In his speech to the Federal Assembly yesterday, Vladimir Putin demonstrated repeatedly that Russia will stand up to the USA intellectually and physically to defend not merely its own national security, but to advance its own values…Read on
Making sense of Vladimir Putin’s State of the Nation Address, 12 December 2013
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Putin’s 12 December Address to the Federal Assembly received a great deal of attention during its delivery. Besides full live coverage on the Russian state television in both domestic and satellite channels, Euronews also provided a live link to global audiences. However, follow-up commentary was tepid. Some journalists remarked that the speech lacked sparkle. One described Putin’s demeanor as that of a khozyaistvennik or prudent manager, husbanding the nation’s reduced resources in times of weak GDP growth to ensure that his major targets for social and economic development are funded. Though admirable, this is not much to excite an audience.
However, as I set out below, through both the domestic issues that took up two-thirds of the speech and in the foreign policy and military affairs sections of the speech making up the balance, Vladimir Putin gave us a very clear understanding of why Russia’s relations with the United States, and through the US, with Europe are likely to be fraught in the coming several years. This is so because he demonstrated repeatedly in his speech that Russia will stand up to the USA intellectually and physically to defend not merely its own national security, but to advance its own values. In this open challenge, he stands virtually alone among the world’s statesmen.
Whereas the Russian President has in the past come across as a pragmatist above all, it seems from this speech that he has finally put together an integral world view, almost an ideology, and by definition ideologies may sacrifice practical results on a higher altar. In effect he repudiated the fundamental points in the current American ideology, which draws so heavily on Neocon thinking and was conveyed graphically by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History in the image of a single train track on which all nations are traveling, some ahead and some further back. Not so, said Putin flatly, defending instead the uniqueness of national traditions and diversity of development paths. We have here an ideological confrontation that is not so comprehensive as during the Cold War, when Marxism was opposed to free market capitalism, but there is an undeniable clash nonetheless. It is backed up by an open arms race that Putin described with unusual frankness.
In arguing for uniqueness, Putin was by no means turning his back on the world. Indeed in a number of points he made reference to global benchmarks, such as the efficiency of labor or the number of days to get official authorization for exports, where Russia lags behind. Moreover, he spoke favorably of solutions to social and administrative problems taken straight from the developed industrial countries, such as for public health services: placing insurance companies between the state Treasury and the citizen. In the military domain, Putin called for introduction of reserve officers training on university campuses in line with American practices. And he cited the number of privates and sergeants on contract in the Russian army as it slowly turns professional, in emulation of the American army.
But in other areas he called for restoring meritorious practices of pre-revolutionary and also Soviet times. I think in particular of his stress at the beginning of his speech on greater public participation in local self-government as the long-range solution to preparing officials with superior skills to enter the competition for elected office at the federal level. He mentioned this in relation to the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Zemstvo reforms, one of the most successful and powerful innovations of Tsar Alexander II. It bears mention that this is a subject which Putin discussed at length in the past with Alexander Solzhenityn, its fervent supporter.
In this address, Putin propounded traditional Russian values of family life and spirituality. He denounced moral relativism.. He described the assault on traditions coming from above in many (Western) societies as being undemocratic in nature.
Putin unabashedly declared that his country is a defender of conservatism, which he then explained in terms of the 19th century Russian philosopher Berdyaev, who was no obscurantist. This is all a direct push-back against the political correctness on LGBT and much else coming from Washington and Brussels.
From the section of his speech devoted to foreign affairs, the international media have seized upon his statement that Russia does not seek to be a superpower, without exploring his meaning which was explicit: a nation which exerts hegemonic control at the global or regional level, a country which takes others under its protection, which tries to teach others how to live. All of this, of course, is a lightly veiled and trenchant criticism of America. He did not describe the USA as the ‘empire of evil,’ but he came close.
Putin insists Russia is a key guarantor of world and regional stability, a state which respects international law, national sovereignty and the uniqueness of peoples. Putin held up with pride the two recent cases where Russian insistence on political solutions, not ‘bare fists’ to resolve thorny international problems is winning out over the American-led policies of sanctions amounting to economic warfare or of military intervention itself: in Iran and in Syria.
An hour into the address, Putin took up his final topic, the Armed Forces. From the get-go this was directed at the unseen audience in Washington. His mention of America’s Prompt Global Strike program was intended to influence the debate on this program within the Congress, and within the Pentagon itself, where skeptical voices have been raised over likely responses from adversaries.
One must understand in this context Putin’s stress on Russia’s ongoing modernization of its nuclear triad for land, sea and air implementation. This follows on nicely with the remarks of deputy premier for the defense industry Dmitry Rogozin a few days earlier. Rogozin had called nuclear weapons Russia’s great equalizer and reiterated Russia’s strategic policy of not hesitating over first use if it faced an existential threat from conventional arms.
Putin’s remark that Russia would never allow another country to enjoy military superiority over it was also addressed over the heads of his audience to the USA. He went on to drop a few tantalizing details that do not usually enter the public discourse. He named the figure of appropriations for rearming the army and navy, for modernizing defense industry complex: 23 trillion rubles, or a whopping 500 billion euros. And he said that the complex is fully booked for rest of the decade. He also put a number on the military industrial complex itself, saying it employs 2 million and so provides a living to 7 million of Russia’s 143 million citizens. These figures tally rather well with the SIPRI statistics on Russia’s share of GDP allocated to the military (4.5%), which is at parity with the USA and three times greater than EU countries. It is also 5 times less than in Soviet days and so is entirely sustainable.
It remains a subject for conjecture whether what is being rolled out as a state ideology for the Russian Federation is strictly reactive and defensive or can assume a life of its own. Moreover, one must ask whether it serves Russian interests to be so exposed to American wrath over its loud and principled rejection of The American Way? Time will tell.
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013