President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to a joint session of both houses of parliament on April 21, in the historical Moscow Manege hall, adjacent to the Kremlin, with the entire Russian ruling political, bureaucratic and business elite present. The yearly presidential address was written into the Russian constitution in 1993, using the United States’ State of the Union address tradition as a model. Generally, the speech has mostly focused on Russia’s social, economic, financial and political problems; but Putin has periodically used the occasion to make surprise dramatic declarations. Notably, in 2018, Putin promoted a new generation of deadly Russian nuclear superweapons, and during his remarks that year, massive video screens displayed dramatic footage, including an animation of Russian warheads zeroing in from space on Florida.
On January 15, 2020, during the last address, Putin suddenly announced the firing of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev (in office since 2012, after relinquishing the post of president). The same day, Putin announced a constitutional reform package that gave him the legal right to run for two additional six-year presidential terms, in 2024 and 2030, possibly prolonging his rule over Russia from 2000 until 2036. With over 100,000 Russian troops concentrating close to Ukraine and relations between Russia and the West in tatters, many were expecting another truly dramatic presidential address; but that did not happen. In response to this anticlimax, Russian stocks and the ruble rose on the Moscow bourse as geopolitical threats seemed to ease. In addition, on April 22, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russian troops will be withdrawn from southern Russia to their home bases by May 1 (Interfax, April 22).
Shoigu traveled to Crimea, where he observed a massive joint forces military exercise on the sea, air and land, involving over 10,000 men, 60 ships, and the simultaneous landing of some 2,000 paratroopers with heavy weapons dropped by parachute from 40 Il-76MD strategic airlift jets (Militarynews.ru, April 22). The heavy weaponry of the 41st Army of the Central Military District will stay deployed on the Ukrainian border until the fall, however, despite the announced withdrawal (Militarynews.ru, April 22). Other forces may possibly also linger in forward positions, ready to move on command. The Russian defense minister announced, “We will be closely monitoring the deployment of large US and allied NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces for the Defender Europe 2021 military exercises in Poland, the Baltic region and in the Black Sea area” (Militarynews.ru, April 22). According to former commander of the Black Sea Fleet Admiral (ret.) Vladimir Komoyedov, “The exercises in Crimea demonstrated our ability to swiftly gather and deploy a large force in the south of Russia” (Militarynews.ru, April 22).
In his annual address, Putin spoke at length about the COVID-19 pandemic, praising Russian authorities, medics and scientists for coping gallantly with the outbreak and for producing superior coronavirus vaccines. But there is a serious problem: Though inoculations against COVID-19 are freely available for Russian citizens, as of last December some 70 percent have said they do not wish to be vaccinated (Interfax, December 4, 2020). Of the overall Russian population of over 140 million, to date fewer than 10 million have received vaccinations—and of them, only some 5 million have had both required shots of the regimen. The authorities have begun a massive PR campaign to cajole the public into undergoing vaccination, so far with meager success. Putin emphatically called on Russians to accept the vaccine. The continued coronavirus threat is undermining economic recovery and Putin’s grand strategic plans. In Moscow, the number of new COVID-19 cases is growing again, and authorities are considering offering citizens ages 65 and up possible discounts on consumer goods if they receive the shot. Speaking before the parliament, Putin called for a dramatic expansion of the vaccination process in order to achieve “herd immunity” by August; but this seems a steep hill to climb (Kremlin.ru, April 21).
The Kremlin leader also talked in detail about future infrastructural development projects and promised help to small businesses, pointing out that Russian state-connected corporations and super-rich individuals are already doing fine despite the coronavirus crisis. Putin promised minor fiscal aid to needy families with kids, amounting to 400 billion rubles ($5.3 billion) in two years, according to the finance ministry (Interfax, April 21).
At the end of his 90-minute presentation, Putin finally turned to defense and foreign policy issues. He once again boasted about Russia’s nuclear superweapons, first touted in his 2018 address, and noted that they are now being deployed or readied for deployment. “As the world’s leader in modern weapons,” Russia “once again” called on the West to begin discussing strategic weapons and global stability without confrontation based of equal security, Putin declared (Kremlin.ru, April 21). Indeed, taking into account non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, which no one has ever verifiably counted, Russia may have more (maybe twice as many overall) than all the other official or unofficial nuclear powers taken together.
Based on this superiority and the superiority of swiftly deployable conventional forces in Europe—which the Kremlin felt it demonstrated by the mass mobilization or “test of battle readiness” during March–April 2021—Putin wants a deal with the West that will end its punitive sanctions on Russia and recognize the latter’s distinct sphere of interests. Apparently Moscow has not received a fully desirable response from Washington (see EDM, April 19). And so, in his annual address, Putin compared the United States to the lame but arrogant Bengal tiger Shere Khan, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The Russian president further described US allies as a gang of yelping Tabaqui—cowardly and despised golden jackals—who attack Russia with “fake” accusations and impose sanctions, while doing Shere Khan’s bidding. In his speech, Putin declared Kipling to be a “genius” (Kremlin.ru, April 21). Russian commentators, in turn, tried to guess which character from The Jungle Book Putin himself personifies: Akela the noble wolf pack leader, Baloo the bear, or the wolf-raised boy Mowgli.
Putin warned that those who cross Russia’s “red lines” will regret that decision “like they never regretted anything before,” but he refrained from any additional specifics. Such ambiguity and the references to The Jungle Book may, thus, signal that Russia is gradually stepping back from threats of military action and the language of direct ultimatums.