Putin focuses on economics, missiles in state-of-the-nation address

Russian President Vladimir Putin knows his audience: Last year, the Kremlin leader delivered a provocative address to the Russian parliament boasting of new weaponry, complete with a video animation that showed a Russian nuclear attack on Florida.

That was just a few weeks before Putin sailed to a re-election victory with three quarters of the popular vote.

Now, Putin’s ratings have dipped, and this year’s state-of-the-nation address took on a decidedly different tone.

According to independent pollster, Levada-Center, Putin’s approval rating in January dipped to 64%. That’s a ranking most Western politicians would happily accept, but significantly down from the same time last year, when his approval rating hovered at around 80%.

Most Russian political observers have attributed the slide in Putin’s ratings to domestic issues: Last summer, the government introduced an extremely unpopular overhaul of the pension system, a move that spurred protests around the country.

This year’s address to the parliament, then, was largely preoccupied with pocketbook issues. Putin devoted much of the 90-minute speech to domestic matters, include efforts to spur Russia’s birthrate, raise more Russians out of poverty and improve healthcare and education.

Putin is famously a details man: His annual Q<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>&A and nationally televised call-in show are designed to show a leader who is in command of the facts and able to reel off economic data and growth figures. Wednesday’s address was no exception. The Russian President discussed the minutiae of access to kindergartens, waste recycling targets and currency reserves./ppThe speech was also long on promises, with Putin talking about a “social contract” to deliver higher living standards./pp”There are really a lot of reasons for poverty, not only in our country, in the world in general, but it always literally crushes a person, deprives them of life prospects,” Putin said. “The state should help people, help them out of difficult life situations.”/ppBut whether Putin’s government can afford more ambitious social spending remains to be seen./ppIn his speech, Putin said the growth rate of the Russian economy should exceed 3% in 2021, then move ahead of other world economies in the future. The World Bank, however, forecasts more modest growth: Current GDP growth in Russia is around 1.5%, according to the World Bank, and will reach 1.8% in 2021./ppRussia has already suffered from the effects of oil-price decline and Western sanctions. And it seems unlikely to attract new foreign direct investment: The recent arrest of a href=”https://edition.cnn.com/2019/02/15/europe/russia-arrest-michael-calvey-baring-vostok-intl/index.html” target=”_blank”Michael Calvey,/a a US citizen and one of Russia’s most prominent foreign investors, has reinforced Russia’s reputation for having a difficult, and highly politicized, business climate./ppSo this year’s speech had lots of economic talk, and no flashy images of missiles raining down on the US. Does that suggest that Russians — or at least Putin’s elite audience — have less appetite for confrontation with the West?/ppPutin did not suggest any softening on that score. In his speech, Putin promised an “asymmetric” response to the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, saying Russia would target “decision-making centers” if the US stations such missiles there./pp”Russia does not intend to be the first to place such missiles in Europe,” Putin said. “If they really are delivered to the European continent, and the United States has such plans — we haven’t heard statements to the opposite — this will sharply aggravate the situation in the sphere of international security, it will create serious threats to Russia, because some classes of these missiles can take up to 10-12 minutes to reach Moscow. This is a very serious threat for us. In this case, we will be forced — I want to emphasize this — to consider tit-for-tat and asymmetrical actions.”/ppThe Russian President added: “I’ll say today, directly and openly, so that no one will reproach us later, so that it will be clear to everyone what we are talking about here: Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons that can target not only those territories from which a direct threat emanates, but also those territories where there are decision-making centers for the use of missile systems that threaten us.”/ppRussia “is not interested in confrontation,” Putin added, but the Russian leader also made clear that he was not backing down to Washington./p