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Putin’s speech: long war, nuclear blackmail, and stability

Vladimir Putin’s two-hour message, awaited and advertised for so long, can be reduced to three main points: nuclear blackmail, an endlessly long people’s war, and stability according to “as it was before February 24, 2022 “.

At the same time, the last two points are clearly in conflict with each other, but as long as the state has a certain financial safety margin, the Kremlin believes it can convince ordinary Russians that war and stability are compatible, at least until the spring of next year when the people should once again elect Putin as president. Nevertheless, how strange it may sound, his main goal today is a quiet re-election and cementing his power.

Putin’s nuclear “demarche”: why Moscow refuses the SNV-III (New Start) agreement

Russia’s decision to “suspend” its participation in the SNV-III (also called New Start) strategic agreement signed with the US in 2010 is an exclusively political decision unlikely to have practical consequences. Firstly, there is no such procedure as “suspending ” participation in the contract. Secondly, the Russian arsenal of strategic offensive weapons is estimated to be below the limits established by the agreement. Therefore, a sharp change in the nuclear balance will not occur. Thirdly, the prospects for a sharp increase in the arsenal of nuclear warheads and missile launchers in the Russian Federation are vague, mainly due to Western sanctions, resource limitations, insignificant rates of missile launcher production, decommissioning of old models, and the unclear state of several projects for the production of new missiles (such as “Sarmat” or “Yars”).

Therefore, the essence of Putin’s decision to “suspend” participation in the treaty is to send a political signal to Western countries about the need for negotiations with Russia regarding Ukraine and a new security architecture in Europe and the world. Globally, such a maneuver could weaken the already shaky international arms control system, given the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the escalation over Iran’s nuclear program. The Kremlin plays in this context, intimidating the external audience.

The SNV-III agreement is an American-Russian agreement signed in April 2010 between the presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. The essence of the agreement was the mutual reduction of the arsenals of strategic offensive weapons of the USA and the Russian Federation, in particular deployed nuclear warheads (a limit of 1,550 units), intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers (a limit of 700 units was established). The logic of the agreement consisted of the de-escalation of bilateral relations, the rejection of the arms race, the stabilization of the international security situation, and the regulation of the sphere of nuclear security. In practice, both sides were supposed to interact on these issues, create a “hotline” of communication and conduct inspections at each other’s military facilities. In reality, as relations between the US and the Russian Federation deteriorated over time, the treaty was less often enforced, and mistrust between Moscow and Washington DC finally undermined it after the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014. In January 2021, the United States and the Russian Federation agreed to extend the agreement until 2026. At the time, it was a compromise in the negotiations on reformatting the security architecture in Europe, which the Kremlin provoked. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of the following year nullified these agreements.

Despite the pathos and demonstrativeness of the decision announced by Putin, it is unlikely to have any legal or practical consequences in the coming years. The contract does not provide for the “suspension of participation” procedure, and therefore, this decision will not have any practical consequences. Symptomatically, a few hours after Putin’s speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry published an explanation of this decision, clarifying that they will continue to comply with the provisions on the quantitative limits of the SNV, as well as notify their American colleagues about the launches of their ballistic missiles per the treaty. All this means that Putin’s announcement of “suspension of participation” in the SNV-III agreement is only a political gesture that contains several components:

  1. Russia continues its course to sever ties with the West completely. This is an idea designed for a cheer-patriotic domestic audience.
  2. Russia is dismantling the old security architecture formed due to the Cold War, which the Russian Federation considers irrelevant and unfair. SNV-III remained the last major treaty with the United States that regulated the international arms control system and was a legacy not only of the 1980s and 1990s but also of the Obama-Clinton “reset” policy.
  3. Russia invites the West to negotiations on a new security architecture, in which the Russian Federation wants to play a greater role, to remain a key player, but at the same time to create international agreements in which other major nuclear powers, such as Britain, France, China, and possibly India and Pakistan, would participate. This harmonizes with the Chinese vision of a more just world in which the active role and representation of non-Western countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia is enshrined. Therefore, to a certain extent, Putin’s speech on the nuclear issue was a playful act for Chinese policy.

Moreover, at the moment, Russia is not ready for a sharp increase in its arsenal of SNVs. During the agreement’s validity period, the USA and the Russian Federation conducted 328 mutual inspections of their arsenals. Before the war, the number of deployed nuclear warheads in the Russian Federation was estimated at approximately 500 units, and the number of missile carriers – was about 1,420 units, which was below the limits established by the SNV-III agreement. Given the sanctions and internal problems with the production of new missiles in Russia, it is unlikely that Moscow will be able to increase its arsenal in the short term dramatically. Therefore, the decision to suspend participation in the agreement will not change the nuclear balance in the world in the coming years.

Globally, unfortunately, the political maneuvers of the Russian Federation around the SNV-III agreement, which is driving the entire arms control system into a deep crisis, are capable of worsening the state of international security and, in the long run, causing the build-up of strategic offensive weapons in other countries of the world. Moscow stated for the first time that, in fact, the issue of cooperation in the nuclear sphere ceased to be separate from the state of American-Russian relations. In certain circumstances, this could lead to further erosion of the SNV-III agreement and the weakening of international control and non-proliferation mechanisms. In turn, this can lead to an increase in the arsenals of strategic weapons in the Russian Federation, China, the USA, and European countries, and as a result, to a rise in the arsenals of India (which will take into account the Chinese factor) and Pakistan (which will monitor the actions of India).

Repairing” the social contract

Vladimir Putin’s message to the Federal Assembly was supposed to be a programmatic speech in which the President of the Russian Federation outlines the contours of the state’s and society’s development. Moreover, both the external and internal situations in Russia have changed – the country actually lives in conditions of war (from 2014 to autumn 2022, this was not obvious to the citizens of the Russian Federation), isolation (and self-isolation) is observed in the external field in the western direction. Moreover, all this is happening against an empty vacuum instead of a national idea and image of the future.

The key message that Putin mentioned in his speech was a protracted war. To some extent, this thesis was built around domestic politics and economic issues. When discussing war, it is logical to explain what they are fighting for and what will happen in the future. But Putin’s message once again demonstrated the ideological crisis of the Russian state. The old idea of the “Russian world” no longer fully meets the needs of the time – it is contradicted by changes in the demographic picture in Russia itself, a turn (more precisely, isolation from the West) to the east, and the absence of guaranteed allies. The new idea of existence has not yet been formulated.

Therefore, speaking about the essential things – the causes and essence of the war, Putin took the path of borrowing ideas. For the first time at this level, instead of the definition of “state” in relation to Russia, the word “civilization” was used. The approach is typical of Chinese politics, but it is justified there – Chinese civilization is several thousand years old. The ideologists of the Russian world have been talking about “Russian civilization” for a long time, but now, this term was introduced personally by Putin. According to the logic of this concept, there are three major civilizations in the modern world: the dying Western, the rising again Chinese, and the Russian guardian of all possible traditional values.

Putin, using this approach, tried to find additional explanations for Russia’s claims of a special place in world politics. He no longer talked about a multi-vector world, a balance of superpowers. The message was addressed to the internal consumer, who had to understand why Russians participated in the war. Therefore, it contained reflections on the features of “our people” – some kind of spirituality, kindness, compassion – a typical set of positive characteristics for such statements.

Defining the “enemys’ image,” Putin used the thesis that has been implanted (at least since June 2022) by the Russian media – the enemy of Russia is the “collective West,” and Ukraine is just a battlefield. The design is quite complicated, especially without a basic understanding of “what Russia is” and “what we are fighting for”. It is necessary to give the citizen an understanding of why this is “their business”. Afterward, the President of the Russian Federation tried to transfer the thesis of the confrontation between the Russian Federation and the “West” to the confrontation with (or a threat from) the West with an ordinary citizen. That is why the goal of the sanctions was declared to be the desire to “make the Russians suffer”. The way of living in neighboring countries was presented as a direct threat to the Russian Federation’s population.

Against this background, the state offers a straightforward construction of an updated social contract. Putin proposed a simple format – mobilization around power in exchange for the opportunity to live as before (the thesis of protection and war for survival) and material support from the state.

The last point applies to only key population groups who can create problems for the Kremlin with their position and behavior. The President of the Russian Federation dwelled separately on the military, their families, as well as “volunteers” and “veterans” (meaning veterans of this war). These categories are promised material support, payments for deceased family members, and assistance to children. The second group – mothers – is discussed in the context of indexation of the family capital, housing construction, and youth support. Moreover, for the former, state support is presented as a social lift – an opportunity to improve one’s social status. The second is just money and support.

A format similar to the Ukrainian “Big Construction” was proposed for the rest of the population – an exemplary repair of part of the roads and social facilities. That creates the picture that “the state cares about its citizens.”

The population was presented with a simple format for the coexistence of state power and citizens: “We will fight and call you to war. By raising children, you receive money, and you can raise your social status through your or your loved one’s participation in the war. Otherwise, the state guarantees the usual way of life and the external development picture.”

In other words: we pay you and give a picture of improvement, and you give us a resource for continuing the war and a minimum of uncomfortable questions.

This format cannot be called a full-fledged social contract. It is rather an attempt to find a convenient and acceptable formula for the existence of the state and the system of power against the backdrop of a crisis of ideas and a vision of the future. Apparently, in such a semi-repaired state, this social contract will survive until the election of the President of the Russian Federation in 2024.

Carrots for the electorate

As part of the new-old social contract, Putin decided that the electorate should be shown a semi-virtual picture of the reconstruction of a prosperous country that, despite the war, lives as if this war simply does not exist.

In short, in his speech he:

  • Reassured the population with promises to maintain a balance between military spending and maintaining the current level of consumption (“There is an expression “guns instead of butter”. We should not destroy our own economy. We have everything to ensure both security and to ensure the country’s steady development”).
  • Reassured by the prospects for modernizing housing and communal services and maintaining the availability of services for the population (“Within ten years, it is planned to invest 4.5 trillion rubles in the housing and communal services system… We will continue the program of free gasification; we need to extend it to schools and hospitals. For citizens, this program will operate on an ongoing basis).
  • Promised a massive quick solution to the problems of transport infrastructure (“It was decided to extend the Moscow-Kazan expressway to Irkutsk, and subsequently to the border with Mongolia and China. … We will develop the North-South corridor, modernize the Trans-Siberian and BAM, develop the Northern Sea Route“).
  • Guaranteed the continuation of the implementation of all “national projects” and the access of the regions to the relevant funds, including those reserved for subsequent years (“Funds for national projects reserved for 2024, the regions will be able to take now as loans, which will be repaid in April next year“).
  • Announced a further wage increase with the same progressive decrease in bank rates for consumer and mortgage loans (“The minimum wage was raised twice. We will continue to raise it. Since the beginning of the year, the minimum wage has been indexed by 6.3%. I propose to bring it to 19,242 rubles … Conditions are being formed to reduce long-term lending rates. This means that the loan will be affordable.”
  • Instructed to organize the training of a million specialists in the electronics industry and the industry of robotics, mechanical engineering, metallurgy, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and construction (“It is necessary to form educational programs based on the needs of the economy”).

All these promises and assurances have one standard “Achilles’ heel”: there is not and cannot be any certainty that the Russian budget will pull their funding. For example:

– Promises regarding high-speed roads “to Vladivostok”, the development of the capabilities of the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the Volga-Don Canal, etc. – look like a strange mix of Soviet propaganda and Putin’s earlier promises. There were not enough resources for it in the days of the USSR and the “prosperous years” of the early 2000s from hydrocarbon revenues – it certainly cannot be realized now under the conditions of sanctions and partial embargoes on the sale of oil and gas.

– Stories about billions of investments in housing and communal services and free gasification do not correlate with last year’s double price increase for these services, and in several regions – significantly exceeding the promised “threshold” level of 9%.

– Projects for training a million highly qualified specialists in high-tech fields are being made public against the backdrop of a critical shortage of personnel at many enterprises and the outflow of hundreds of thousands of IT workers abroad.

Thus, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Putin’s speech is directed mainly at the people still ready to unreflectively accept the words of the “leader”.
  2. The deterioration of the present situation in the Russian Federation will be accompanied by the distribution of ever more generous promises of improvements in the situation in the future.
  3. Russia does not already have the resources to implement what was promised, and nothing indicates that they may appear in the future.
  4. Meanwhile, Putin is confident in the complete silence of the elites.

In general, Putin’s speech shows that he is not ready and will not enter into any negotiations in the short term. It will strengthen the repressive machine while more and more dipping the country into virtual reality. His main goal now is re-election and cementing power. He is ready to wait for a “window of opportunity” in all other matters.