Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a two-hour state of the nation speech to the Federal Assembly March 1. It was remarkable for its omissions, glaring contradictions, blinkered worldview and saber-rattling.
It may also offer some insight into Putin’s thinking heading into Russia’s election on Sunday. Although he is not running unopposed — there are several opposition candidates on the ballot, including Ksenia Sobchak, whose campaign I advise — it is expected that Putin will easily win, keeping him in office for another six-year term ending in 2024.
Despite the Russian meddling storyline that seems omnipresent in the American media, the Russian leader’s political goals are still not well understood in the West. For this reason, a close-reading of his last major political speech before the election is instructive.
Unfortunately for both Russians and the rest of the world, the overall message of the speech was less than positive. In the end, Putin painted a picture of himself as a faux democrat limited in his worldview, with no sensible plan to steer Russia toward a balanced, secure economic and political future.
Despite the Russian meddling storyline that seems omnipresent in the American media, the Russian leader’s political goals are still not well understood in the West.
On trade, Putin has promised massive investment in transportation infrastructure. This is designed to improve international trade through Russia and Russian-controlled waters, as well as to provide more money for satellite communications, internet infrastructure and big-data storage.
This also contradicts his aggressive and extremely expensive military posturing. One can’t pay two bills with the same pot of money, and one can’t improve international commercial relations with one hand while making threatening gestures with the other.
Putin’s talk of new and improved weapons systems is clearly meant to get the attention of a malevolent America. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain how much of Putin’s military claims are exaggerations or outright lies. The essential fact, which is already fairly well understood by the world, is that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is sufficient to discourage any invader for the next several decades.
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But ultimately, Russia’s vast nuclear resources only postpone one of two eventualities: Either it must join NATO, with a commensurate reduction in military spending, or collapse. In both cases, the immense and expensive nuclear weaponry the Soviet state and the Russian government labored at such expense to create does nothing but buy time.
Putin craves the acknowledgement and respect of the White House and is not above threats to try to get it.
What is also clear is that Putin craves the acknowledgement and respect of the White House and is not above threats to try to get it. Putin’s (and Russia’s) long-standing sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the United States is as strong as ever.
Ironically, Putin’s transparent insecurity is reminiscent of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous (and perhaps apocryphal) shoe-pounding 1960 UN appearance, when he denounced the global community and the U.S. as a collection of Russian enemies. Putin, like Khrushchev, is petulantly demanding that Russia be taken seriously as a great power, one which — though Putin did not explicitly mention it — should be free of the indignity of economic sanctions. But like Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and even Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin will find that such acceptance cannot be achieved by threats. Neither will it be achieved by accelerating an arms race with the West.
Of course, Putin’s boasts about Russian international influence are also meant for domestic consumption — he is trying to appeal to both the conservative, KGB-tinged reactionaries of his first career as well as the more “liberal” Russian politicians as exemplified by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.
And to be fair, Putin seems to be trying to improve his social and economic vision. Russia was slow to recover from the financial collapse of 2008 — while the economy briefly rallied a few years ago, the regime needs new policies if it wants to sustain new growth.
Russia was slow to recover from the financial collapse of 2008 — while the economy briefly rallied a few years ago, the regime needs new policies if it wants to sustain new growth.
With new U.S. sanctions targeting the energy sector, it is reasonable to focus on industries immune from international punishment and for which there is no external demand. Putin’s plans to stimulate residential construction with state-supported mortgage loans and improved internal infrastructure are also sound and feasible.
But his plan to improve health care, like a number of fine-sounding ideas Putin made in his speech, are unlikely to succeed under the international sanctions Russia faces. For example, plans to more deeply integrate Russia into the global economy through the transit of cargo or the storage of international data are meaningless while the country is being treated like an international economic pariah.
Another well meaning but unrealistic plan calls for the special support of small, remote villages and cities meant to be pioneering Arctic development. Russia needs technological development, not new territories to explore, highlighting Putin’s struggles to adapt to the modern world.
Arguably the most important part of Putin’s speech was his acknowledgment that the accelerating exodus of the most talented and highly educated Russians is now a crisis. What he cannot see is their exit is largely motivated by the fact that Russia has a permanent leader engaged in confrontation with the whole world.
It is too bad that the old idea of tying science to the good of the government — not the good of the people — appears to persist in the president’s mind.
And so, using typical strongman logic, he seems to view technological development as a means of preserving sovereignty instead of improving lives. Indeed, this historical preoccupation with sovereignty has kept Russia on the margins of technological progress. It is too bad that the old idea of tying science to the good of the government — not the good of the people — appears to persist in the president’s mind.
Talk of shiny new weapons systems and expansionist, violent policies may convince a good portion of the masses that Russia is amassing foreign policy success. It is further evidence of Putin’s own limitations and ambitions that he may actually believe it.
But ultimately, Putin’s vague, contradictory and something-for-everyone speech suggests that he does not know how to push Russia forward internally. What he does seem committed to is resurrecting the “spheres of influence” concept of the Cold War.
This is wishful thinking, remarkable for its failure to grasp 21st-century realities.
If by some chance Putin truly desires to nurture Russia’s most talented citizens, improve the lot of the average Russian, efficiently exploit Russia’s vast resources for the benefit of the masses, make progress in technology on par with the rest of the developed world and develop a foreign policy in which Russia is respected and valued as a trusted partner, there is really only one thing he can do.
Vitali Shkliarov is a U.S.-Russian expert, political consultant and strategist. He is currently senior adviser to the Russian oppositional presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak. He lives in Washington, D.C. and has worked on both Barack Obama's and Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns.