Even without a conflict in Ukraine, the United States and European Union would have come up with another pretext for imposing economic sanctions; they were an inevitable response to a rising Russia.
In his annual state-of-the-nation address on Thursday, the Russian president laid out his version of the year’s events in an effort to shore up support for his confrontation with the West amid growing economic troubles. The one-hour speech, held before 1,000 politicians and other public figures in the Kremlin, was defensive, strident, and formulaic. At moments, it was hard to tell whether Putin really believed everything he was saying — or if he had fallen prey to his own propaganda.
Putin’s main message was that despite the challenges Russia faces at home and abroad, the country is united and will prevail. He provided little grounds for optimism. Often Putin seemed to be trying to convince himself that the risks to which he had exposed Russia were worth it and beyond reproach.
The presidential address was split into two, with the first half dedicated to foreign affairs and the second to the economy, which is facing recession following the imposition of sanctions and a drop in oil prices. Putin tore into his speech with gusto, skewering the West for its hubris and hypocrisy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When he reached the section on domestic issues, Putin calmed down and droned through a list of bromides on boosting entrepreneurship and diversifying the economy that might as well have come from a speech he gave 10 years ago. “An opportunity in every crisis” is hardly a substitute for an economic recovery program. The president’s offer to amnesty any wealth hidden in offshore accounts only seemed to confirm how bad things had become.
The most troubling change in Putin’s rhetoric are ethno-religious references that have crept into his speech since the annexation of Crimea in March. The Crimean peninsula’s strategic value as the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is understandable to anybody who consults a map. But Putin’s focus on Crimea as the “spiritual source” for Russians because Grand Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity there 1,000 years ago opens a Pandora’s box of competing historical claims not only in Europe but across Russia.
In his address, Putin declared that the ancient town of Chersonesus, outside Sevastopol, is as sacred to Russian Orthodox Christians as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is to Jews and Muslims. “This is how we will relate to it from now on and forever,” he said, as if to stake an indefinite claim on Crimea. Should Ukrainians be concerned that in March Putin called Kiev “the mother of all Russian cities?”
On Thursday, Putin continuously invoked a strong Russia, laying bare an inferiority complex that plays an outsized role in his decision-making.
“This year together we faced trials that only a mature, united nation — a truly sovereign and strong state — could withstand. Russia proved that she can defend her compatriots and honorably defend truth and justice,” Putin said in his opening remarks. “We believe in ourselves and that we can do a lot and achieve anything.” Later he complained that Russia had been treated by the international community — presumably the U.S. — as “poorly educated people who can’t read or write.”
The litany of offense and humiliation Russia supposedly had to endure is familiar. While it is undeniable that Western leaders have occasionally run roughshod over Russian sensibilities, Putin’s baggage is such a jumble of real slights and imagined insults that it’s almost impossible to pull them apart anymore.
To Putin, there apparently is no difference between Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, or between the United States and Europe. While Putin’s complaint about Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is fair enough, Obama approached Putin respectfully with his naive but well-intentioned “reset.” If there is any consistency in Russia policy between the U.S. administrations at all, it’s less ill will than an obliviousness to Kremlin thinking.
Putin likewise conflates the United States with Europe in assigning responsibility for the turn of events in Ukraine. It was the EU — and not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the United States — that was negotiating an association agreement with Kiev. If Obama can be blamed for anything, it was realizing too late that Putin considered the entire country of Ukraine to be his red line. Putin’s assertion that the West supported Chechen separatists in the 1990s in hopes of sending Russia to a fate like Yugoslavia’s is patently untrue. The break-up of nuclear-armed Russia remains a nightmare scenario in all major world capitals.
On Thursday, Putin worked himself up as he spilled his frustrations with the world in what at times resembled an attempt at self-therapy.
Economic sanctions were a “nervous reaction” by the United States and its allies to Russia’s position on the change of government in Ukraine and had nothing to do with the “Crimean Spring,” Putin said, adding that they would have found a different pretext to thwart Russia’s rise.
“The policy of containment wasn’t invented yesterday,” he said. “It’s being used against our country for many years, decades, if not centuries. In short, every time that somebody believes Russia has become too strong and independent, these instruments are put into use immediately.”
Russia is the victim, Putin seemed to be saying, though robust and defiant. It was strange that the very sins he accused the West of committing — the cynical exploitation of human rights, disregard for international law, and trampling on another country’s sovereignty — exactly mirrored Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing involvement in eastern Ukraine. It was especially strange to hear Putin say: “The lawful interests of all members of the international community must be treated with respect. Only then will legal norms secure the world from bloody conflicts — and not cannons, missiles and warplanes.”
Putin, who has been leading Russia for 15 years, shared no vision of where the country is heading. Instead he looked back, portraying Russia as a besieged fortress since time immemorial. Putin’s only goal now is the perpetuation of his own power. His term runs out in 2018, when he will be eligible for another six years.
“We will never go the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion, and the search for enemies,” Putin said. “That would be a sign of weakness, and we’re strong and sure of ourselves.”