What To Watch For In Putin’s Annual Address – Analysis


By Robert Coalson

(RFE/RL) — Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliver his annual address to parliament and the nation on February 29, less than three weeks before an election that is set to hand him a new six-year term in the Kremlin.

Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, uses the nationally televised speech to send signals to audiences at home and abroad.

As he prepares for the noncompetitive vote on March 15-17, Putin is likely to comment on matters ranging from the economy to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its third year.

He may not stray far from well-worn narratives and propaganda, but the points he chooses to emphasize and the pose he adopts will set the tone for a country mired in war and repression.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The War That Must Not Be Called A War

In his two-hour state-of-the-nation address in February 2023, Putin devoted a large portion of his time to repeating his justifications for the full-scale invasion that he launched 12 months earlier. This year, he may repeat his false claims that Kyiv is run by fascists or that Ukraine is not a real country, but analysts will cut through any such material to look for clues as to how optimistic Putin is about the progress of the war and see whether he nudges the goalposts for what he hopes to achieve.

The meager results of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive, Russia’s recent capture of the eastern city of Avidiyivka, and growing signals of war fatigue from Ukraine’s supporters in the West may have emboldened Putin and the hawks within his inner circle.

However, there have been signs of war fatigue inside Russia as well. The relatives of soldiers have been increasingly vocal with calls to bring their loved ones home, while a wave of significant protests swept the Bashkortostan region in January, fueled at least in part by the widespread belief that families from non-Russian ethnic minorities are bearing a disproportionate share of the war’s burden. The short-lived presidential bid of anti-war would-be candidate Boris Nadezhdin, who has been barred from the ballot, generated impressive shows of popular support when people stood in long lines to endorse his candidacy.

How Putin balances these competing pressures regarding the war — which the Kremlin still insists be referred to by the euphemism “special military operation” — could be telling. During his combined press conference and public Q&A session in December, he insisted that the war would continue and that Moscow’s goals had not changed.

‘Enemies’ Foreign…

Analysts will also be watching the way Putin describes the confrontation between Russia and the West. In the throes of an election campaign that he is trying to cast as an unequivocal popular endorsement of his continued rule, Putin is likely to play the fear card and stress that any hint of disunity could be disastrous for a country he often asserts is surrounded by malicious enemies bent on Russia’s dissolution.

A certain amount of saber-rattling is almost inevitable in such circumstances. But will Putin step up the anti-Western rhetoric in the pursuit of domestic political goals — and, if so, precisely how? He has caught the West’s attention in the past with references to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the development of powerful new weapons

One way Putin might seek to apply pressure on the West is by expressing support for pro-Russian separatists in Moldova’s Transdniester region — who passed a resolution on February 20 asking the Russian parliament for support in the face of what they call an “economic blockade” by Chisinau — or in the Bosnian region of Republika Srpska, whose president, Milorad Dodik, met in Moscow with Putin on February 21 in a visit that Putin called “useful.” 

Putin’s address will be watched closely for direct or indirect remarks about the suspicious death in prison on February 16 of his most prominent opponent, Aleksei Navalny, and about the possibility of a prisoner swap that would bring Americans held in Russia home.

These two subjects became closely intertwined when allies of Navalny asserted that negotiations on an exchange that would have freed Navalny and two U.S. citizens in exchange for a former officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 murder of a Kremlin opponent in Berlin, Vadim Krasikov, were in their final stages ahead of Navalny’s death, which they blame on Putin.

Putin has said nothing about the death of Navalny, who is to be buried in Moscow on March 1 after a bitter tug-of-war in which Russian authorities refused to hand his body over to relatives for eight days after his death.

At his December press conference and Q&A, Putin raised the possibility of a prisoner swap with the United States when asked specifically about the fate of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who has been held in custody without trial since he was arrested in March 2023 and charged with espionage. And in an interview with conservative U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson this month, Putin made it clear that he wants to secure Krasikov’s release and return to Russia. In the light of reports that a possible prisoner swap was blown up by Navalny’s death, analysts will be looking for indications that a deal could still be on the table.

…And Domestic

In the weeks leading up to Putin’s speech, the world’s attention has been galvanized by Navalny’s suspicious death in prison, by the authorities’ reluctance to hand his body over to his relatives, and by the opposition’s efforts to organize a public farewell for the charismatic politician.

Many observers have argued that Putin’s antipathy toward Navalny was deeply personal, noting that the president has been unable to bring himself even to utter Navalny’s name.

The state-of-the-nation address seems an unlikely venue for Putin to reverse course in this regard. The government’s crackdown on political dissent since the last presidential election in 2018 and, particularly, since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, has eliminated the space for normal political opposition in Russia.

The Kremlin and prominent figures dominating the messaging from state-controlled media have cast the political landscape as a place that contains only supporters of Putin and those who hate Russia. Putin may use the speech to further this narrative, and it will be watched for suggestions that he wants lawmakers to adopt even more draconian legislation aimed at quashing dissent.

‘Traditional Values’

Putin will likely devote a portion of his speech to presenting himself as a champion of what he describes as traditional values, a theme that plays well among many of his supporters in Russia and abroad.

He might not go so far as to expound on the supposed threat of gender-neutral toilets, as he has in the recent past, but he could praise the government’s recent decision to declare the nonexistent “international LGBT social movement” as an “extremist organization.” That designation opens numerous avenues for cracking down on LGBT Russians and others, including feminists.

Putin could call for further legislation to piggyback on this designation, and strong language on his part could embolden vigilante groups in Russia that have been denouncing and even attacking LGBT people, feminists, and others.

The Fifth Term

Aside from a stint as prime minister in 2008-12, Putin, 71, has been president since 2000. In 2020, he rammed through a raft of constitutional amendments, including one that enables him to seek two more six-year terms and remain in the Kremlin until 2036.

In previous election-connected appearances, Putin has often unveiled populist initiatives, many of which are conveniently targeted to deadlines set for years after the election. He may continue this practice in this year’s speech, using such promises in tandem with his calls for patriotic unity.

In order to foster a sense of normalcy, he might set out an agenda for the next six years that may be partially or wholly forgotten after the vote, while in reality the Russian public could be in for some unpopular surprises.

Some analysts have predicted that Moscow will be forced to implement another unpopular military call-up after the election, although the Kremlin has said it has sufficient manpower to continue invading Ukraine.

Others have warned that the government is developing technology to tighten its control over the Internet in the near future.

While Putin’s political promises could offer little guide to the future, they could shed light on his assessment of the public mood.

  • 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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