Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to give his country’s version of a state of the union address in Moscow today. Normally a politician giving a speech is pretty much a dog-bites-man story, but on this occasion, the United States and our western allies should probably be paying close attention. Elements of the speech were already released in Russian media outlets and mixed in with the usual cheerleading and rhetoric one might expect to hear is what sounds very much like a warning of bad things to come. Putin will describe an ascendant Russian state poised against a western alliance that is “in chaos.” He will also reference his nation’s ability to “defend our interests.” And this speech is taking place just as the Russians have staged one of the largest masses of troops seen since the cold war on the border with Ukraine. (New York Times)
The world according to President Vladimir V. Putin looks like this: Russia is on the rise while the West is in chaos.
The West, spurred on by a new American president who is more anti-Russian than his predecessor, seeks Russia’s — and Mr. Putin’s — destruction.
And it is time for Russia, imbued with a moral authority and a thinning supply of patience, to hit back.
“They may think that we are like them, but we are different, with a different genetic, cultural and moral code,” Mr. Putin said last month, excoriating the United States. “We know how to defend our interests.”
There are two situations that have been festering in Russia for a while now, one political and one military, and Vladimir Putin appears ready to put the world on notice as to how he plans to handle both of them. Those plans clearly do not include any intention to bow to international pressure or criticism from western leaders.
The political situation is the international outcry over the imprisonment and treatment of dissident Alexei Navalny. As we’ve discussed here recently, Navalny is hospitalized in a Russian prison, reportedly barely clinging to life after going on a hunger strike for several weeks. His jailors are still refusing to allow Navalny’s personal physicians to see him and his prognosis remains uncertain. Putin is facing large protests among his own people over this and international leaders, including President Joe Biden, have called for his release. (Or at least some humanitarian efforts to ensure he doesn’t just die.) Putin is preparing to send out his troops to crack down on the protests and jail as many people as required to silence the dissent. And he’s thumbing his nose at the western nations that are taking him to task.
Perhaps even more dire is the situation on the border with Ukraine. The number of Russian troops staged on the Crimean Peninsula (that Putin seized in 2014) is expected to reach 120,000 by the end of the week. Putin has moved nine amphibious assault ships into the region on the Black Sea while sending artillery units and other hardware to the border region. While they claim that these movements are all part of normal “training” exercises, that’s a rather large pill to swallow.
Putin clearly feels that he has the upper hand, and as sad as it is to say, his assessment may not be all that far off the mark. He sees the relationships between the United States and some of its traditional allies – particularly Turkey and parts of South America – in disarray, even as the pandemic strains our economies. Meanwhile, the Russians have been testing new, advanced weapons systems and generally doing whatever they feel like.
Add all of that together and it’s not impossible that Putin saw the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula as something of a test run to see how the west would respond. Oh, there were cries of protest and new sanctions imposed, but that was about it. Putin took the land and nobody outside of the current residents and Ukrainians fired a single shot to stop him. He’s made no secret of the fact that he’s interested in eastern Ukraine, having already sent militias and supplies into the region to bolster Russian loyalists there. He could be getting ready to simply roll into the rest of Ukraine and take it over, a move that would look suspiciously like the beginning of the reformation of the Soviet Union. And he knows that the world isn’t ready to go to war to stop him.
Putin may still back down, or at least freeze his current efforts. He does love to put on a show. But he’s spending an awful lot of money on this production if that’s the case. All of this activity seems to suggest the distressing possibility that the cold war is back and it’s warming up quickly.