‘He's trying to say: Take us seriously. We’re not joking anymore’ Russian political and security experts interpret Putin's state-of-the-nation speech
On March 1, Vladimir Putin addressed the Federal Assembly, devoting a significant part of his speech to a presentation of Russia’s latest weapons, including nuclear missiles, and calling on NATO to cease its eastward expansion. “Nobody listened to us before. Well listen up now,” the president said, clearly no longer addressing the Russian lawmakers in attendance. This unusual speech came less than three weeks before the next presidential election. Meduza asked several political and security experts to explain why Putin demonstrated all these weapons and what the speech means for his next presidential term.
political scientist at Stanford University
Although he insists the opposite in the beginning of his annual state of the country speech, Putin’s remarks have much to do with the fact that Russia is three weeks away from another presidential “election.” That he will win is not in question; but he must win by a lot to obtain the level of legitimacy for this, his fourth term as president of Russia, that he seeks. Rattling the sabers has certainly been shown to help in the past for him, and so it may well again. Thus, why not remind Russian voters, elites, that Russia has been treated badly internationally, but he is here still to protect its sovereignty with new nuclear weapons developed on his watch?
Further, there is absolutely zero cost evidently, in threatening to render NATO obsolete since, if U.S., British, and other foreign intelligence agencies are all correct, Mr. Putin has been in a cyber war with the West, with complete impunity. Beyond this though, increasingly in Russia’s security structures, there is growing confidence in the ability to engage in “limited” nuclear war. The restructuring of the Russian conventional military since 2008 has been impressive, although it is still no match for NATO in practice. As a result, using (or even threatening to use) nuclear weapons to preserve Russian sovereignty probably seems like an attractive option at the moment. It is a win domestically and comes at no international price given the current political environment in Donald Trump’s United States in particular. Let’s just hope Mr. Putin doesn’t actually mean what he is saying.
political scientist and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
I’m not going to speculate about what the president means. It would be risky. But, as I understand it, he wants to say: if the West intends to squeeze Russia and change the military-strategic situation to its own benefit through NATO enlargement, then it’s pointless, because we have the means [to prevent this].
In my opinion, however, the West has no such intentions. I don’t think the West plans to use Ukrainian territory to deploy weapons capable of hitting Russian territory at point-blank range. Generally speaking, talk about expanding NATO eastward, toward Russia, has ceased to be relevant. At least within my lifetime, I don’t think Ukraine or Georgia will become NATO members. This is widely recognized, although not publicly.
For Russia’s military-political leadership, however, NATO expansion is still a threat that must be stopped. One of the ways to get through to the opponent loudly is to show that it’s pointless for him to rely on deploying [weapons near Russia’s borders] that can fire [at targets] across Russia.
On the whole, I think the speech missed the mark, even from the perspective of Putin’s own interests. It’s even clear how this happened: there was an attempt to balance the development bloc and the defense bloc, emphasizing the latter. On the other hand, [Putin] wished to show carefully that the defense bloc is only the military. He doesn’t see any other security agencies here, and he doesn’t trust them. At the same time, there was anger directed at the Americans for [the defeat of the private military company] “Wagner,” which Putin understands perfectly well was a postcard addressed to him personally. Plus it was necessary to load the speech with social spending promises to voters and pensioners. It all came together in an unfortunate way. It ended up a mess, and Putin didn’t get the speech he wanted.
The Americans certainly won’t be scared of a few cartoons, but they will gladly use these videos to talk about Russia’s intentions. Because what it looks like is preparations for a third world war. It will look like this for a mass audience, but the [American] elites saw a lot of cartoons [growing up], and they won’t be scared. So, in the end, the speech doesn't leave you thinking about the progress that awaits us, but about a missile “with an unpredictable trajectory.” You couldn’t imagine a worse image for Russia.
I have the feeling that the direction here was bad and politically misguided. This speech was supposed to be a message that we’re through concerning ourselves with priests and FSB agents, and now we’re going to get to work developing the country. But the message we got is that we’re preparing to defend ourselves against the rest of the world.
From my point of view, the mistaken political signaling is due to an absence of serious criticism in Putin’s inner circle. Apparently, there’s just nobody who dares to say what’s good and what’s bad. Putin has surrounded himself with the kind of people where there’s nobody to copyedit him.
chief editor of Agentura.ru, security expert, and co-author of The Red Web
The president’s speech is built on a contradiction. There is a wide array of ways to deter an enemy, from political and economic measures to military options. But an armed response is the last resort in national defense — you only use the military when you’ve already been attacked. Before this, it’s meaningless and useless. You can only use the military to frighten your adversaries, and it seems Putin sees no other options. In the modern world, however, it’s not possible to operate this way. We can assume that the president sees no political, economic, or diplomatic means of establishing a dialogue with the rest of the world. All these ballistic missiles only come into play when the dialogue has ended. And that’s the contradiction: you can’t call for a dialogue, when there’s already no dialogue.
All recent conflicts, from Ukraine to Syria, have demonstrated the role of conventional weapons and conventional technologies. In the late 1980s, people believed that tanks no longer had any use, saying that [nuclear] missiles made them obsolete technology. But, as you can see, it’s entirely possible to go places in tanks and get the desired results. In the modern world, conventional technologies have been revived because no one believes in nuclear conflict and everyone understands that, if anybody captures anything or carries out any operation, they’ll do it by conventional means, and nobody is going to launch anything in retaliation.
political scientist and strategist
Hopes that Vladimir Putin would suddenly change something — after 18 years since the beginning of his reign — have not paid off. And it makes sense. Formally, everything is fine: nothing threatens the authorities, [the president’s] rating is high, and he controls the elite. So why [did people expect reforms]? Has the economy in Russia slowed down? Well, it was never overheating. I think the liberal intelligentsia invented these hopes on its own. And the president customarily addressed part of his speech (the shortest part) to these people.
But what was said further was entirely different. Putin, apparently, sensed that all his words about how America is threatening us are impressing people less and less. People are saying, “It would be good if our living standards were higher.” The biggest part of his speech, dedicated to social issues, was also addressed to these same people.
The third part, of course, was addressed to the outside world. Putin didn’t need to convince voters of anything here, but the rest of the world. Let’s face it: he wanted to scare people. The message was clear: Guys, you have only yourselves to blame for our aggression. Don’t you dare encroach on our interests, and we won’t bomb you.
Except now the investment climate will steadily deteriorate. The business community is obviously not thrilled about all this.
political strategist and the director of the International Political Expertise Institute
I don’t think we need to fear a war, although the speech will of course become grounds for certain circles in the United States to discuss a new arms race. As for the president’s domestic audience, I don’t think this adds much for Putin, given his rather high approval ratings. What really worries people are economic and social policies, and there was a lot about the state’s agenda on these issues in the first part of the speech.
I think there are some things we don’t know, and there’s certain information that only a narrow circle of people have, and this [weapons demonstration] was a conversation between one person with all the information and another person who also has all the information. Crudely put, this was Putin talking with Trump.
It would be good to assess the president’s remarks as a whole, from beginning to end, but that’s hard to do because the final part so heavily outweighs the rest of the speech. The first part will be buried under the weight of this spectacular finale, which is a shame because there’s a lot there that’s interesting and worth discussing. In the near future, though, nobody inside or outside Russia will be talking about any of that.
As for the final part of the speech, we should understand that it wasn’t addressed to the audience at home. We can argue about whether Putin chose the right place to appeal to the world community, but there’s no debating that this was the forum he selected, and Russian citizens could tell that he was talking through them but not with them. For those to whom this part of the speech was actually addressed, some of it was news and some of it wasn’t. We can’t judge how well all these intelligence agencies operate.
[The weapons presentations] likely didn’t impress voters generally. There are, of course, people who love all kinds of weapons, but these are mostly men over 60, and they’re the ones who tend to make up our government elites. In the total population, their numbers aren’t so high, thanks to our early male mortality rate, which the president mentioned in his speech.
[Announcing its latest military innovations was necessary] to strengthen its position in the imaginary negotiations (that always include Moscow) to divide up the world. Apparently, Russian foreign policy seeks some ideal achievement like a new Yalta Agreement, but it never happens. We want them to take us seriously and show us respect, which is very much lacking. Maybe, in this world, where our government elites live, they think there’s a real future for precision nuclear strikes. The foreign minister discussed this just the other day. Nobody took it seriously then, but apparently this is some kind of common knowledge among these people, and they really believe there’s a possibility of this and we need to demonstrate preventively that we can respond.
[From the international perspective, Putin’s speech] will affect the process that started in 2014, [expanding] the extraordinary growth of military budgets in the developed world and NATO countries. Defense programs have acquired a new lease on life. Things were fine for them before, but now they’re twice as good. If there was anyone who could have lobbied for including this part of the speech in the president’s address, it would have been the Americans, of course.
international correspondent and Germany-based political analyst
Despite all the drama of the second half of the speech, I’d say we still see that there’s a certain balance. The first part, after all, was clearly aimed at trying to describe future social and economic policies. I think the main problems here are obvious, and the president named them. The question remains: how will all these policies be realized?
As for the second part about the military, you can look at it a few different ways. There will be people who say, “Why did he need to do this? Why threaten the Americans?” But if you look at the rhetoric being used in America right now, at the talk of developing small nuclear missiles to use in local conflicts, then you’ll start worrying, too.
The psychological situation surrounding Russia right now is terrible: in the media, Russia is accused of sending cyber-armies to Western countries, they practically accuse the Russian Foreign Ministry of being an organized drug cartel, and they say only Russian athletes resort to doping. There is massive pressure being created on the country, and I think this [speech] was a deliberate step by the president to start a new discussion: Take us seriously. We’re not joking anymore. On the one hand, this is a dangerous statement, but on the other hand maybe it will convince people to stop using rhetoric that we didn’t use even during the Cold War.