President Vladimir Putin's end-of-the-year media conference left little space for interpretation about Russia's foreign policy in the face of looming economic recession brought on by plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions.
Vladimir Putin
© AFP/Scanpix

Putin did not question the actions of the Russian government or the Central Bank, he promised to make no cuts on welfare and public spending. Instead, his message to the Russian people was clear: aggression is synonymous with the West and Russia is merely defending itself and seeking dialogue.

However, says analyst Laurynas Kasčiūnas of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Putin's address on Thursday contained one big contradiction. The Russian president noted that his country's economy was too heavily dependent on exports of energy resources, suggesting a need to diversify. Unfortunately, according to Kasčiūnas, diversification is impossible under existing power structures in Moscow.

Re-run from 2001

"He said that the reliance on energy resources alone was the reason for current hardship, since [Russia] failed to restructure and diversify the economy. Putin says this is what he is going to do now. I think he won't. And if he does, it will decrease his possibilities to remain self-reliant, because he will have to open up to the West. In other words, diversifying the Russian economy is impossible without direct foreign investment and Western technology. And this option hardly matches Putin's statements about his nation being a besieged fortress, about seeking independence and self-sufficient economy. It is a clear contradiction," Kascčiūnas says.

He notes that Russia has so far failed to restructure its economy not only because of economic reasons, but also because the centralization in oil and gas industry fitted very well with the whole architecture of Putin's political regime. The energy sector, according to Kasčiūnas, is the back-bone of the regime.

"If you admit foreign capital, if you privatize energy companies, you are demolishing your own system, the current vertical of power. Putin simply cannot afford that: he either meddles with the foundations of his own edifice or he doesn't. Therefore I think that diversification, which was the main message in the beginning of his address, is just empty talk that goes against the very nature of his regime," the Lithuanian analyst says.

During Thursday's media conference, Putin claimed that Russia's current economic and financial woes were due to external factors, but admitted that the country had done little over the last two decades to ease its economic reliance on exporting energy resources.

Laurynas Kasčiūnas
Laurynas Kasčiūnas
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Back in 2001, when Putin was addressing the Federal Assembly, he also emphasized Russia's over-reliance on energy exports.

"The economic structure has not been modernized, our economic dependence on resource extraction is even growing. That means that, in the short run, so is our dependence on market factors," Putin said over a decade ago.

Message to the West?

Kasčiūnas also notes that Putin made a point of rejecting claims that Russia was interested in a global conflict. According to the analyst, Putin might thus be sending a message to the West that he indeed does not want an all-encompassing confrontation.

"He implied that those who say that Russia can cause a more global conflict are wrong. Perhaps Putin is trying to send a message that talks about Russia's inclination for some big adventures are baseless. Perhaps it's his message to the West, although his rhetoric about Ukraine, the West and the United States has not changed," Kasčiūnas says.

In all his speeches, Putin is trying to create an image of Russia defending itself against the expanding influence of the West. He has compared his country to a bear that cannot relax lest it be hunted down.

"Once they've taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear ... (will) become a stuffed animal," he said. "The issue is not Crimea. The issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist," Putin said on Thursday.

"Sometimes I think maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quietly, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace. They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so, they tear out his fangs and his claws," Putin said, adding that he was referring to Russia's nuclear arsenal, which protected its valuable natural resources.

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