MOSCOW, Russia — President Vladimir Putin used his annual state of the union address on Thursday to defend his hawkish foreign policy and blame the West for thrusting Russia into a geopolitical conflict that’s only gotten worse since the Kremlin annexed Crimea.
In what amounted to at times a screed that mixed historical grievances with lofty economic and social promises, Putin sidestepped the severity of Russia’s tanking currency, rising inflation and coming recession.
Instead, he blamed the West for attempting to sabotage his country’s economy and force the country to its knees — all while failing to mention that Moscow’s own aggressive posturing was a catalyst for the current crisis.
Putin called Russians to unite against what he contends is unwarranted foreign aggression, even comparing Western sanctions against Russia to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
“Everyone should remember how this ends,” Putin told an audience of parliamentarians and other members of Russia’s political elite in the televised address.
Observers had struggled to predict how the president would address Russia’s worst economic crisis in years (the ruble has lost more than 40 percent of its value since the beginning of the year). Putin resorted to his time-tested strategy of blaming the West for victimizing Russia.
That narrative has gone rather well for the former KGB operative, who still enjoys sky-high approval ratings and would sweep a snap presidential race, recent polls have found.
The Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea last March — which Putin cast as a historic reclaiming of what he said was like Russia's very own Temple Mount — was what spurred the West into punishing Russia.
Now, Putin regularly uses the same US and European sanctions that have helped pummel his country’s economy as a patriotic rallying cry to consolidate the population.
“I am certain that if all this had not taken place...they would have come up with another reason to contain Russia's growing capabilities, to influence it or, even better, use it for their own goals,” he said.
However, Putin’s address was short on specific ways to stave off a looming recession after Russia’s first economic contraction in five years.
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One of his only concrete proposals was a tax amnesty on any offshore capital returning to Russia — a promise that signals the Kremlin’s apparent concern over the more than $100 billion in capital flight in 2014.
It’s unclear whether that’s a good enough incentive for businessmen who’ve become frightened by a generally hostile business climate in Russia, made worse by Moscow’s aggressive posturing at home and abroad.
That kind of rhetoric was on display when Putin ordered the Central Bank to weed out mysterious “speculators” who’ve allegedly caused the ruble to crash.
“The authorities know who these speculators are and have the tools to influence them,” he said, as the ruble weakened further during his speech. “The time has come to use these tools.”
Putin also pledged streamlined regulations for small and medium businesses, which are regularly preyed upon by corrupt officials who exploit opaque and clunky rules. Currently, those schemes form a cornerstone of Russia’s shadow economy and enrich countless layers of bureaucracy.
Overall, however, Putin’s address was aimed at bolstering a message that’s played out tirelessly across state-owned media here, trumpeting a sense of heroism, defiance and achievement.
“The difficulties we are facing create for us new opportunities,” he said in his closing remarks. “We are ready to meet any challenge of the times and win.”