Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual State of the Nation Address to both houses of the Federal Assembly.
He opened his address with words of gratitude towards the members of the Russian Armed Forces fighting against “international terrorism”. A moment of silence was held for the defenders of the Fatherland, as they are called each February 23rd in commemoration.
“We still grieve for them and will always grieve, along with the victims’ loved ones, “ he declared somberly.
Putin then claimed that “It took us nearly a decade to finally break the backbone of those militants. We almost succeeded in expelling terrorists from Russia, but are still fighting the remaining terrorists underground.”
This is a confusing claim. If Putin is referencing the two Chechen Wars, then it’s a bit boastful of him to claim that terrorism was almost expelled from Russia. It is true that Chechnya is much more stable than it once was, but stability doesn’t necessarily stamp out an ideology. The terrorists that engineered the recent attacks on Paris were French citizens, living in a democratic, stable, and free country, and they were still driven to the poisonous ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, Chechnya isn’t the only region of the North Caucasus that presents a challenge to Russia’s fight against terrorism While Groznyy’s brand new skyscrapers gleam and sparkle, regions such as Ingushetia and Dagestan still struggle from poverty and corruption. Ethnic minorities from these areas face discrimination and open racism, and Islamic fundamentalism still festers in these areas. If Putin wants to fight terrorism within Russia, he must not forget these areas.
Next, Putin spoke about the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s involvement in that war. Unsurprisingly, he wasted little time in laying blame on While he did not name any specific nations as culprits, his implications that the west-namely the United States and European Union, have turned Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria into hellish nightmares. It is abundantly clear that the Kremlin is much more interested in stability than democracy in the Middle East, and it certainly is hard to argue that many of these countries were much more stable before foreign intervention.
However, stability cannot be the only factor in examining what’s going on in the Middle East. Pro-Kremlin Russians are keen to point out the close relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia as being hypocritical to the values the United States touts, and it is certainly true that the close relationship runs contrary to the ideas of democracy and liberty. The Kremlin cooperates with the Saudis as well, however, despite the rivalries related to Iran and to oil production. And it is ironic that Putin would accuse the western powers of “brutally imposing their own rules” in the region when every one of the countries he mentioned as being destroyed by the west were brutal dictatorships beforehand. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi openly praised acts of violence and terror. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have presided over a stable and developed nation but he actively oppressed Shia Iraqis and carried out genocide against the Kurdish minority living in northern Iraq. Bashar Al-Assad’s troops fired live rounds into peaceful protests in the first stages of Syria’s uprising. The Taliban in Afghanistan conducted repression of the Afghan people much like Saudi Arabia does today, and it’s only more ironic considering the Soviet War in Afghanistan was fought on the grounds of an ideology as well.
President Putin clearly and decisively described the reason for military involvement in Syria: “The militants in Syria pose a particularly high threat for Russia. Many of them are citizens of Russia and the CIS countries. This is why it has been decided to launch a military operation there based on an official request from the legitimate Syrian authorities. Our military personnel are fighting in Syria for Russia, for the security of Russian citizens.” These are understandable reasons, but why now? The Syrian Civil War has raged for over four years and only recently has the Kremlin decided to get directly involved. Da’esh has posed a threat for much longer than Russian troops have been directly involved in the region. Two chief reasons for this involvement that have been debated were also left out, namely, the desire of the Kremlin to keep Assad in power, and the presence of a Russian military base in Syria’s north.
Putin then turned his attention towards Russia’s newest enemy, the Republic of Turkey. Turkey has received strikingly similar criticism from different sides of the globe for its perceived lack of urgency in fighting Da’esh. Critics of the Kremlin allege that Putin is more interested in helping Al-Assad advance on Free Syrian Army posts, while critics of Turkey claim Ankara is using its military might to beat up the Kurds in Syria rather than advance on Da’esh posts. Both criticisms have some validity to them, as Turkey still struggles to keep its Kurdish southeast regions stable and Russia’s close ties to the Assad government. The two countries are continuing their squabble, now trading accusations of oil purchases from the terrorists in Syria. From the tone of Putin’s remarks as well as those made by President Erdogan of Turkey, it looks like the spat between Moscow and Ankara isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.
Putin’s speech left out one very important and recent Russian foreign policy maneuver, and that is Ukraine. Ukraine was not mentioned once in Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly. Frankly, hours could be given to speculation as to why the still simmering conflict in the Donbas wasn’t mentioned. It could be argued that the sanctions levied against Russia have been replaced by the news out of Turkey and Syria, but those sanctions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and it’s still evident that they continue to sting the economic capabilities. A need to diversify and expand the economy away from oil and natural gas was brought up in the address, but specifics were rare and if action’s going to be taken, it would be helpful to see it sooner than later, and military campaigns in Ukraine as well as Syria aren’t likely to help that too much.
The war in Syria and icy tensions with Turkey have provided new talking points for Putin to rally the people around the white, blue, and red. How long they’ll stay around to distract from stagnation and uncertainty at home is yet to be seen.