Putin delivered his annual report to the Duma, Russia’s analogue to the US State of the Union, at noon Moscow time. It was delayed from its typical year end slot due to Putin having a raft of important international meetings then. Some Western commentators are oddly referring to the timing as three days before the anniversary of the Special Military Operation, when it is the anniversary of Putin’s speech on February 21, 2022, in which after a very long preamble, he proclaimed:
I consider it necessary to take a long overdue decision and to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic.
The US and Europe launched their economic war against Russia, with their shock and awe sanctions, on February 22, before Putin gave his February 24 speech announcing the launch of the SMO.
I normally prefer to work from Kremlin transcripts, since as Alexander Mercouris points out, Russian has subtleties than can be marred in a live or rushed translation, and the official English Kremlin version will most accurately reflect what Putin intended to convey. However, the EU’s Josep Borrell and NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg are holding a joint press conference NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the heels of Putin’s speech, so they will be working from live translations. And recall also that Mercouris called out a raft of Western officials and the press hyperventilating over what they depicted as China presenting a peace plan later this week, when as Mercouris pointed out, all China said it was doing was presenting a position paper. So as usual, it will be important to watch for cherry picking or other misconstruing of what Putin said
Western hawks and combat junkies must have been enormously frustrated by Putin’s 1 hour 45 minute talk. Even though he discussed the war in Ukraine, and the impact of the war permeated his speech, he announced no new battlefield initiatives, and stuck to reprising old themes: how Russia did everything it could to prevent the war, how the West ignored neo-Nazi assassinations and reprisals, how Russia saw Kiev seeking heavy weapons, planes, and even nuclear weapons. Putin stressed that Western leaders have admitted to their treacherous behavior as if they are proud of cheating and lying, are accustomed to colonialism and hegemony, and played similar deceptive games in Libya and Syria. Russia recognized the next target after Donbass would be Crimea, as the West has acknowledged.
Putin’s one big move on the geopolitical front came at the end of his remarks, that Russia would suspend its participation in the START treaty. This should come as no surprise to Russia-watchers. Putin reiterated the Russian grievances: the US had been withdrawing from treaties and operating in a more openly hostile manner, while in the earlier phases of security agreements, the US and Russia had developed more trust. Specifically, the US was not allowing Russia to inspect US facilities yet was demanding Russia do so. Putin also pointed out that nuclear armed France and UK were outside these pacts, yet had their weapons aimed at Russia (the official translation may be clearer on this issue, but it was clear in context that Putin was pointing out they were acting as US operatives and just inspecting US facilities, even if that were on, now seemed inadequate).
The speech was mainly what I call “pothole Putin”. Putin seems to genuinely relish exercising power in comparatively mundane ways: launching new programs that improve material conditions or security and getting them completed. Perhaps this is a bureaucrat’s version of edifice complex. Perhaps it’s because more elements are under his control and with realistic time frames and competent officials, the odds of success are pretty good.
But the many many plans that Putin described each by each might not seem that significant, all together they represent a substantial commitment to invest in science, technology and education, transportation, housing, hospitals and schools, to manage the impact of the war, from integrated programs for veterans and families of the fallen to reconstruction in the liberated oblasts, to supporting the arts and culture. Putin was explicit that Russia, particularly its elite, had been seduced into thinking the West offered opportunity and security. Even though he noted that ordinary Russians shed no tears for oligarchs who’d had funds and property seized by the US and the EU, and if they decided to remain outside Russia, they’d be second class citizens, he said there would be no witch hunts. He encouraged them to come back to Russia and rebuild.
Mind you, as a non-Russian, I do not know to what extent the raft of initiatives are new, versus extensions and improvements of existing programs. For instance, Putin mentioned meeting target to have all major roads upgraded to national standards, IIRC by 2025; this was an affirmation that an existing target would be met. Ditto another on school building. But most sounded new or upgraded. And they might sound hand-wavey if you hadn’t read the public portions of Putin’s meetings with senior staff. This seems to be the level of detail he uses for directives: a high level sketch with some discussion of key points and problems to be solved.
Putin mentioned up the impact on the rest of the world: the paltry spending on poor countries versus the amounts deployed in Ukraine, a dig at Borrell for depicting the world outside the US/NATO garden as a jungle. But he was clearly speaking mainly to a home audience and stressed the intent of the West end Russia as a country. Despite foreign leaders now casually admitting to those designs, many of the usual media suspects have taken to depicting that part of his talk as the sole/major focus and yet another Russian conspiracy theory. For instance, from the BBC:
President Putin’s speech today was full of patriotic bluster.
The Kremlin leader once again portrayed his country as the victim, claiming it was the West, and not Russia, that had started the war in Ukraine. Russia, said the president, was just trying to stop it.
He reeled off a long list of historical grievances, before announcing that Russia would be suspending its participation in a key nuclear weapons agreement with America.
Ironically, once you get past the Daily Mail headline (US slams ‘absurdity’ of Putin’s national address as Vladimir says Russia will no longer participate in nuclear arms treaty and accuses the West of starting Ukraine war in bid to spark global conflict and achieve ‘limitless power’), the opening para is not too bad:
President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday vowed to continue with Russia’s year-long war in Ukraine and accused the U.S.-led NATO alliance of fanning the flames of the conflict in the mistaken belief that it could defeat Moscow in a global confrontation. Addressing Russian lawmakers in his annual state-of-the-nation address (shown left), he claimed Russia had tried ‘everything possible’ to avoid conflict, before he launched his invasion of Ukraine on February 24. He said he was addressing them ‘at a time which we all know is a difficult’ and vowed to ‘systematically’ continue with the offensive in Ukraine. His speech comes days before the war in Ukraine passes the one-year mark on Friday. Putin ordered his forces into the country on February 24, 2022 in what he calls a ‘special military operation’ instead of a war. Since then, tens of thousands of men have been killed, and Putin, 70, now says Russia is locked in an existential battle with the West. The address came the day after US president Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky
Putin paid considerable attention to the effects of the war and what the government would do in response. He had a very long section early on thanking the many who had contributed, from children writing to soldiers at the front and pensioners donating to war foundations, to military priests, doctors and medics, construction workers, factory employees working extra shifts, and even journalists going to the front. He also stressed how well Russia had adapted “on the fly” with business and construction lending up more (and more than in 2021 v.2020), banks in the black, unemployment at a record low at 3.7%, GDP down only by 2.1% and inflation expected to reach 4% by second quarter 2023. He particularly praised the productivity of the agricultural sector, with exports hitting a level that would have seemed inconceivable 10 to 15 years ago.
But Putin’s plans are ambitious, for wholesale reorientation and improvement. He said that Russia had fallen in with the Western short-term economic model which resulted in focusing unduly on commodities. Putin wants Russia to focus more on what economists would call value added, with aggressive investment across the board: the development of new logistics corridors and investment in Black Sea and polar shipping, in basic R&D, in vocational schools, in medicine and pharmaceuticals, electronics, nuclear, construction, and administration. He also called a wide range of new schemes, from stronger deposit insurance and pension protections, better access of small companies to capital markets, subsidized loans to encourage factory building, housing subsidies for young scientists, tax breaks for companies that use Russian IT and electronics, modernization of primary health care, free gas for kindergartens and hospitals….and more.
Putin stressed that Russia has everything it needs. His vision is not quite autarky; he expects Russia to trade. But he want to develop internal capabilities across the board so Russia can be more self reliant and self sufficient.
Putin implicitly presented the war as something Russians can manage with effort and some individual sacrifice, as opposed to have dominate their society. And so far, that is how it is shaking out.