22 February, 2023
Putin’s Address: First Impressions
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On 21 February, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin gave his belated annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. While the Russian Constitution requires the president to address the Federal Assembly at least once a year, the last time Vladimir Putin did so was in April of 2021. Our experts analyze the outcomes and draw their conclusions from what was being said – and what was not.
A particular emphasis of this speech was the allegedly defensive and reactive character of Russia's offensive and genocidal war. Putin's portrayal of the February 2022 large-scale invasion of Ukraine as provoked by Western plans and activities to attack Russia was addressed to both, domestic and foreign audiences. Internal support for, and international patience with, the Russian so-called "special operation" is declining. At the same time, Moscow can present neither impressive military victories nor plausible scenarios for an endgame of the war or for a Russian economic revival. Against this background, Putin and his propagandists continue to embrace conspiratorial, often far-right anti-Western discourses to justify their policies and legitimize their power.
In the absence of obvious military victories to declare, Putin chose to attack the last of the remaining Russian-American treaties in the field of strategic stability. The main sensation of Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly was the announcement of the suspension of Russia's participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed in 2010. New START was the last surviving Russian-American agreement from the now-destroyed system of strategic stability treaties. It should be remembered that in the Soviet years, arms control negotiations were a convenient communication channel between Moscow and Washington, which helped in critical situations. Now this door is closed. Having lost the entire nuclear arms control system, humankind finds itself in a situation similar to the one on the eve of the Cuban Missile crisis.
Putin’s annual address is constructed on several key narratives which aim to increase domestic political support as well as assert Russia’s leadership in international arena. A substantial part of Putin’s speech is devoted to stressing the economic strength of Russia and its resilience to the Western pressure caused by international sanctions. Another narrative, which has been highly popular with ordinary Russians focuses on attacking wealthy businessmen, especially those living abroad. Putin sent a warning to business elites that they will never be able to ensure the safety of their assets abroad and will always be treated in foreign countries as second-rate immigrants. A better choice for them would be to invest in Russia, to start new projects in their motherland and use the opportunity to gain respect of the Russian state and society.
Apart from the START suspension, the speech largely lacked new elements. In typical Kremlin style, the build-up fed expectations and fears of a new wave of mobilization - but no such announcement materialized. The omission was probably meant to avoid causing alarm among the public, but at the same time it was clear that Putin signaled several new steps towards mobilization and militarization of the whole society ”for Russia’s right to be strong” as he put it (quoting Stolypin). Also, there are currently no legal limitations to a continued, or stepped-up mobilization with or without a formal announcement - the decision from last year remains valid. The focus on social benefits for Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine inevitably raises the question about how strong the alleged support among the citizens actually is.