Putin Promises Russians Prosperity While Challenging the West With Nuclear Superweapons

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 23

President Vladimir Putin delivering State of the Nation Address, February 20, 2019

One year ago, on March 1, 2018, in his annual address to the parliament, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at length about plans to kick-start the stagnant economy, increase household incomes and pensions, as well as spend more on education and medicine. The promises were nebulous, but they helped Putin win a landslide reelection on March 18, 2018, for another six years in the Kremlin (Putin has ruled Russia since January 2000). Notably, in the 2018 address, Putin used enormous, wall-mounted flat-screen video panels to showcase film clips of preparations and launches of new Russian long-range nuclear “wonder weapons,” along with animations of them flying over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States or sinking US aircraft carriers. The main thrust of Putin’s 2018 message: Russia is a top-tier military power and can wipe out its “Western partners” (i.e., the US) at will (Kremlin.ru, March 1, 2018; see EDM, March 1, 8, 2018).

About twelve months later, many things have changed, but not the essence of Putin’s overall narrative. On February 20, 2019, Putin again addressed the gathering of some 1,000 Russian VIPs; and the huge video wall panels once more flanked the president speaking from the podium. However, his militaristic message this time was somewhat subdued: There were no film clips or animations of missile launches or warheads hitting enemy targets. Putin’s intent was clearly again to scare the West with Russia’s nuclear capabilities and possibly subdue it into some form of submission. But apparently, last year he overplayed his hand by seriously frightening his own subjects. According to a recent poll, some 59 percent of Russians and 60 percent of Ukrainians fear new wars erupting in Europe, while only 24 percent of Germans share the same concern (Kommersant, February 11).

After the 2019 address, Putin seemingly attempted to reassure Russians frightened by the prospect of imminent war by telling a gathering of journalists, “We have good military-to-military contacts [with the Americans]. The US creates problems, but we have ways to cope with them. I hope we can prevent a replay of the [1962] Cuban [Missile] Crisis. We have some mutual disagreements, but no standoff of two systems as during the Cold War. We do not want it, but if someone wants [a redux Cuban nuclear missile crisis], we are ready” (Kremlin.ru, February 20).

In 2018, a highly unpopular pension reform caused widespread discontent (see Commentaries, July 24, 2018; EDM, September 19, 2018). Putin’s and his government’s approval ratings have slipped (Newsru.com, February 11, 2019). Using dubious creative accounting, the Russian government has come up with a GDP growth figure of 2.3 percent for last year (Kommersant, February 5). But Russian household incomes continue to fall (the fifth year in a row) together with consumer confidence, as inflation is once again picking up (Kommersant, February 7). In his 2019 address, Putin vigorously took on the problem, demanding that his ministers and officials do more to make the Russian economy expand again and that this growth translates into a better life and prosperity for the masses. Putin promised the nation a technological and economic breakthrough in the next six years, by the time he is ready to retire or is somehow reelected in 2024. Putin pledged to take immediate action to help the poor and families with children, in order to support the country’s falling birthrate (Kremlin.ru, February 20). The promised social handouts are not that large. They may cost about 80 billion rubles ($1.2 billion or some 0.1 percent of GDP) in 2019. Although, the financial scope of the announced increase in social entitlement programs may substantially increase in the coming years (Kommersant, February 21).

Putin’s longtime confidant, economic advisor, former finance minister and past deputy prime minister Alexei Kudrin—today, the chief of the Accounts Chamber, the parliamentary body of budgetary financial control—has been insisting (supported by other high-ranking economic liberals in government and the Kremlin) that no sustainable economic growth in Russia is possible while Western sanctions prevent the inflow of foreign investments and modern technologies. According to Kudrin, the Russian economy has adapted to existing sanctions, though they have hampered growth; but new ones may have an additional devastating effect (see EDM, Interfax, February 19).

It seems Putin understands the problem, and his approach to dealing with the increasingly bitter confrontation with the West is based on a kind of internal logic: scare everyone with an array of fancy nuclear superweapons, and the West will yield or at least some key countries may waiver under duress. This strategy is not that different from what North Korea has been doing for some time: first frighten and then offer détente in exchange for perks (see EDM, September 14, 2016). In his 2019 national address, Putin has once again promoted an array of nuclear armaments, including a doomsday nuclear-powered intercontinental super torpedo, the Poseidon (also known as Status-6), which apparently could turn US coastline states into radioactive deserts. Putin announced the Poseidon would be operational soon and that a special nuclear-powered submarine to launch the Poseidon will be completed before the end of the year. The Russian president also boasted of an advanced naval hypersonic cruise missile (the Tsirkon) being developed, capable of flying at speeds of up to Mach 9 and with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers. Putin threatened to deploy these superfast weapons on ships or submarines close to Washington to be able to destroy US government “decision-making centers” in minutes, with an unstoppable launch. Putin asserted he does not really want to go to war but is calling on Western leaders to “count the odds” and adjust their policies accordingly (Kremlin.ru, February 20, 2019).

The Kremlin leader further called on the European Union to restore “normal political and economic relations with Russia” and insisted he wants to normalize relations with the US. His statement left entirely unaddressed the inherent contradiction between threatening nuclear blackmail, cyber warfare and other subversion while simultaneously calling for cordial relations. Moreover, he implicitly expressed bewilderment as to why the West would allegedly choose the path of nuclear threat escalation instead of tacitly accepting Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and recognizing the rest of Ukraine as a Russian dependency. Defiantly, Putin promised Russia will continue its military buildup as long as it takes (Kremlin.ru, February 20).