On Thursday at high noon, Vladimir Putin bounded out of two gigantic golden doors into the Kremlin’s glittering St. George’s Hall, where Russia’s top 1,000 officials were waiting for their president to diagnose the state of the nation in an annual address.
Russia is in a war with terrorists that can only be won by joining with the other great powers of the world, Putin said. The treachery of false friends will never be forgotten. Only united will the nation overcome the challenges at hand.
“For a long time, Russia has been on the front line of the fight against terror. It’s a fight for freedom, truth, and justice — for the lives of our people and the future of all civilization,” he said. “In the fight against terrorism, Russia has demonstrated the utmost responsibility and leadership.”
Putin repeated his proposition for a global coalition against Islamic State that he first made at the United Nations in September. He railed against Turkey for shooting down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last week, warning that the Kremlin’s response to the “heinous war crime” wouldn’t be limited to an embargo on Turkish tomatoes or construction companies.
Little in the president’s speech was new or surprising. What was telling were the things he chose not to say.
If his last address to the nation was all about Russia’s glorious annexation of Crimea and its never-ending struggle against American hegemony, this year Putin didn’t mention Ukraine a single time.
The widows of the two Russian servicemen killed during the shoot-down incident were present in the audience, and Putin acknowledged their sacrifice with a moment of silence. In contrast, the Russian soldiers killed in the Kremlin’s covert war in eastern Ukraine never received any official recognition.
From Putin’s point of view, the dismemberment of Ukraine is no longer a priority. Riven by infighting and increasingly unpopular, the pro-Western government in Kiev may self-destruct all on its own. An eastern sliver of the country is firmly under the control of Russian-backed separatists. And if the Kremlin can appear to be an invaluable partner in fighting Islamic State, European countries may find it more difficult to renew sanctions imposed because Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
In the speech, Putin poked the Americans in the eye only once, making an indirect reference to the United States as the instigator of the mayhem that has broken loose over the greater Middle East. “We know why that happened,” he said. “We know who wanted to replace objectionable regimes, brutally imposing their own rules.”
Even NATO’s invitation to Montenegro to join the alliance this week couldn’t provoke Putin. It’s hard to be at war with Western civilization when you’re also claiming to save it.
While Putin described the main enemy as “international terrorism,” he uttered “Islamic State” not once, nor any of the group’s other names. A casual listener could have been excused for concluding that the real enemy is Turkey.
Putin only made a passing reference to the Russian passenger plane that blew up over Egypt in October, killing all 224 people on board in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. He also made no mention of an Islamic State video that purportedly shows the beheading of “a Russian spy.”
Instead, Putin focused his wrath on Turkey, blaming its “ruling clique” for shooting the Russian airmen in the back. “We know who in Turkey is stuffing their pockets and is letting terrorists prosper from selling oil they stole in Syria,” he said. On Wednesday, Russia’s defense ministry said it had proof that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family were benefiting from Islamic State’s shadowy oil trade.
Putin said that any disagreements could have been settled through peaceful means, implying that if Turkey hadn’t shot down the warplane, the Kremlin wouldn’t be making such a hullabaloo about oil deals with terrorists. “Only Allah knows why they did it,” Putin said to applause.
After hailing Russia’s fight against evil in the world, Putin turned his attention to the more mundane business of running a petro-economy at a time of low oil prices and Western sanctions. “The situation is in fact difficult,” the president said. “But as I’ve said before, it’s not critical.”
He then listed a number of measures to reform the economy that may very well have been lifted from a speech he gave 10 years ago: ending dependence on natural resources, fighting corruption, improving the investment climate. There’s now a free-trade zone with Vietnam, Putin said proudly. Russia should become the world’s largest exporter of “healthy, ecologically pure foods,” he suggested.
As Putin droned on into the second half hour of his speech, state-run Channel One showed numerous officials in the audience with shut eyes. Nobody dared tap out a text message or whisper to a neighbor. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov fought off fatigue by making his eyes as round as saucers. One man scratched his ears with both hands.
Russians interested in the true state of the nation were wondering if Putin would address a growing protest by truck drivers incensed about a new toll. Nothing.
Muckraking anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny on Tuesday published a detailed investigation accusing Prosecutor General Yury Chaika’s family of links to the mob. Also nothing — though Channel One zoomed in on a stone-faced Chaika as Putin lectured on the need for officials to disclose income and property.
Everybody in St. George’s Hall was forced to listen to the czar’s tales, even though they hardly described the challenges facing Russia today. Putin’s speech was an exercise in self-hypnosis by an autocracy incapable of rejuvenating itself. Last year it was fighting fascists and NATO legions, this year terrorists and their accomplices. Next year there will have to be a new enemy.