Putin strange address to the Nation

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

By any standards, the annual Address to Parliament delivered by President Putin on 1 of March was unusual, by the content and the form. The Address is one of the three public presidential high moments, with the end of the year press conference and the “meeting with the nation”. It is an opportunity for the president to present his track record and his projects. In an electoral period, everyone expected the 2018 edition to be different. But nobody was prepared for so much emphasis on military issues, in a high-tech décor including a projection full of military hardware and explosions, delivered by a president adopting a tone of voice remembering his intervention at the 2007 Munich Conference which stunned the West by its violence.

Of course, three quarters of the intervention was devoted to a sort of electoral programme with an emphasis on poverty’s reduction, new opportunities, better infrastructures. Nothing unexpected, even if the president insisted on the need for Russians to understand that, in difficult times, one needs to accept bad news as well as good. Putin went back to the theme of the year that we mentioned in an earlier piece about his will to see prosperity directly benefiting the population, and a new light on his promises of reforms that ordinary Russians often translate into profits for the richs.

But Western analysts, diplomats and military will remember only the “militarised” part of the address, especially the importance Putin put on new nuclear weapons. At the same time, he went back to an old Soviet argument by claiming that Russia does not threaten anyone but is only preparing to defend itself.

One can see the intentions of President Putin to deliver to the West the messages “do not push us too far” and “it is time to take us seriously”. In the same time, he has been sending another signal to the Russian voters “your security is in good hands with me”.

One also sees the importance played by the publication of the Pentagon policy statement known as the Nuclear Posture Review, in which the US proposed a diversification of its nuclear arsenal and the development of new, smaller atomic bombs, largely to counter Russia. Immediately, on 3 February, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a sharp statement whose formulation was a curtain raiser to the words that Putin used a few days later – that such a negative bias and aggressive attitude towards Russia should be taken into account when Moscow will take “the necessary measures to ensure our own security”.

The question is about the wisdom to give to the Pentagon document such a prominence in a speech which was first of all an electoral posture. Because in it, Putin appeared to be an over-reactive and emotional president instead of the wise father of the nation he wants to be for 6 more years. After all Russia has already demonstrated its readiness to risk confrontation with the West if its national interests are at stake (in Georgia, Crimea, Syria) and successive military doctrines have gradually lifted the threshold for nuclear arms.

In that context, the speech looks unnecessarily aggressive. And Putin lost a golden opportunity to display to the world the difference between him, an experimented president in full control, and Trump the lunatic tweeting in an understaffed unstable White House. Especially if one bears in mind that Europeans are deeply concerned by the volatility of the Transatlantic alliance while EU is far of being ready to take on itself the field that Washington deserts – and that Putin continues to hope not a suspension, but a softening of the sanctions.

Russian analysts will have a hard time to sell the argument, even if it has its elements of logic, that the speech has to be seen as a new attempt by Moscow to start negotiations for a new international security framework, on today’s basis instead of old ones. According to former foreign minister Igor Ivanov, the West has been deliberately speaking of militarism while Putin is offering an olive branch. People can easily be forgiven for not picking up the nuances.

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