Putin’s pre-election speech in front of Russia’s Federal Assembly, on 1 March 2018, followed the same logic by attempting to challenge forcefully America’s leading role, and demanding that Russia should have an equal say in world affairs.
However, this time one could clearly observe the growing anxiety of Putin behind his apparently self-confident and optimistic mood. The fantasy military cartoons that were shown on the screen, in the Moscow Manege, are part of Russia’s ongoing reality show, just as Putin’s imaginary leap of Russia, in just a few years, towards prosperity, a modern and diverse economy, and a vibrant and healthy society.
No one doubts that Putin will be re-elected, once again, on March 18 to the office of President. Nevertheless, he seems to be already troubled by the “(only) once again” factor. He likely feels the weight of the promises that he delivered in the speech – i.e. to achieve in the next six years far more than he has been able to achieve in the past seventeen years, with far less financial resources and under sustained Western sanctions.
Reportedly, President Xi Jinping expects to be granted broad new powers by China's National People's Congress, effective securing his position for life. China has accumulated considerable economic power and wealth, and the country’s Chairman fulfills his pledges, including on infrastructure mega-projects, such as One Belt One Road. Vladimir Putin may contemplate similar “broad new powers” in the future, but he cannot do more than praise half-met achievements and proclaim largely unrealistic goals.
The regime feels rather safe, as it is protected by Russia’s armed forces, special services and the National Guard (which is, in fact, increasingly taken shape as a tool of government suppression), but Putin needs continuously strong popular support, i.e. legitimacy to rule as an autocrat. That is why his address was directed, first of all, to the Russian people, whom he hopes will support him in the March 18 election. The speech, intentionally reminiscent of the past, was meant to be a demonstration of Russia’s (military) might and its path towards a bright future.
Putin pledged to his people to reduce Russia’s poverty rate by at least 50%, to raise the country’s GDP per capita by half, to double investments in road construction and the number of families improving their housing conditions, as well as to raise the average life expectancy of Russians beyond 80 years of age. The list is long, whereas all these goals have to be achieved in just six years.
Hardly anyone in Russia expects these utopian goals to become reality any time soon, especially under the same regime, which tightens the screws rather than give signs of further liberalization that is certainly needed in the economic, and inevitably in the political spheres. On the other hand, the Russian state budget and all reserves would be insufficient, even if – theoretically - defence and internal security expenditures, which make now about one third of the federal budget, could decrease close to zero.
Sadly, the second half of the speech, which focused on the achievements of Russia’s missile and nuclear technology, resembled North-Korean anti-American propaganda. The weapons demonstrated were not without their problems. Take for example the Mach 20 “plasma missiles” (essentially mini-meteorites) that cannot glide or be guided along their trajectories, differently from what was shown in the cartoons. Despite this Putin probably wished to deliver a certain message to his people, and the United States.
Putin claimed that Russia has already or will have soon such formidable military capabilities, which miraculously were all “tested successfully” in 2017. The “unmatched” military displayed on the screen is likely intended to make the Russian people proud of their country becoming again a superpower, which is feared and respected in the world (in the Russian context, fear is largely equivalent to respect), but also to justify and demonstrate on what Russia’s gas and oil revenues are spent.
Naturally, President Putin framed the wonder weapons as part of Russia’s response to the US global missile defence shield and its new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The Kremlin and Russia’s military leadership know very well that the NPR is not about “reducing the threshold for the use of nuclear arms,” and that the US does not wish to achieve the “complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential.” Furthermore, the United States could not be expected to cow-down to some dramatic cartoons, even if these demonstrate how easily could Russian missiles reach and destroy Florida.
Putin’s militaristic message to the United States could rather signify his nervousness about the ongoing difficulty to strike any significant deals with the Trump administration (to be taken seriously), and possibly his fear that more explosive revelations could come out through Robert Mueller’s investigation. In addition, things are not going well for Russia neither in Syria (Deir ez-Zor offensive on February 7, 2018), nor in Ukraine. Many Russians fear that Syria becomes Russia’s new Afghanistan.
Last but not least, President Putin stated the following: “After the collapse of the USSR, Russia, which was known as the Soviet Union or Soviet Russia abroad, lost 23.8 percent of its national territory, 48.5 percent of its population, 41 of the GDP, 39.4 percent of its industrial potential (nearly half of our potential, I would underscore), as well as 44.6 percent of its military capability due to the division of the Soviet Armed Forces among the former Soviet republics.” It seems that President Putin has great difficulty to distinguish between the former Soviet Union and Russia (former RSFSR), and intends to “recuperate” territories and peoples that were “lost”. That is precisely what Putin has done so far (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, occupied Donbass), in spite of claiming in Moscow’s Manege that “we (Russia) are not threatening anyone, not going to attack anyone or take away anything from anyone with the threat of weapons… we do not need anything.”
Finally, Putin’s speech on March 1 should not be overestimated, as it did not lay out any new political perspectives, domestically or internationally. However, it showed the real mood of Putin’s regime before embarking on the next six-year term, which is strikingly different from its façade.