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Five takeaways from Putin’s state of the nation address

Russian President Vladimir Putin after delivering his annual address to the Federal Assembly at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow on Thursday, March 1, 2018. (Russian Look/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on February 20 to Russia’s two-chamber parliament, President Vladimir Putin promised to spend huge sums of money. Critics ask where those funds will come from.

1. Focus On Domestic Success…And How To Make Things Better

With a drop in his public-approval ratings amid ongoing fallout from an unpopular pension reform that he signed into law in October 2018, Putin chose to focus on Russia’s domestic problems instead of playing up its military involvement abroad, which has buttressed his near-20-year rule but is now losing its allure. Recent opinion polls show that Russians have grown weary of costly wars in Syria and Ukraine, where Russia is backing separatist fighters, and increasingly impatient about the lack of improvements at home.

Like any leader keen to gain political capital, Putin began by promising a range of incentives to ease the people’s burden in the coming year: subsidies for ill and disabled children, a hike in pensions, new hospitals and rehabilitation centers in the provinces, and tax breaks for construction firms building new residential housing.

An extra boost came from federal TV channels. The broadcast was preceded by an extended montage of events cast as Russia’s successes in 2018 — a soccer World Cup hosted at home, the launch of the world’s first floating nuclear power station. A clock on the screen counted down the minutes to Putin’s speech, as the presenters waxed lyrical about their president’s long time in office.

2. Back To Demographics

Introducing a new principle he named “more children-less tax,” Putin offered to increase payouts to mothers and promised that families with three or more kids will have up to 450,000 rubles ($6,850) written off their mortgages.

Russia was mired in a demographic crisis in the 1990s and 2000s after birthrates plunged following the Soviet collapse. Each year since assuming power in 2000, Putin focused on ways in which the government could incentivize larger families and stimulate population growth.

In 2017, he announced that Russia had overcome its demographic crisis. But critics say that was premature, as deaths continued to outstrip births. And now Putin is back to focusing on ways in which the state can encourage Russians to have more children. He called for a return to natural population growth by 2023-24.

3. If In Doubt, Blame The U.S.

Last year, Putin unveiled a range of supersonic, nuclear-capable missiles that Russia claimed to have developed, and warned the United States and other Western countries to “listen up” and take heed.

Today, Russia’s president reached the international arena only at the tail end of a speech that lasted just under 90 minutes. But he did not finish without his usual dig at Russia’s enemies — and the United States in particular.

“We are not interested in a confrontation and don’t want one, especially with a global power like the United States of America. But it seems our partners fail to notice how quickly the world is changing and what direction it’s heading in,” Putin said. “They continue their destructive and clearly mistaken policies.”

4. Don’t (Necessarily) Jail For Economic Crimes

Back in Russia, “130 jobs are lost on average every time a business closes down as a result of an investigation,” Putin said. “We must get rid of everything that limits freedom and entrepreneurial initiative. An honest business cannot be under constant legal pressure, and constantly feel the risk of a criminal or administrative charge.”

Putin’s warning came as prominent U.S. investor Michael Calvey sits in pretrial detention in a Russian jail, after a high-profile arrest that has some fearful of an investor pullout from Russia. Calvey was arrested on fraud charges that he and his company call completely baseless, and several Kremlin loyalists have cast doubton the charges.

5. Less Bombast

Domestic problems may have dominated the speech, but Putin couldn’t help succumbing to a little saber-rattling and returning to a subject in which he’s become well-versed: Russia’s latest missiles.

This time, however, there were no fancy graphics to accompany his proud summaries of their force and reach. The weapons he unveiled during last year’s state-of-the-nation address flashed up on screens either side of his pulpit in animated videos that showed them flying toward distant targets, including Florida on the U.S. east coast.

But “Russia threatens no one,” Putin asserted in this year’s speech — and the graphics were dispensed with. Instead, he left the power of these new weapons to his viewers’ imagination, listing the milestones that the Defense Ministry claims to have achieved.

There’s plenty more to come though, Putin added — a hint to anyone watching abroad: “Step by step, we’ll tell you all about what we have hidden in our stash.”