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Putin's empty promises

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Ingo Mannteufel
February 20, 2019

In his annual speech, Russia's Vladimir Putin tried to fight sinking political popularity with often heard promises. But these are shattered by a reality that he has been responsible for, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Putin's head floats on a screen above the audience listening to him speak
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/A. Zemlianichenko

Fifteen years is not a special anniversary. But when a head of state gives his annual speech on the state of the nation for the 15th time, the event almost has the character of a small jubilee. It also has something of a boring routine about it, though. This must have been the case for Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly: Putin reeled off his speech like a seasoned pro, but without great enthusiasm.

Unlike last time, he could not inspire the audience with exciting computer simulations about the latest Russian miracle weapons. Russia's political, economic and religious elite sat through their president's speech stoically, clapping routinely in all the right places throughout the 90-minute speech.

Putin's promises and the bitter reality

As has often been the case in Putin's speeches, the core message was a promise that the social and economic situation of the people will be improved. Putin played the well-known role of Russia's caring father: an increase in social benefits here, new financial relief there.

But after many years of economic stagnation and declining real incomes, the new social promises will not improve the mood in the country. Even the state-controlled opinion research institute WZIOM noted in January that trust in Putin has been falling: Only around one third of all Russians still trust him — a historic low not reached since 2005. The reason for this is Putin's decision last year to increase the retirement age. Relatively large numbers of Russians protested against that new law.

A cartoon putin throws out fistfuls of money from a cliff
DW's Sergey Elkin captured his thoughts on Putin's annual speech in this cartoon

The newly promised benefits will not make people forget their dissatisfaction with the higher retirement age. In fact, the very value of Putin's promises is being revealed in a project organized his main political adversary, Alexei Navalny.

Navalny is taking advantage of presidential decrees Putin made in May 2012. In them, he stipulated precisely that the salaries of many millions of Russian state employees, like doctors, professors, teachers, lecturers and nurses, should reach a certain level proportional to the respective average income of a region.

Such a concrete promise by Putin can, of course, be verified: On a website set up by Navalny's team, Russian state employees can now check whether their salaries promised by Putin correspond to reality — or not.

It's not just Putin's agenda in the social sphere that Russian reality is messing up. While the Russian president promises a better business climate and an improved legal system, the American top investor Michael Calvey has been imprisoned in Moscow for days now. The fact that this fully politically compliant US businessman, who has spent 25 years investing billions in Russia and the region through the private equity fund Baring Vostok, has now suffered such a fate has shaken the Moscow business world. Only a few entrepreneurs are likely to keep trusting Putin's words.

Read more: Russia critic Bill Browder briefly arrested in Spain

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Ingo Mannteufel is the head of DW's Russia desk

Putin's own view of the world

Putin's promises are shattered by reality — a reality that he has been responsible for over many years. There is a certain irony that in his current speech, he had to state that he had warned of considerable grievances in prior speeches, but there have been no improvements so far.

When it came to foreign policy, Putin's speech also didn't contain any major surprises: It's a known fact that he considers Russia's massive build-up of arms to be just a defensive measure, but this doesn't make it any more believable. There is consensus in the West that the Kremlin is responsible for disinformation campaigns; the use of the nerve agent Novichok in the UK against the ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal; the annexation of the Crimean peninsula; the shooting down of the passenger plane MH17 over Ukraine; the covert military intervention in eastern Ukraine; and the violation of the INF treaty.

That's why Putin's new arms threats against the West are regrettable, but they've have long been taken into political calculations — and without new computer simulations, they're not so scary to look at either.

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Ingo Mannteufel Head of IT and Cybersecurity@mannteufel