What Putin Did And Didn’t Say In His State-Of-The-Nation Speech – Analysis


By Mike Eckel and Robert Coalson

(RFE/RL) — Six years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood before a joint gathering of Russia’s two chambers of parliament, along with dozens of cabinet and other government officials, and boasted that the country was developing a slew of powerful new weapons, a pointed warning to the West.

On February 29, he did the same thing again.

But as he did back in 2018, Putin proceeded to spend the vast majority of his more-than-two-hour speech diving deep into the minutiae of Russia’s domestic problems, discussing things like the minimum wage and tax rates and financial support for mothers and installing new heating-gas pipelines.

The state-of-the-nation speech comes just two weeks before an election that Putin is certain to win, securing a fifth term in office and prolonging his tenure as what is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since the tsarist era.

There wasn’t a lot of electioneering in the speech. Nor was it dominated by the Kremlin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, which is now in its third year with no end in sight. Since it began, some 330,000 Russian troops have been wounded or killed, according to Western estimates, and hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country, fearing being called up to fight in Ukraine.

Here are some takeaways from the February 29 address:

‘It’s Not My War, It’s Our War’

Putin spoke about the war against Ukraine in broad strokes. But he took pains to portray it as a national effort — a common cause that has united the country.

“The decisive role in this just struggle belongs to our citizens, our unity and dedication to our native country, and our responsibility for its fate,” he said. And while evidence indicates that many senior Russian officials did not learn of the invasion until it was under way, and millions of Russians were stunned by the decision, Putin asserted that widespread support “clearly and unambiguously appeared from the beginning of the special military operation.”

He lauded workers for “working triple shifts,” as well as entrepreneurs, engineers, laborers, volunteers, charities, political parties, and others for “their responsible, tireless work to support Russia’s interests.”

In his bid to spread responsibility to the entire population, Putin ignored the tens of thousands of people who uprooted their lives and fled the country in the weeks following the February 2022 invasion and the second massive wave of emigration that came when Putin announced a military mobilization that September.

Nongovernment media, both national and local, were also largely driven from the country or forced to shut down, including high-profile outlets such as Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd TV, and Novaya gazeta.

Putin’s narrative of broad support also did not account for the fact that the government has mandated this apparent unity with draconian laws against dissent that have resulted in thousands of prosecutions and an ever-growing number of long prison terms for “discrediting” the armed forces and the like.

Saber-Rattling. Again.

Like in 2018, and the following year as well, Putin used his speech to boast about Russia’s new weaponry, sending threatening signals to NATO and the West.

He bragged about hypersonic weapons that have been under development for years: the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile and the Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic, naval-launched cruise missile. The Kinzhal has been confirmed in the Ukraine conflict; the Tsirkon has not.

Putin said both had already been used in Ukraine.

He also boasted about other previously revealed weapon systems — the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Peresvet laser weapon, and two others he said were near completion: the Poseidon nuclear-capable underwater drone and the nuclear-powered cruise missile known as the Burevestnik.

What was more notable was how Putin framed the new weapons. He nodded to comments days earlier when French President Emmanual Macron suggested the theoretical possibility of troops from NATO members being openly deployed to Ukraine to help in its defense against the Russian invasion.

“We also have weapons that can strike targets on their territory,” Putin said. “Do they not understand this?” 

The West “must, in the end, understand that all this truly threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization,” he said.

“We remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to the territory of our country,” Putin said in what appeared to be a reference to past invasions by Napoleon in the 18th century and Hitler in the 20th century.

“But now the consequences for potential interventionists will be much more tragic,” he said.

Does this mean Russia is about to attack Europe or NATO — something that several NATO members have said is a growing possibility in the coming years?

For the moment, the answer is no. But Putin’s threat may have been intended to spook NATO members, choking off any potential discussion about deploying NATO forces.

Putin also took aim at what he and the more hawkish elements of the Russian security and intelligence community consider to be the country’s greatest adversary and rival: the United States.

Decades of arms-control treaties between the two countries have frayed to the point of total collapse. Efforts to keep the last major treaty — New START — from expiring with no replacement in 2026 have faltered, as Russia seeks to broaden negotiations to include other issues, such as Ukraine, while the United States calls for focusing solely on arms control.

“There have been more and more unsubstantiated accusations against Russia, for example that we are allegedly going to deploy nuclear weapons in space,” Putin said. “Such innuendo, which is nothing but innuendo, is a ploy to draw us into negotiations on their terms, which are favorable only to the United States.”

“The words of today’s American authorities about their alleged interest in negotiations with us on strategic-stability issues are demagoguery…they simply want to show their citizens and everyone else that they still rule the world.”

The Old Is New Again

Although Putin devoted space in the speech to the war against Ukraine and to Russia’s confrontation with the West, he didn’t dwell on them at length as he has in many appearances since the invasion was launched.

By far the bulk of the speech was given over to programmatic issues, such as how many square meters of new housing should be constructed annually and what average life expectancy should be by 2030.

There were long sections with proposals relating to demographic decline, the gasification of urban areas, developing industry and agriculture, and improving the health-care and education sectors. He called for the reduction of inspections of businesses and for an amnesty to companies that renounce tax evasion.

That large section of the speech closely resembled the content and style of his early state-of-the-nation addresses, stretching back to the 2000s.

In 2005, early in his second term, Putin laid out the so-called national projects, aimed at bringing about dramatic improvements in the realm of housing, medical care, education, and agriculture. Almost two decades later, he was describing those challenges and the means of addressing them in very similar terms

All Politics Is Local

Over nearly 24 years as Russia’s preeminent political figure, Putin has refined the art of mastering small details — painstaking or mind-numbing or both. It’s one of the skills that has helped cement his enduring popularity among much of the Russia electorate.

This year’s speech was no exception, with the majority of it dedicated to domestic policy proposals that he said would combat poverty, boost the country’s flagging birthrate, provide support for veterans, and improve educational access.

Sketching out a six-year plan for spending and investments, Putin drilled down deep into the nuances of laying new natural-gas lines in far-flung corners of the country. He discussed changing the format of the Unified State Exam, a nationally administered exam taken by millions of high-school students prior to entering universities.

He called for boosting industrial production, calling for manufacturers to increase production of high-tech goods by 150 percent, and prioritized the development of domestically produced medicines and automobiles.

He called for writing off municipal debts for some regions, and for offering up to 250 billion rubles ($2.75 billion) in infrastructure loans to spur investment in creaky municipal facilities. And he suggested rejiggering the country’s Tax Code to hike rates on high earners.

Election, What Election?

With the March 15-17 election fast approaching, one might expect a speech of this sort — it was nationally televised by the main state channels and lavishly covered by Kremlin-allied media — would be full of election slogans and bumper-sticker proposals, to help gin up support from undecided voters.

In Putin’s Russia, there’s less need for that. The election campaign has been devoid of the usual activities: campaign rallies, debates, ribbon-cuttings, barnstorming trips to regions where support is seen as flagging.

Ahead of the address, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov himself said it could be viewed “to a large degree as his election program.”

But Putin’s speech bore few hallmarks of that type: there were no calls to come to the polls, no praise for election workers, no paeans to the democratic process. 

That said, the Kremlin and its powerful presidential administration — which is intimately involved in engineering the entire election process — appears eager to make sure there is a plausibly high turnout among Russian voters, and that the percentage of the vote in Putin’s favor is also plausibly high.

The newspaper Kommersant reported last year that Kremlin policy advisers were aiming for 70 percent turnout, with the victor receiving at least 75 percent of the vote, and Putin’s spokesman said last year that he would receive more than 90 percent.

To that end, Putin did announce several clearly populist measures: foremost was the pledge to double the monthly minimum wage by 2030, up to 35,000 rubles ($385). With inflation running at around 7.5 percent for 2023, that will be perceived as a clear boon for many middle-wage earners, even though the increase is being phased in over six years.

The wage, which is used to calculate all sort of public subsidies and tariffs, already increased by 18.5 percent since the beginning of 2023.

Putin also made the argument in defense of Russia’s political system, despite the fact that the country’s elections ceased years ago to be free, fair, competitive, or even transparent, according to both Russian and Western election observers.

“Russia’s political system is one of the foundations of the country’s sovereignty,” Putin said. “We will not let anyone interfere in our domestic affairs.”

  • Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
  • Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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