President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly (parliament), delivered last Wednesday, April 21, following a long delay, was anticipated to present a whole host of major surprises; but the speech turned out to be surprising only for its extraordinarily low content. Many local commentators mused that the firmly entrenched leader seemingly has nothing left to say to Russia’s disillusioned society. Despite the need to devote greater attention to the country’s social and economic problems, Russian economists were disappointed with the lack of a meaningful plan for stimulating a recovery, and they pointed to the actual meagerness of the announced financial “gifts” to domestic businesses and the suffering population. Putin showed scant interest in reading out the superfluous instructions to the state bureaucracy for how it must deal with the various mundane issues that continue to accumulate in many sectors and regions. Moreover, his praise for Russia’s achievements in countering the COVID-19 pandemic rang hollow considering that the pace of vaccination remains slow and estimates of excess mortality continue to be shockingly high. As such, perhaps the most illustrative aspect of the Russian president’s national address was its deliberate omissions of the most demanding problems.
The first glazed-over item on this list is the sharp escalation of the Ukraine crisis caused by the massive, weeks-long concentration of Russian troops on its borders. A day after Putin’s speech, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that those purportedly snap exercises were completed and the assembled battalion groups would be returning to their bases—which most observers took for the clear sign the Kremlin was seeking to de-escalate tensions. The declaration may, however, be just an attempt to hide Moscow’s real intentions. Many experts pointed out that the movement of Russian troops in the last few weeks was demonstratively open, without the usual measures of maskirovka, or camouflage. Shoigu’s order, in contrast, potentially provides an actual cover-up; and the battalions, which have left most of their heavy equipment in the temporary camps, can quickly return to those forward positions if the ongoing gunfights in the Donbas war zone were to suddenly become kinetic.
The decision to reduce the pressure on Ukraine—even if perhaps temporarily—was part of the complicated exchange of signals between Moscow and Washington, which elevated Russia’s international profile to the level it feels entitled to. Putin duly participated in the April 22 global climate summit organized by United States President Joseph Biden, even if the Kremlin leader had nothing to contribute. But he is much more interested in the proposition for a bilateral summit and wants to focus the desired conversation on issues of strategic stability. This would allow Russia to capitalize on its assertive development of “new-generation combat systems,” proudly mentioned in Putin’s address last week. This presumed leverage, the Kremlin expects, should help neutralize the threat of further US sanctions that have started to target Russia’s financial system.
Another new round of sanctions is looming, however, and the State Department notified the Russian charge d’affaires in Washington about this development. The cause is the explosive scandal in Russia’s relations with the Czech Republic (Czechia), to which Putin referred only elliptically in his address. The investigation into the act of sabotage at the Vrbetice ammunition depot on October 16, 2014, produced solid evidence of involvement of Russian military intelligence (GRU), compelling the Czech authorities to take punitive measures. Russia opted to respond to the expulsion of 18 diplomats from Prague by ousting 20 from Moscow, and it rejected the demand to reconsider; consequently, the Russian foreign ministry must now deal with a mandated reduction of the staff of its embassy to a level equal with the Czech embassy in Russia, where only seven diplomats remain. The planned retribution reportedly will also involve economic sanctions, including a ban on the import of Czech beer. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union declared their full support to Prague’s position, so Russian sanctions will test this solidarity. Yet Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (and earlier Poland) have already announced expulsions of Russian spies/diplomats. Russia cannot possibly win this stand-off, but it needs to follow through on Putin’s promise of “asymmetrical, swift and tough” responses to hostile acts.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in Putin’s address was the process of integration with Belarus, which was beginning to resemble a looming hostile corporate takeover. The visit of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who maintains his control over Belarus in part through brutal police power, was scheduled for the day after Putin’s performance before the joint session of parliament, presumably in order to ratify the de facto annexation, but nothing of any significance was actually agreed at this meeting. The only breaking news was the alleged break-up in Moscow of a dubious conspiracy to assassinate Lukashenka, and it was the only paragraph in the national address that Putin read with some passion. Russian security services have a long tradition of inventing phantasmagoric plots, but they are certainly capable of removing a foreign leader dependent on Moscow should he become stubborn or merely inconvenient. It is probably the depth of the economic crisis in Belarus and the costs of incorporating that nine-million-person country into Russia that dissuaded Putin from progressing with a “historic reunification”.
Each of these empty spaces in Putin’s pompous discourse signify a decision not taken and a problem left hanging until an opportune moment, of which this spring has provided rather few. His risk calculations might appear beyond irresponsible to Western leaders, who mostly seek to minimize troubles emanating from Russia. Many of them would likely be glad to forget Belarus and leave Ukraine to its troubles, but that would grant Putin the opportunity he missed while amassing troops in Crimea and just outside Donbas. US leadership is crucial for denying Russia an opening for establishing military bases in Belarus or the freedom to intimidate Czechia, and Putin counts on the dissipation of Biden’s attention after the strong push in many directions during the symbolically significant 100 days period. It is not only up to the US to sustain the momentum and keep Putin off-balance; the Europeans—parochial and disagreeable as they normally are—have to commit to containment of the implacable autocrat at their doorstep.