surely had another intended recipient: the United States.

And Putin went so far as to spell it out, though he hardly needed to. When the US abrogated the ABM treaty – a treaty, it should be said, the Soviet Union and then Russia regarded as a particular guarantee of its security – he said, “No one listened to us then”, even though Russia was the world’s second nuclear power. Well, he went on, “they will listen to us now”.

Putin: Russia has 'unstoppable' supersonic nuclear missile that cannot be traced by Western defence systems

The rationale, if not the technology, could have come straight from North Korea’s recent playbook: a plea to be heeded and taken seriously – and if demonstrating a new and advanced military capability, by threatening rather than courting, was the only way to be treated with respect, so be it.

Unlike Kim Jong-un, in his pre-Olympic mode, Putin was careful to stress his defensive and peaceful intentions. Russia would only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. But the demand to be taken seriously by the US superpower and the sense of grievance that, in his view, the West had exploited Russia’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union were both there. This demand to be treated as an equal, on the basis of new military might, could well set the tone for Vladimir Putin’s fourth – and probably last – presidential term.

As Putin ended his address there were those who discerned an element – even a large element – of bluff in his boasts of a new and unique Russian military capability. There will also be those who interpret his speech as initiating a dangerous new stage in US-Russia rivalry. To me, at least, that is not how it came across. It was more a plea to the US to start talking again, on the basis of mutual respect.

It also seems to me that relations between Russia and the United States are actually not as dire as they are often presented. Yes, there is a lot of bluster, on both sides – but the two presidents and their chief foreign policy officials have mostly remained above the fray. Yes, the frenzy in Washington about alleged Russian manipulation of the US election goes on (almost) unabated, but again both presidents have left the subject alone. And yes, there is the potential risk of a direct US-Russia clash in Syria, now that Assad, with Russian help, is recovering territory and the US has said its troops will remain.

But a clash of some sort may already have happened, with possibly dozens of Russians killed last month in a US air strike in northern Syria – and the response on the Russian side was to play it down. It is still not clear what exactly happened and what the status of the Russians was – were they contracted workers, or mercenaries, as some said, or was this just a means of curbing political damage? Whatever the truth of this episode, the way it was handled suggests there is no appetite in either Moscow or Washington for a war. We can but hope that this frame of mind survives Russia’s election on 18 March.

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