President Vladimir Putin accused Russia’s enemies on Thursday of seeking to carve it up and destroy its economy to punish it for growing strong, in an annual state of the union speech that seemed to outdo even his own recent strident nationalism.
The Kremlin leader trumpeted his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, praised the Russian people for their strength, accused the West of “pure cynicism” in Ukraine and said economic sanctions must drive Russians to develop their own economy.
The rouble fell as he spoke to an ornate hall packed with dignitaries, delivering a speech that showed no sign of turning back from policies that have brought his country to confrontation with the West unseen since the Cold War.
Russia’s “enemies of yesterday” wished on it the same fate as Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he said in the speech, which ran for more than an hour and was interrupted repeatedly by applause.
“There is no doubt they would have loved to see the Yugoslavia scenario of collapse and dismemberment for us — with all the tragic consequences it would have for the peoples of Russia. This has not happened. We did not allow it,” he said.
So determined was the West to destroy Russia, he said, that sanctions would have been imposed even without the crisis in Ukraine.
“I am certain that if all this did not take place… they would come up with another reason to contain Russia’s growing capabilities,” he said. “Whenever anyone thinks Russia has become strong, they resort to this instrument.”
Even when he pledged to keep Russia open to the world, he adopted an aggressive posture: “We will never pursue the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and search for enemies. All this is a manifestation of weakness, while we are strong and self-confident.”
UNDER PRESSURE OVER THE ECONOMY
The Russian leader is under pressure to show he has an answer for Russia’s worsening economy, with sanctions and the falling price of energy exports sending the rouble into a tailspin, culminating in an acknowledgment this week by the government that the country is headed for recession.
He promised an amnesty for capital repatriated to the country, saying that Russians who chose to bring money back would face no questions over how they earned it. Money from a national wealth fund would be used to support domestic banks.
But his economic remarks were overshadowed by the aggressive posture he adopted at the opening of his address, in which he described Russia as in serious danger, surrounded by enemies who sought its destruction.
He said Crimea, which his troops seized and Russia then annexed after a pro-Russian president was toppled in a popular revolt in Kiev, held sacred meaning for Russians, forever.
Russia was justified in intervening in Ukraine because the West had supported a “coup” in Kiev. The war that has followed in the southeast, in which heavily armed Moscow-backed separatists have seized a region they now call “New Russia”, proved Moscow’s policy was right.
“How can one support an armed seizure of power, violence, murder?… How can one support the attempts that followed to suppress with the help of armed forces the people in the southeast who did not agree with this lawlessness? … This is pure cynicism.”
Putin’s popularity ratings are still sky high and he has not faced any big protests over the economic decline, but questions are being asked about whether he has a plan to pull the $US1.4 trillion economy out of crisis.
The rouble’s stability had hitherto been the crowning achievement of 14 years in power for Putin, 62, who was elevated to the Kremlin in the wake of a currency collapse and default that destroyed the savings of Russians in 1998.
He owes much of his popularity to the comparison between the stability of his rule and the chaos of the 1990s, when the post-Soviet economy was eviscerated by hyperinflation.
But the currency has already lost a third of its value this year, the fall in oil prices has blown a hole in state finances, and Russian companies and banks are scrambling to find dollars to pay foreign debts.
“The greatest danger for the president is the economy, under the double pressure of sanctions and falling oil prices,” commentator Kirill Rogov wrote in the business daily Vedomosti, which said this week the economy was seriously ill and Russia’s leaders were refusing to admit it or do anything about it.
Putin has diverted attention from the economy by whipping up patriotism, including by annexing the Crimea peninsula, and blaming the United States and the European Union for many of Russia’s problems as well as the crisis in Ukraine.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said the tough economic situation could eventually help change Putin’s course in other areas.
Capital flight is expected to soar far above $US100 billion this year and some analysts expect capital controls though the government denies this.
Here are some more quotes:
“I ask to for work to be carried out to fight off the desire to speculate on fluctuations of the Russian currency.”
“This is not just a nervous reaction of the United States and their allies to our stance in regard to the events and coup in Ukraine; not even in regard to the so-called Crimean spring. I am certain that if all this did not take place… they would come up with another reason to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, to influence it or, even better, use it for its own goals.”
“The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been applied to our country for many, many years.. every time when anyone only thinks Russia has become strong, independent, such instruments are applied immediately.”
“But there is no point in talking to Russia from a position of strength.”
“We will never pursue the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and search of enemies. All this is manifestation of weakness, while we are strong and self-confident.”
“Our goal is to have as many equal partners in the West and in the East … Under no circumstances are we going to wind down our ties with Europe.”
“I propose freezing the current tax conditions and not changing them for the next four years.”
“I propose a full amnesty for capital returning to Russia … This means that if people legalise their resources, they get a guarantee that they won’t be bothered … won’t be asked about the sources … there will be no questions from the tax and law enforcement bodies to them. This should be done and done once.”
“As for small business, I propose providing ‘inspection holidays’ for them. If an enterprise enjoys a solid reputation, and it had no significant complaints in three years, then over the next three years I propose not to carry out planned checks on the state and local levels at all.”
“Finally, there was a historic reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia.”
“For Russia, Crimea … has a great civilizational and sacred meaning.”
“Every nation has an inalienable, sovereign right to its own path of development … Russia always has and always will respect that. This applies fully to Ukraine, the brotherly Ukrainian nation.”
“We have condemned the coup, the forcible seizure of power in Kiev in February. What we are seeing now in Ukraine, the tragedy in the southeast, fully confirms that our position is right.”
“How can one support an armed seizure of power, violence, murder? … How can one support the attempts that followed to suppress with the help of armed forces the people in the southeast who did not agree with this lawlessness? … This is pure cynicism. I am sure that the Ukrainian nation itself will judge these events in a just way.”
He portrayed Russia as a strong state on Thursday that would overcome its current difficulties.
“We are ready to meet any challenge of the times and win,” he said in a state of the union address.
This post will be updated as Putin’s address continues.
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