reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Putin's New Old Russia

4 MINS READApr 27, 2007 | 03:00 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the union address Thursday in front of parliament and other government officials. It was supposedly his last. He put on quite a show. The speech was surrounded with a level of pomp and circumstance not seen since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian national anthem — based on the 1944 Soviet anthem — played as parliamentarians, generals, religious leaders, Cabinet ministers and close Putin confidants took their places. The camera slowly panned to the two candidates thought most likely to succeed Putin, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, sitting side-by-side. Presentation aside, the speech itself was a departure from previous state of the union addresses. Putin has traditionally used it to refocus on where Russia sees itself at present. Last year's address dealt largely with the domestic issues facing the country, with only a small amount of time devoted to criticizing the international community. One would assume that this year — as he prepares to leave office in March 2008 — Putin would recap all that he has accomplished. But instead, he used his time at the podium to reassert an identity for a united Russia and to talk in no uncertain terms about where Russia is going. Throughout the speech, Putin returned to the idea of unifying a nation that is making a comeback. He spent much time celebrating Russia's political and economic consolidation — which, he said, will allow the government to improve the standard of living for the population and address the social problems laid out in his 2006 address. He outlined a string of ambitious reforms for the housing, education and pension sectors, as well as an overhaul of the transportation, aviation and nuclear power sectors. Putin wants Russia to be great again. He has successfully consolidated his political and economic control and now hopes to stoke the fires of nationalism and rally the people behind a new Russian identity. And Russians are applauding; they have not had a strong sense of identity in 18 years. With a unified populace behind him, Putin hopes Russia can assert itself on the international scene as it has not done for decades. That assertiveness came through clearly in Putin's harsh rhetoric for the international community. He accused foreign countries of hoping "to continue plundering our national wealth as they did in the past," and trying "to deprive our country of its economic and political independence." He called for a moratorium on the implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which has been the foundation of Europe's post-Cold War security. Regardless of whether the Kremlin acts on it, this was a clear signal to the rest of the world that Russia believes it no longer needs to adhere to Western rules. Russian leaders have always included veiled threats to the West (or East) in their formal speeches. But now the government has the cash, political power and popular support it needs to make good on them. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the international community will take the Kremlin's threats seriously — even if Moscow does not actually intend to act on them. Immediately after the speech, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rebutted one of Putin's criticisms — an attack on U.S. plans for a European missile defense shield — saying, "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it." It might have been a slip of the tongue to say "Soviet" instead of "Russian," but Rice had a point — these are all Soviet ideas. Anyone who has been watching Russia in the past few years will not be surprised by this. The various signs have been apparent: the aggressive takeover of Russia's energy sector; the maneuvering among the members of Putin's inner circle; and the crackdowns on dissidents, media, political parties and foreign influence. Russia has begun to lay the groundwork for a massive revitalization that will include its energy sector, its military, its former territories and its autonomy from Western rules and demands. In effect, Putin has now announced the state's return to its old ways.

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