One can only sympathise with the audience of over a thousand at the Kremlin last Thursday. They all assembled acutely aware that hard times were approaching. But they did not hear anything that could provide any hope. The national leader, whose successes they gave standing ovations to just months before, failed to present an idea of direction or a plan of action.
Vladimir Putin did not mention the word “oil” a single time. His foreign intelligence chief then blamed the slide of the rouble on the plot to depose Putin by — who else? — the United States. His economic adviser brushed aside the recession warning by the Minister of Economy as “technical error.”
Drying up cash flows while the structure of the economy remains unreformed will sooner or later pit elite groups savagely against one another and, eventually, might incite unrest in the society.
Still, all Putin did was tryto justify and defend his actions by simply repeating old arguments or inventing new ones that sounded ridiculously unconvincing. He kept denying reality. He also proposed measures that are clearly inadequate but smack of desperation.
Suddenly Putin came across as weak and the country drifting with no direction.
One can argue that, over the last year, Russia was living Putin’s illusion. Increasingly convinced in his third term that the West is out to oppress Russia and overthrow him, Putin stepped in to pre-empt this supposed conspiracy and prove he would not be pushed around. He seized upon the opportunity to implement the decade-old plan to capture Crimea and create the mess in eastern Ukraine. And he achieved all he could hope for.
He has been successful throughout his fifteen years in power, essentially because not only had the West no intentions of deposing him, but, just the opposite, preferred to turn a blind eye on Russia’s misdeeds and did all it could to get back to “business as usual,” “not to provoke” and “let Putin save face.” Now, however, Putin can no longer rely on success. He needs strategy but all he can show is rhetoric.
Dawning reality unveils the extent of Russia’s blunder, but it is too late. The idea of standing up to the West assumed life of its own, sparking off irrational and isolationist forces that are just as lethal to the regime itself.
“Strong and confident” Russia, Putin tried to reassure the nation, “will never enter the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and the search for enemies,” as these are “signs of weakness”. Yet it is precisely the road that Russia has chosen.
Cut off from international economy, building its foreign policy on grievances and domestic policy on compulsory mobilisation, weak Russia arguably does not present less danger to the world. If anything, it is more dangerous.
In this deadlock, both sides have little space for manoeuvring and little will for decisive steps.
Putin can do little to change things, unless he is to give up his recent victories.
The West is equally unwilling to change much. Even the most ardent advocates of Russia now have to admit that Moscow has not deserved any concessions, while even harsh critics must concede that imposing more painful sanctions is unrealistic.
It remains unclear what Putin wants and what grand deal he could find acceptable. Even Angela Merkel failed to find that out during four hours of tête-à-tête with the Russian president.
Just a year ago, the West would have been gasping with horror at the things Putin said in this presidential address. Now though he evoked little reaction, not even cheers from the audience.
Everything that could be said has been said over the last year, both in Russia and the West. More importantly, also almost everything has been done that could be done: Russia broke all rules of international cohabitation and started a war in Europe. Meanwhile the Western powers, though divided and inert, have responded with what they could: by showing that economy can be a more punishing weapon than anyone thought.
Now all everyone can do is watch what is very likely to be a train wreck in slow motion.
The comment was read out on LRT radio.