What Putin’s state of the nation address really tells us about where his premiership is heading

The address showed a president settling in to what is probably his last term, and focusing – as he himself said at the outset – on domestic concerns

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 21 February 2019 18:19 GMT
Putin threatens to target US with new weapons if it deploys missiles to Europe

Maybe it is because the west’s great global bogeyman has been pretty quiet recently that his state of the nation address this week seemed to come somewhat out of the blue.

Vladimir Putin’s apparent reticence over the winter could, of course, simply reflect the all-consuming preoccupation with Brexit in the UK, and the extent to which other countries – France with its gilets jaunes, “new” Europe with its constitutional quarrels, Donald Trump with his wall and a new congress – have been otherwise engaged.

But I don’t think the impression of a more quiescent Putin is completely false. In the international context, at least – and not just from the currently exceptional perspective of London – Russia’s president has been unusually absent from the headlines.

Even when President Trump announced that he was suspending the INF treaty – an emblematic agreement on medium-range missiles in Europe that survived the Soviet collapse – and blamed Russia for four-year old violations, the response from Moscow seemed to hold out more of a quid pro quo rather than anything more combative.

And for all that western reporting of Putin’s latest address has tended to single out his supposed threat to target the United States with new nuclear missiles – a threat actually predicated on all sorts of other bad things happening – the general tenor of his speech this year seemed quite muted, too.

This was not Putin spoiling for a fight, it was a president settling in to what is probably his last term, and focusing – as he himself said at the outset – on domestic concerns.

As well he might. Last autumn saw some of the biggest and most widespread street protests of all his 18 years in power, in response to planned rises in the state pension age.

His popularity ratings have fallen more than 20 per cent since his re-election last March (to just over 60 per cent), while his trust rating – according to the state Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) – stands at 33 per cent, its lowest since 2006. The stagnation (and for some the actual decline) in living standards is seen as part of the explanation, along with rising expectations that can no longer be met.

Thus it was that Putin spent a good two-thirds of his time talking about the money that was going to be allocated to modernising infrastructure, improving health care and education and harnessing technology to help raise productivity.

In many ways, this made it a speech that could have been given by almost any leader of an industrialised country anywhere in the world, along with the emphasis he placed on affordability.

Concern for the wellbeing of hard-working families is not unique to western politicians, and Russian leaders need to keep more than half an eye on the public mood, too.

The predominantly domestic focus made for a contrast with the previous year’s address. But it was not the only contrast.

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This time last year, Putin was speaking barely a month before the presidential election, and – whatever might be said about the result being a foregone conclusion – he had delivered a campaigning, barnstorming speech that was backed up with state-of-the art graphics to illustrate Russia’s newly rejuvenated military might.

And while, as this year, what he said was obviously intended primarily for the domestic audience, there were times when a clearly frustrated Putin had addressed himself directly, and assertively, to the outside world.

Lamenting that “no one listened to us”, he referred to the military wizardry just shown on the enormous screen and went on in words that could be freely translated as: “Well, you’ll jolly well listen to us now.”

The tone this year was different. The indignation, even insolence, had been put aside – as, it seemed, had the sliver of hope that the United States under Trump could somehow be engaged, if not by sweet reason, then by bombast.

This year, Putin contrasted the way Washington had handled its withdrawal from the INF treaty with the way it had abrogated the ABM treaty in 2002 – saying the approach then had been more honest and direct, with no attempt to use a belated complaint against Russia as a pretext. Insisting that Russia would be open to new talks on arms control, he nonetheless placed the onus for any initiating any such talks squarely on the US administration, saying: “We’ve had enough of knocking on a closed door.”

Putin also went out of his way – more so, it seemed to me, than in other public speech in the past – to insist that Russia’s posture was defensive, not offensive, and that anything it did was in response to hostile moves from elsewhere.

“They call Russia pretty much the biggest threat to the US,” he said. “… that is not true. Russia wants a fulfilling, equal and friendly relationship with the United States. Russia is not threatening anyone. All our actions in the security sphere are responsive and defensive in nature.”

And there was more in the same vein, including Russia’s need for peace to facilitate its “long-term sustained development”.

In other words, foreign and defence policy at the service of domestic policy.

Now there will doubtless be many who watched, or read, Putin’s state of the nation address this week who will single out other, more bellicose, sentiments and object that the sections I have cited were deliberately disingenuous and should not be taken at face value.

And there may indeed be room for divergent interpretations. But it is worth recalling, as an extreme example of reading and misreading, the initial – dismissive – response to Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year speech, which clothed a readiness for concessions and a plea for talks in unremitting language of strength.

In terms of diplomatic subtlety, the Kremlin is a world away from North Korea. But the principle stands. Any national leader has to hide any sense of vulnerability behind protestations of strength, both before their own people, and abroad.

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That post-Soviet Russia feels unequal in many ways to the United States should be a given: its military capability, for a start, is many, many times less.

But it is also apparent from the way in which it has co-opted almost wholesale some of the forms, if not the content, of US institutional life: the inauguration ceremony, for one; and the State of the Union address, for another, which becomes year by year more of a clone of the real thing.

If Trump’s advisers were listening, they might draw the following conclusions. In the absence of a sensible negotiating partner in the US, Russia is looking elsewhere to mitigate its isolation. It would like to normalise relations with the EU; it is interested in closer ties with India, and Putin is still hoping to conclude a peace treaty with Japan.

The geographical logic of all that is unimpeachable, while the absence of China from the list might be telling. Most of all, though, Russia wants a new-generation security arrangement with the United States in which it is treated as an equal.

As of now, that looks a distant prospect, which may be why, in his 2019 state of the nation address and without the pressure of an imminent election, Russia’s president seemed reconciled to a long wait.

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