Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual State of the Nation speech to the Federal Assembly last week shook the national media and the Washington policy community like the recent nor’easter that rattled the East Coast.
Indeed, Putin’s speech to lawmakers was windy, threatening — and explainable. While last week’s big storm here was caused by a “bombogenesis,” Putin’s address could be attributed to insecurity and intimidation.
The fact is that decades after the Soviet Union’s fall, one might say things aren’t going particularly well for the Russian Federation, which has largely been under Putin’s rule — as president or prime minster — since 2000.
Today, Russia faces big challenges.
The country passed on embracing democracy at the end of some 70 years of repressive communist rule and, instead, has slumped toward authoritarianism and a “power vertical,” where control is concentrated in the Russian federal government.
Economically, the nationalist “petroeconomy” is sputtering due to low global oil and natural gas prices. Russia is battling poverty — which Putin acknowledged — fighting inflation and hurting from Western economic sanctions over its Crimea grab.
On the security front, Moscow faces a nasty conflict on its southwest border with Ukraine. It’s also being sucked into the seemingly-endless Syrian civil war and lives next door to the world’s rising military superpower: China.
Arguably, Russia has reason to be insecure.
It follows that if a state is unsure of itself, we might see behavior that shows it trying to compensate — indeed, overcompensate — with other states for this sense of national “insecurity” through raw intimidation.
Such as Putin did in last week’s address.
Putin regaled his audience with words and computer generated imagery, or CGI, of advanced Russian weapons that threaten Western “enemies,” pointedly calling out the United States — and our much-hated (by Moscow) missile defense systems.
To drive home his point, he touted a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, a Mach-20 hypersonic vehicle, a long-range nuclear-powered cruise missile and a nuclear weapon-tipped underwater drone.
One CGI showed nukes possibly raining down on Florida.
Insisting that Washington has ignored Moscow’s concerns over U.S. missile defense — which isn’t targeted against Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal — Putin vowed that with these new weapons, America will “… listen now.”
In other words, Russia is back and bent on vengeance.
Of course, it’s election season in Russia, and Putin is up for (almost certain) re-election as president for another six-year term. Perhaps Putin wanted the people to know he’ll keep them safe from their long-standing “enemy,” America.
But what’s interesting is that the United States and NATO don’t threaten Russia. Indeed, the post-Berlin Wall West has sought good, interest-based relations with Moscow, despite a plethora of Russian provocations (such as its actions against Georgia, Ukraine and its cyber attacks).
But, in a way, none of that matters. Little seems capable of salving the wounds of some Russians, including Putin, who see the fall of the Soviet Union as an incredible geopolitical tragedy for humankind. Indeed, Putin said this (again) a few days ago in Kaliningrad.
The trouble is that while I’ve laid out an argument for an understanding of this most recent “Putin weather pattern,” unlike last week’s nor’easter, this menacing Russian storm front isn’t likely to simply blow away any time soon.
This piece originally appeared in Boston Herald