On Dec. 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to Russia's Federal Assembly — the Russian equivalent to the U.S. president's State of the Union address that, as such, carries a great deal of significance. This year, however, Putin's speech was markedly different from past addresses in ways that reflect both a shift in Russia's view of the world and the massive challenges that Russia now faces.
In Putin's two previous addresses since returning to the presidency in 2012 for his third term, the Russian leader opened with optimistic remarks about progress and the advance of reforms inside the country. This time, however, Putin began in a markedly different tone, focusing instead on battle. According to the president, "This year Russia faced trials that only a mature and united nation and a truly sovereign and strong state can withstand. Russia has proved that it can protect its compatriots and defend truth and fairness."
This year certainly has been a tumultuous one for Russia. It started with the uprising in Kiev that ousted the pro-Russia government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in favor of one looking to tighten integration with the West. The struggle over the future of Ukraine fueled the Russian annexation of Crimea and, in turn, led the West to impose a series of sanctions on Russia. These sanctions have exacerbated the country's sharp economic decline. Now Russia is teetering on the brink of recession — or perhaps something worse.
Putin blamed these hardships entirely on the West, primarily the United States. The president explained that whenever Russia seems too strong or independent, the West implements a broad policy of containment and that this strategy has been used for centuries. He asserted that even had the events in Ukraine not taken place, the United States and its allies would have devised another excuse to contain Russia's growing capabilities. Moreover, Putin accused the United States of influencing Russia's relations with its neighbors and said that it had become unclear "whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors."
This was not an idle diatribe, but instead a shift in Putin's view of the United States and of U.S. power. Over the past few years, Russia has considered U.S. power to be the summation of U.S. President Barack Obama's capability and bandwidth. This discounted the vast networks and resources that the United States commands beyond the institution of the presidency. Under this assumption, Russia took bold and provocative steps to undermine the United States internationally by co-opting negotiations over Syria and then by granting sanctuary to U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. Moscow advanced the notion that it was a major international player on par with the United States.
The events of this past year in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions and other economic pressures have proved Moscow's initial assumptions wrong. Putin's speech acknowledged this fact and gave the United States responsibility for much of what is negatively affecting Russia.
As it would happen, Putin's speech came shortly after a major gunbattle between security forces and militants in the Russian region of Chechnya — the first in years. The fighting left 19 dead and raised the prospect of a revival of the Chechen insurgency. Such a development would deal a major blow to the Kremlin, particularly if it came amid Russia's ongoing borderland conflict, tensions with the West and an impending economic crisis. One of the sources of Putin's continued popularity with the Russian people is his success in quelling the separatist and terrorist movements in the Northern Caucasus after two wars in the region.
Putin's speech acknowledged the attack in Chechnya and accused the West of previously celebrating such militants as freedom fighters. He said that in the past separatists have received information and political and financial support from "across the pond," referring to the United States. The speaker of Chechnya's parliament, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, suggested that the militants behind today's attack in Grozny could be fulfilling orders from the United States and NATO to politically and economically weaken Russia.
Putin's speech also indicates a change in Moscow's thinking on its looming economic crisis. Though Russia will maintain economic cooperation with both Asia and the West, the country now seems focused on protecting itself from dependence on foreign investment, trade and finance. Putin did, however, declare a full amnesty on money being sent back to Russia, allowing those returning capital from outside the country to avoid taxes and penalties. This was a tacit admission of Russia's current economic weakness and of the reality that the country cannot overcome such problems fully by itself. Putin stressed that Russia's development depended on Russians — a stark shift from the past focus on liberalization and foreign investment drives. Russia is preparing for continued uncertainty about its place in the world.
Previous Russian assumptions of U.S. weakness, Russian influence in the borderlands, Russian security stability and its economic might are being tested. How Moscow will respond remains to be seen. Putin has signaled that Moscow sees the world as a hostile place. So the main question now is whether Russia will push back with what power it has left or find a way to compromise with this shifting worldview.