President Vladimir Putin addressed the Duma for the 13th time last week. Though there were no revelations in the speech—no bold new visions for the development of the country were proffered—the focus was notably different. Russia’s President talked much less about foreign policy than in the previous three years, and this time his rhetoric sounded conciliatory. This little twist was predictable: the independent Levada Center had published a new poll two days before Putin’s address reporting that two-thirds of Russians would welcome an improvement in relations with the West.
Vladimir Putin rarely echoes the vox populi directly, and given the possibility of improved relations with the incoming Trump Administration, Putin was likely to change the tone of his messaging on relations with the West this year regardless of what polls said. But the Kremlin is mindful of polls, and the Levada survey provided Putin with cover to do what he probably wanted to do anyway.
In earlier speeches, Putin explained Russia’s relationship to the West in terms of righteousness, speaking from the perspective of an empire that merely claims what simply belongs to it. Last week, perhaps channeling the public mood, Russia’s President described Russia as a victim that is nonetheless willing to make amends with its tormentors—a principle made famous in a Russian comedy titled To Those To Whom I am Indebted, I Forgive Everything:
You all know that we have encountered attempts to pressure us from abroad over these last years. I mentioned this twice. They have used every means: from spreading myths about Russian aggression, propaganda and meddling in others’ elections to persecuting our athletes, including our Paralympic athletes. […]
What I want to say is that everyone has more than had their fill now of media campaigns carried out to order, the fabrication and publication of compromising material, and moralising lectures. If need be, we can lecture whoever, but we understand our responsibility and we have a sincere desire to take part in resolving global and regional problems, in situations, of course, where our involvement is fitting, wanted and needed.
We do not want confrontation with anyone. We have no need for it and neither do our partners or the global community. Unlike some of our colleagues abroad, who consider Russia an adversary, we do not seek and never have sought enemies. We need friends.
When talking about relations with the United States, Putin said:
Russia is also ready to work with the new U.S. Administration. It is important to put bilateral relations back on track and to develop them on an equal and mutually beneficial basis. […]
I certainly count on joining efforts with the United States in the fight against real rather than fictional threats, international terrorism being one of them. That is the task our servicemen are fulfilling in Syria. Terrorists have suffered significant losses. The Russian Army and Navy have shown convincingly that they are capable of operating effectively away from their permanent deployment sites.
(Incidentally, the day after Putin’s speech, Levada published another survey, this time reporting that 63 percent of Russians think Ukraine should both be an independent country and have good relations with Russia. Only 27 percent strongly favored that Russia should keep Ukraine tightly in its orbit, exerting political and economic control over its neighbor.)
Having minimized the part of his speech having to do with international affairs, Vladimir Putin could have been expected to concentrate instead on domestic matters. But it was not to be. Most of his themes were retreads from years past. Echoing last year’s speech, Putin talked about the need to reduce the pressure of the siloviki on business. These calls were never convincing to being with, but they sounded particularly hollow in the context of all the arrests and searches conducted by the FSB this year (extensively familiar to our readers). The only thing even vaguely new was Putin’s tax proposal: he proposed shifting the tax burden away from businesses in order to stimulate growth. Any changes to the tax system, which will apparently include an overall tax hike, should be done no earlier than 2018, Putin surmised—after Presidential elections.
Overall, there was a palpable mustiness to Putin’s address—a kind of Brezhnev-era sense of stagnation permeated the speech. (Putin perhaps had Brezhnev in mind when he mused to Interfax earlier this week about his retirement plans. He does not appear to want to leave office “feet-first”.) One national goal was proposed by Putin, however. Like Barack Obama, who announced a national “moonshot” initiative at his last State of the Union address—a fight to eliminate cancer—Vladimir Putin also spoke about Russia’s top priority in medicine: to provide all the hospitals in the country with high-speed internet.