Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to both houses of the Federal Assembly on Thursday was significant for the more immediate politics of the Russian presidential campaign and representative of Russia’s contemporary cultural discourse and identity. It addressed two key blocs of state-tied constituencies Putin will need to ensure an easy first round victory in the election campaign as well the two main threats historically to Russian security as understood in Russian political and strategic culture.
Russia’s Political and Strategic Culture and Two-Tier Internal/External Threat Martix
One key element in Russian political culture is the omnipresent potential of threat to the country’s internal social and political stability. This threat has been a central concern for Russian leaders since at least the early 17th century when Moscow boyars conspired with Poland to organize an invasion force and place on the Russian tsar’s throne a ‘False Dmitrii’ – the self-proclaimed son of, and successor to Ivan Groznyi (the Terrible or Awesome) in place of Boris Godunov. The invasion sparked perhaps Russian history’s greatest crisis – the Smuta or Time of Troubles. There were many of the other cases of internal instability many of which involved oppositionists and dissidents who colluded with, or were inspired by antagonistic elements in the West: some Russian subjects colluded with Napoleon; the Decembrists were influenced by their experiences in the West after chasing Napoleon’s invasion force out of Russia; Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks’ collusion with Germany during World War I; the numerous national minority groups’ and the Vlasov army’s defection to the Nazi invaders during the Great Patriotic War; Western support of Soviet dissidents; and Western support for opposition forces in the perestroika and Putin-era post-perestroika periods.
Hence, Russian rulers’, including Putin’s own, frequent calls for unity and the intermittent campaigns against dissent throughout Russian history. Russian rulers and the various mechanisms for transmission to society and across the generations have inculcated this value into the popular political culture as well.
The cultural element relates to Russia strategic culture (political culture pertaining to foreign affairs): the potential of foreign threats – predominantly that from Russia’s ‘significant Other’ – the West. The Poles’ three invasions of Russia during the Smuta, the first of which set off the terrible chaos and sparked a civil war, embedded in Russian political and strategic culture (political culture pertaining to foreign affairs) the idea of an ongoing potential threat coming from the West. The Vatican’s support for the Polish venture in the Orthodox East lent the term ‘West’ in Russia’s strategic cultural norm of potential threats emanating from the West civilizational scale, rather than geographical meaning or merely Polish national character. Later Western attacks on Russian sovereignty, statehood and cultural identity – Napoleon’s invasion, the Ottoman-Western assault on Crimea, Germany’s invasion of Russia in World War I, the Western interventions during Russia’s civil war, and Nazi Germany’s invasion during World War II consolidated this strain in Russian culture. They were rendered recessive strains in the political culture with the perestroika and early post-perestroika ‘thaw’ and ‘end of the Cold War’ in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. They were reactivated as dominant strains as a result of the West’s NATO and (less so) EU expansion, democracy-promotion and regime change ‘color revolutions’ along Russia’s borders (Georgia and Ukraine) and among its allies (Serbia).
As a result of this history, fear of the external Western military threat mixed with fear of instability sparked by collusion between internal and external elements is now a firmly embedded strain in Russia’s political and strategic cultures. These norms – protecting against internal instability and foreign threats — are operative in contemporary politics. The two norms represented by potential collusion between internal and external opponents were re-institutionalized in Putin’s establishment of the National Unity Day celebrated on November 4 since 2005 commemorating the Russian national liberation movement that expelled the Poles from Russia in 1612. They were also reflected in Putin’s March 2014 castigation of a pro-Western “fifth column” in the form of pro-democracy opposition in Russia during the Ukrainian crisis. Thus, Putin’s addressed these two threats in last week’s speech and used each to play to key state-tied constituencies that comprise his support base.
With that speech, Putin moved his campaign into gear; high gear it is not. As opposed to his previous re-election campaigns, Putin had been startlingly inactive. A recent cold that kept him off the campaign trail more than otherwise planned does not explain the laxity. Putin feels he, his system, and his re-election are secure and is playing it safe in limiting his campaign activity. The campaign has the feel of going through the motions. Still, Putin’s speech to both houses of Russia’s Federal Assembly imparted some vigor to a process he is bound to come out on top of. It was vintage Putin. A tour de force of populism, patriotism, and muscle-flexing that was designed to address two perennial agenda items for Russian leaders.
How was Putin’s address related to two-tier threat of internal/external collusion emanating from the West?
‘Sotsialka’ and ‘Sistema’: Addressing the Internal Instability/Regime Change Threat
The speech’s content addressed the potential internal threat by offering major increases in federal ‘sotsialka’ or social welfare expenditures to pre-empt any instability and mobilize a good part of Putin’s support base for the election: the so-called ‘budzhetniki’ – Russians who receive salaries and benefits from the federal budget. Thus, the first 60 percent of Putin’s speech was a list of social spending promises. Just some of the items included: doubling spending on medical care; $1 billion (40 percent increase) for regional expenditures on child health; free annual check-up for all; mobile medical services for distant villages with populations less than 100; a “war against cancer”; new housing to 5 million Russian each year (this year 3 million received said); increasing in pensions; doubling funding for road construction over the next few years; spending to increase container transport on the Trans-Siberian BAM railroad to make Russia the leader of transport from Asia to Europe; and increased expenditures for port development, rail-to-port transportation, high-speed Internet, anti-pollution measures, and national parks.
The federal and regional state functionaries, who were in the hall listening to the speech and who will hand out (and skim off) these goodies, will use their power within Putin’s ‘sistema’ to disburse or not disburse these funds to various constituents as the key administrative resource helping to mobilize Putin’s electorate vote. Thus, for example, regional budgets where the vote is too low for Putin can receive less from the federal budget. Should a school director fail to remind his teachers and other employees who they should vote for, so that the school receives the government handouts, said school will be in danger of receiving less funding from the region. Should a teacher let it be known that she voted for someone other than Putin, promotion or bonuses can be denied or he/she can be laid off. This pyramid does not work everywhere, but is effective in the provinces, especially regions highly dependent on the federal budget. This system can help prevent or minimize the risk and scale of anti-government riots or demonstrations as occurred in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a handful of other large cities in the wake of the December 2011 Duma elections.
Unfortunately, for most average Russians almost none of these promises will be fulfilled. There simply are not the funds available unless Putin is prepared to dig into the National Reserve or Welfare Funds significantly. Putin’s May 2012 promises in the last presidential campaign were not fulfilled, and his overall economic record is falling far short of his declared goals upon coming to power in 2000. Although this is the result of Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports that is a problem Putin declared he would solve after amassing profits from the oil and gas sector to finance a restructuring and reinvigoration of the economy.
Russia’s ‘Oboronka’ and ‘Significant Other’
Putin’s speech addressed the external threat from the West by showcasing Russia’s ‘oboronka’ or defense industry, presenting a series of new weapons systems; some of which seem to already being deployed, some still in the testing and procurement phases. Adding a new wrinkle to the annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly, Putin presented real and animated videos of these weapons (as he hid graphs during the ‘sotsialka’ phase of the speech). He presented the already known, heavy liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile ‘Sarmat’, which is replacing the 210-ton R-36M2 Voevoda and which NATO has dubbed the ‘SS-18 Satan’. Sarmat can avoid missile defense systems by flying along unpredictable trajectories, and it can attack through the North and South Poles. Another missile, still unnamed, Putin described as “is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile… with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range… It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with…unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries…invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.” He also presented the ‘Status-6’ intercontinental-range nuclear torpedo, powered by a compact nuclear reactor and carrying a massive 100-megaton warhead, which can move, according to Putin, at “extreme depths-intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest.” It delivers conventional or nuclear warheads and thus can attack “various target aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure,” Putin noted. In addition, he unveiled two previously unknown systems. He announced a recently tested hypersonic dual-capable nuclear and conventional air launched cruise missile ‘Kinzhal’ (Dagger) and that it began to be deployed in Russia’s Southern Military District on 1 December. According to the Russian President, it flies “10 times faster than the speed of sound” and maneuvers during “all phases of its flight trajectory…delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers. Meanwhile, Putin also revealed a successfully tested, hypersonic boost-glide, intercontinental nuclear missile ‘Avangard.’
Since some of these weapons are still in the testing phase, much of the procurement and deployment remains in the future and is essentially also presidential campaign ‘sotsialka’ for the ‘oboronka,’ ensuring lots of funding and employment in the sector for years to come. More importantly, Russia’s new nuclear missile efforts appear to go beyond ‘merely’ seeking to maintain or in the long-term even upset the strategic nuclear balance in Russia’s favor in response to the Bush Administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. It also seems to be a message to NATO in response to its efforts in expansion to countries neighboring Russia (like the Baltics states, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) and to deploy NATO infrastructure in new NATO member-countries; all of which he criticized sharply in his speech. Indeed, Putin paid special attention to the ABM withdrawal and NATO expansion as steps “unfriendly” towards Russia: “I hope that everything that was said today would make any potential aggressor think twice, since unfriendly steps against Russia such as deploying missile defenses and bringing NATO infrastructure closer to the Russian border become ineffective in military terms and entail unjustified costs, making them useless for those promoting these initiatives. It was our duty to inform our partners of what I said here today under the international commitments Russia had subscribed to. When the time comes, foreign and defense ministry experts will have many opportunities to discuss all these matters with them, if of course our partners so desire” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957).
With Putin’s approval rating currently at 81 percent and some 70 percent of decided voters set to vote for him, presumably this speech was not even necessary. The domestic audience did not need to hear it, but most certainly would have taken great enjoyment at his ‘missile speech’ and its jabs against the West. Doing such is overwhelmingly popular. Thus, two thirds of Russians able to decide now regard the United States “badly”—52 regard the US “badly”, 26 – “well.” Europe does little better. China is regarded positively by 70 percent, badly by 13 percent. Israel and Georgia are well-regarded; Ukraine – not (www.levada.ru/2018/02/12/otnoshenie-k-stranam/). All this is a result a result of NATO’s reactivation of the internal-external Western collusion threat matrix in Russian political and strategic culture being constantly reinforced in turn by Western actions and Russian propaganda.
In sum, Putin’s speech therefore appealed to the central elements in Russian political and strategic culture attractive two Putin’s political source base. It also played to key state-tied constituencies that comprise his support base in the context of the presidential campaign, with patronage politics Russian-style front and center. With its mix of populist appeal through promises of greater expenditures on various social welfare programs, continuing spending largesse for the defense industry and siloviki, and robust military-patriotic discourse, the speech hit all the right notes Putin needed to hit to move forward to an election victory and sustain the coalition that keeps him in power for at least a few more years heading towards 2024 and the next presidential election. Internationally, Putin’s (and Trump’s and NATO’s) job just got tougher. Russia’s response — a rearmament of its nuclear capabilities — will give impetus to the new arms race that is accompanying the ‘new cold war’ instigated by Russia’s ‘significant ‘Other’ and its NATO expansion and opposition-promotion policies.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002).He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.