Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

But while the content of the speech was predictable, the tone offered more insight into Russian intentions. Putin’s tone remained defiant, signaling no change in policy. The speech invoked historical struggles, reminding citizens that they survived “containment” once before, during the Cold War. On the economic front, Putin highlighted new programs encouraging entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency in manufacturing and technology, as well as promising amnesty for capital returned to Russia from abroad. He even suggested that Russia may engage in import-substitution industrialization. 

Despite the slow-motion collapse of the ruble and other economic problems, the Kremlin has no intention of backing down on the issue of Ukraine. Instead, it will attempt to mitigate the economic crisis domestically. None of this is surprising, but it does highlight how unsuccessful U.S. strategy toward Russia has been over the last year. The poor performance of the Russian economy is at least as much the result of falling global oil prices as it is of sanctions. Yet neither has served to alter the foreign policy incentives of Russian leaders. 

Now is the time for a new approach to the Russia–U.S. crisis. Conflict over Ukraine serves the interests of neither side. Rather than adding to already ineffectual sanctions, U.S. policymakers should seek a negotiated settlement with Russia to end the crisis. Otherwise, the impasse will continue.