KIEV, Ukraine — As the Russian economy slid toward recession, the Ukraine crisis continued unchecked, and Chechnya was hit by the worst Islamist militant attack in years, Vladimir Putin urged Russians to dig in against what he said were Western attempts to destabilize the country.
Speaking to top officials in the Kremlin for an hour and 10 minutes, Putin offered a spirited defense of Russia's annexation of Crimea, which he said was a spiritually inseparable part of the Russian nation.
"It was on this spiritual ground that our ancestors came to see themselves once and for all as a united people," Putin said, referring to Grand Prince Vladimir's acceptance of Christianity in the Crimean town of Khersones in the 10th century. "This gives us every basis to say that for Russia, Crimea, ancient Korsun — Khersones — and Sevastopol have an enormous civilizational and sacral significance. The same as the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem for those people who worship Islam or Judaism," Putin continued, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website.
Putin's annual state-of-the-union address was clearly intended to reinforce his authority and double down on Russia's policies in Ukraine as the country faces arguably its biggest crisis since he came to power nearly 15 years ago. Collapsing oil prices have seen the ruble lose over 45% of its value against the dollar since June, reaching record lows and prompting the economy ministry to predict a recession in 2015. Western economic sanctions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine have seen relations plummet to a new low reminiscent of the Cold War. A bloody shootout between police and Islamist militants in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, early Thursday morning in which at least 10 people were killed came as a reminder of two bloody separatist wars that plagued Putin throughout the early years of his rule.
Putin only mentioned the violence in Grozny in passing, saying that he was sure that "the local guys, local law enforcement would deal with it."
Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's strongman leader, even made the three-hour flight from Grozny to Moscow in time for Putin's speech, where he was filmed anxiously eyeing his iPhone.
Instead, Putin offered a by-now familiar broadside against the United States, which he said was hell-bent on using the Ukrainian conflict to destabilize Russia. Western economic sanctions were "not just the U.S. and their allies' nervous reaction to our position on the events and coup in Ukraine or even the so-called 'Crimean spring,'" he said. "I'm certain that if none of that had ever happened, they'd have thought of some other excuse to keep Russia's growing possibilities in check, to influence her, or even better — to use her in their own interests."
Though U.S. officials hope sanctions will eventually force the Kremlin to reconcile with the West, Putin's angry speech suggested Russia was instead prepared to dig in and fight back against what it sees as an existential threat. Western countries had attempted to contain Russia "for many, many years — you could say always, for decades, if not centuries," he said. The U.S. had supported insurgents in the first Chechen war in the 1990s in an attempt to "unleash a Yugoslavia scenario of collapse and partition," he said. Russia had survived the Nazi invasion in World War II and would survive Western economic pressure. "Hitler didn't manage it either when he tried to use his misanthropic ideas to destroy Russia and throw us back over the Ural mountains," he said. "Everyone should remember how that ends."
Without acknowledging Russia's military invasion and support for separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, Putin offered no sign that he was prepared to back down on the conflict. The European Union had "just told Russia to go screw ourselves" over a trade pact that prompted a revolution in Kiev a year ago when Ukraine's ex-president rejected it under Russian pressure. Ukraine's new pro-Western government was little more than a puppet regime for its "American protectors and sponsors." Fighting between government troops and the Russia-backed troops in the east, which has claimed at least 4,300 lives since April, only "proved that our position is correct."
Some of Putin's most strident notes were, for the first time in recent months, tempered. There was no reference to eastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or "New Russia." Members of the liberal opposition escaped being called a "fifth column" — or, indeed, being mentioned at all. Unity was the order of the day. Hooray-patriotism over Crimea, which has seen Putin's ratings shoot sky-high despite Russia's economic problems, was presented as a solution to even deeply rooted structural problems, such as its demographic crisis. "Natural population growth has been noted in Russia for two years now," Putin said. "If you count Crimea and Sevastopol, that'll make 146 million of us in 2014."
The key policy provisions in Putin's speech were aimed at restoring confidence over Russia's economy. As central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina looked on nervously, Putin said he had ordered her to fight back against "speculators" who he claimed were responsible for the wild fluctuations in the ruble rate. Small business would be supported by a crackdown against cumbersome regulations and the repressive bureaucratic measures corrupt officials often use to extort and expropriate private assets, as well as a four-year tax-rate freeze. Two years after proclaiming a "de-offshorization" of the Russian economy, Putin declared an "offshore capital amnesty" aimed at stemming Russia's capital flight, which the central bank estimates may top $130 billion this year. State companies would be supported with financing from Russia's rainy day fund on the condition they were more careful about how they spend their money.
Much of the rest of the speech, however, was devoted to banal and easily forgotten pronouncements of the sort that Putin has made throughout his presidency. Education and health care were to become a top priority. Russia would do everything it could to arrest the country's demographic slide. The country's life expectancy must rise.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidency warm for Putin from 2008 to 2012, even dozed off in the front row at one point.
Officials in the audience applauded 39 times. Putin's press secretary said the speech was flawless. The state-run Rossiya 24 channel dubbed it "A Message From On High."
It was the sort of thing Russians have heard many times before. With no end in sight to the global standoff over Ukraine, and with Putin set to remain in power until at least 2024, they are sure to hear it again. And again. And again. And so on, until the end.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.