Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018)
Usually the Russian President gives an Annual Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in the first week of December but on this occasion the speech was delayed and set back to 1 March 2018, some seventeen days before the Presidential elections are set to take place. Current President Vladimir Putin is standing for re-election for the second and last time, and if he regains the presidency (as many expect him to do), then this March 2018 speech will serve as the mid-point of a remarkable period in which Russia transforms from a developing country, having suffered near total economic collapse, political corruption and social decay during the 1990s after some decades of stagnation, into a major global political power with a diversifying economy balanced among manufacturing, a renascent agriculture and mining, and a considerable potential to project soft power and influence in the form of a rich history and culture. Putin himself has overseen much of the country’s reconstruction since becoming President in early 2000 and staying at or close to the helm of the nation for the past 18 years. During this period there have been very many developments for better and for worse that have influenced the path Russia has taken in its reconstruction: on one side, there have been major technological achievements that promise to transform people’s lives (not necessarily always for the better) and communities; on another side, the rise of China as a major political and economic power opens up opportunities for the Russians and Chinese to work together to bring economic, political and social benefits to their peoples; on yet another side, Russia faces the enmity of nations in the West angered that their attempts to usurp Russian natural resources from the control of the Russian people in the 1990s have failed with the ascent of Putin to the Russian Presidency.
Putin recognises the possibilities, opportunities and threats faced by Russia in his March 2018 speech: the first and larger half of his speech deals with domestic issues, and the challenges that these present to the government; the second half of his speech – and the half that has dumbfounded much of the world’s media – concentrates on Russian defence capabilities with an emphasis on new defensive technologies and weapons. Let’s look at the first half of Putin’s speech, that half that is focused on issues of concern to ordinary Russian citizens, as this is essentially dedicated to securing a foundation of stability for Russian families, communities and larger rural and urban settlements, and on which the nation’s future progress depends. Providing meaningful and well-paid work, improving and extending necessary infrastructure (including Internet-related technologies) in cities, towns and villages, building more houses and making them more affordable with the appropriate housing finance, improving healthcare, social services and education, committing to high standards of environmental safety and protection: these are all issues that the President referred to in some depth in his speech, enumerating achievements, pointing out deficiencies that could be worked upon and solved or improved, and setting out tough but attainable goals. In each topic, the President ranges from the very specific, focusing on particular problems and on targets, to the general.
A nation with the ambitions Russia has needs a sound and stable investment environment and Putin spends considerable time detailing the desired economic structures and policies needed to grow the economy to the target levels. Encouraging the growth of small businesses, investing in new or upgraded technologies, increasing wages and offering better and more accessible financial resources are some policies the government will adopt. At the same time, Putin observed that the agricultural industry has undergone a renaissance (thanks partly to economic sanctions against Russia by the US and Europe) to the extent where Russia has brought in bumper wheat harvests two years in a row and is poised to become the leading global exporter of wheat. For agriculture and other industries to continue to develop, appropriate government institutions and networks are needed to supply the proper advice and assistance to small business owners and the self-employed.
Such ambitions, goals and grand plans also need a secure environment to take root and thrive, and for much of the rest of his speech Putin focuses on the most recent advances in systems of Russian strategic defence weaponry, including nuclear-powered energy cells that can be inserted into missiles and unmanned submarine drones. Putin states that these advances and new systems are a response to the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2000, which Russia had relied upon to stop the reckless deployment of nuclear weapons. While one suspects Putin very much enjoyed delivering this part of his presentation, like a child revelling in his toys, the President also took care to praise the scientists, engineers, designers and technical people who dedicated their energies and talents in creating, testing and developing these systems and weaponry. Putin concludes his presentation by reiterating that while Russia is ready and prepared to defend itself, the nation has resolved to follow its own path to prosperity and freedom, to respect and observe international law, and to work together with other nations to preserve global peace, stability and wealth.
This is a very wide-ranging speech with much detail in its different parts with an emphasis on doing things, setting targets and striving to achieve them. Wherever possible the President emphasises collaboration and co-operation at all levels of work and hierarchy, and focuses on the unity of all individuals, groups, communities and institutions in working together. For a political speech, this presentation is visionary yet does not look or sound at all impractical or tries to bedazzle listeners with gee-whiz technical gadgetry that looks great on paper or a digital screen but morphs into an expensive white elephant in reality. The humour – yes, there is humour! – is of the dry drop-dead kind: “… Friends, Russia already has such a [hypersonic] weapon …” to take one example.
While people may wish that the ideological thrust of the President’s speech were more socialist / democratic, and the economic platform concentrating less on economic growth and concerned more with quality of life and environmental sustainability, the fact is that Putin is a pragmatic populist in his own way, who prefers to stick with the tried and true, yet somehow ends up a leader in much more than the strict political or economic sense.