President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Wednesday delivered an annual address replete with threats against the West but, despite intense tensions with Ukraine, stopped short of announcing new military or foreign policy moves.
Russia’s response will be “asymmetric, fast, and tough” if it is forced to defend its interests, Putin said, pointing to what he claimed were Western efforts at regime change in neighboring Belarus as another threat to Russia’s security.
He pledged that Russia “wants to have good relations with all participants of international society,” even as he noted that Russia’s modernized nuclear weapons systems were at the ready.
“The organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” Putin told a hall of governors and members of Parliament. “I hope no one gets the idea to cross the so-called red line with Russia — and we will be the ones to decide where it runs in every concrete case.”
Putin’s speech had been widely anticipated, with about 100,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border and Ukraine’s president warning openly of the possibility of war. Some analysts had speculated that Putin might use his annual state of the nation address to announce a pretext for sending troops into Ukraine.
But that possible outcome did not come to pass, even as Russia’s enormous military presence near Ukraine’s borders showed no sign of receding. Putin also made no reference to the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose supporters were holding protests across the country on Wednesday.
Instead, Putin spent most of his speech on domestic issues, acknowledging Russians’ discontent with the hardships of the pandemic. He outlined programs to subsidize summer camp for children, smooth the system for child-support payments to single mothers, and move more social services online.
Still, it was too early to tell whether Putin, 68, was pulling back from the brink. Now in his third decade in power, he appears more convinced than ever of his special, historic role as the father of a reborn Russian nation, fighting at home and abroad against a craven, hypocritical, morally decaying West.
“This sense of superiority mixed with arrogance gives him a feeling of power, and this is dangerous,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst who has studied Putin for years. “When you think you are more powerful and more wise than everyone else around you, you think you have a certain historical mandate for more wide-ranging action.”
Putin has made moves in recent weeks that, even by his standards, signal an escalation in his conflict with those he perceives as enemies, foreign and domestic. Russian prosecutors last week filed suit to outlaw Navalny’s organization, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in post-Soviet Russia. And in Russia’s southwest, Putin has built up a military force, the Kremlin has indicated, that could be prepared to move into neighboring Ukraine.
In Washington, the Biden administration reacted mildly to Putin’s tough words.
“We don’t take anything President Putin says personally,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said when asked for a response. “We have tough skin.”
Asked if the sharpened rhetoric from Putin would affect the prospects for a possible meeting with Biden later this year, Psaki said discussions were ongoing. “Obviously,” she said, “it requires all parties having an agreement that we’re going to have a meeting and we issued that invitation.”