Putinology: The Russian President’s Address in Perspective

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual “State of the Nation” address was panned by Western analysts and observers, who used terms like “bitter,” “angry” and “vengeful” to describe a speech they had expected to signal a new phase of the year-old Russian-Ukrainian conflict. When it failed to meet their expectations, they criticized the speech as “underwhelming.” The fact is, however, that Putin’s address told the careful listener much about where the Russian leader stands on the conflict and the anticipated trajectory of the country going forward.   

At the height of the Cold War, US intelligence analysts would engage in what became known as “Kremlinology” — the arcane art of trying to understand the inner workings of the Soviet Politburo by analyzing who was standing next to whom, gestures, facial expressions, and other such minutiae. But the best CIA analysts got their entrée onto the Presidential Daily Briefing — the agency’s elite intelligence product — not by engaging in people-watching, but rather through the age-old analytical methodology of listening to what Soviet officials said and reading what they wrote. The CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) would publish daily collections of translated newspaper, television and radio reports from within the Soviet Union, which provided detailed texts of statements made by Soviet officials on a wide variety of topics. Some CIA analysts brushed the FBIS reports off as Soviet propaganda, but others thoroughly evaluated their contents and briefed the president accordingly.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual “State of the Nation” address before the Russian Federal Assembly on Feb. 21, some in the West dismissed his speech as a tour de force of modern Russian propaganda, filled with empty platitudes about Russian capabilities and dangerous threats regarding Russian intentions — all designed to cover up the fact that Russia was losing its year-long war with Ukraine. The reality, however, was different: Putin’s address was a report card on the state of Russia one year into a conflict characterized as existential in nature. Not only did the Russian president give his nation high grades, he asserted that Russia was on a trajectory for victory that would redefine Russia’s relationship with those opposing its war with Ukraine.

War Objectives

The gulf between Vladimir Putin’s characterization of the foundations of the conflict in Ukraine and the narrative promulgated in the West could not be wider. In delivering his address, however, the Russian leader was not engaged in a debate over historical accuracy or legal interpretation, but rather delivering a statement of Russian perception and intent. What the informed listener should take away from Putin’s speech was that Russia firmly believes that it is the aggrieved party, and that the perceptions shaped by this belief will dictate Russia’s perspectives on how this conflict will end.

For anyone confused by the lack of a call by Putin for Russia to march on Kyiv, the Russian leader made the strategic goals of the Ukrainian conflict quite clear — the “social restoration” of the territories of the Donbas and “Noyvo Rossiya” (New Russia, comprising the districts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) that were annexed last year and will serve as an industrialized bridge connecting Crimea with the rest of Russia. As for Russia’s military goals, the Russian leader emphasized that these would be set by the nature of the military assistance being provided by the West to Ukraine, in particular long-range artillery systems. “The greater the range of these systems,” Putin noted, “the further away we will be forced to move the threat from our borders.”

Putin noted that, from Russia’s point of view, the goal of the West was “to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia,” and that Russia would “react in an appropriate way.” The way he addressed the Russian people — for example, “the engineers of defense factories who are working several shifts now” — made it obvious that Putin was addressing a nation mobilized for war. Moreover, the Russian leader did not shy away from the cost of this conflict, pointedly addressing “every family of a fallen soldier and every veteran of the action” in terms that specifically likened their sacrifices to those of “the Great Patriotic War,” or World War II.

Such an analogy is not made lightly, given the psychological connectivity that exists between that conflict, which cost the Soviet Union 27 million lives, and modern Russian society, which every May 9 celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany with a parade of the “Immortal Regiment” — family members carrying portraits of those they lost, or who served, in that conflict.

‘Economic Aggression’

Putin placed significant emphasis on what he called a war of “economic aggression” being waged by the West against Russia, the goal of which is to “destabilize our society from inside.” Putin claimed that, from the Russian perspective, this effort has failed miserably. Russia, Putin declared, had stabilized its economy, preserved employment, solidified its financial system and created an economy capable of sustaining business and developing the nation as a whole.

What makes these claims more notable is that the Russian economy has transitioned to a near wartime footing. “We should not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Putin said, alluding to the overemphasis of the defense industry during Soviet times, and noting that Russia “should not try to destroy our own economy” in the pursuit of “cannons instead of butter.” In this, Putin claimed to have been successful. “Many domestic sectors of economy,” he said, “not only did not reduce, but they also increased.”

To achieve this, the Russian president stated, Russia has divorced itself from both the legacy of Soviet times and the “privatization of the ’90s” — the combined effects of which had nearly brought Russia to its knees economically. The Western “war of economic aggression,” Putin said, has enabled Russia to free itself from the Western model of capitalism, and instead seek “a very robust self-sufficient economy.” Putin also noted, with little sympathy, that Western sanctions have broken the back of the Russian oligarch class, further liberating the modern Russian economy.

Putin’s emphasis of the economy over the military, and of economic and social growth over geopolitical expansion, should be noted by those trying to define the West’s support for Ukraine as resistance to a new era of Russian imperial power. Moreover, Putin’s address informed the careful listener that Moscow sees itself as engaged in a war defined not by the calendar, but by objective-driven performance; that those objectives center on the annexed territories and Crimea; and that the Russian leader views the conflict as global, not regional, in terms of scope and scale.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Military Conflict, Security Risk , Sanctions, Alternative View
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