Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly this year was unique not only in its geographic setting but also in content as it laid down the direction the country is going to take and reaffirming its refusal to compromise on sovereignty in the midst of a standoff with the West.
The address on February 20 was delivered at the just opened Gostiny Dvor instead of the parliament building, indicating its unusual significance.
A week before the event, Putin’s influential aide Vladislav Surkov published an article in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putinist system of government… as the ideology of the future,” he wrote, demonstrating the top administration’s emphasis on Russia’s state stature, international standing and political order in the post-Putin era.
Surkov’s message was obviously aimed at paving the way for Putin’s address. This year’s address not only summarized the country’s achievements of the past year, but also declared the direction for the upcoming five years. The address also revealed Russia’s confidence and ambition to remain a world power regardless of its serious economic problems.
On foreign policy, Putin emphasized that “Russia has been and always will be a sovereign and independent state.” Russian elites have always believed that their country has barely abandoned sovereignty except during the interim government period and the chaotic days in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They generally believe that only a few countries such as Russia, the US and China can be viewed as countries with full sovereignty.
Putin’s emphasis on sovereignty is intended to show other major powers that Moscow will never compromise on the nation’s sovereign status for Western countries’ economic assistance.
Putin then put forward his views on the course Russia’s foreign policy is going to take. First, he strongly criticized the US for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and called for striking a balance on global strategic arms. Putin spent about 15 minutes talking about Russia-US relations, especially the consequences of the US unilateral withdrawal from the treaty.
Moscow believes that Washington should present convincing evidence rather than “make far-fetched accusations against Russia” to justify its withdrawal. Putin pointed out that the US had violated the treaty by “deploying Mk-41 universal launch systems that can make offensive combat use of Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles possible,” and then accused Russia of wrongdoing.
The repercussions of Washington’s withdrawal from the treaty for Moscow were actually not as intense as expected. Putin’s remarks could explain that, to some extent, Russia is confident that its strategic weapons can deter potential enemies, and its powerful missile system can also defend against NATO’s missile attacks.
Second, Moscow hopes to be an influential regional power in Eurasia and expand its geopolitical influence to the fringe of the continent through the Greater Eurasian Partnership.
Putin also stressed that Russia will “continue creating common markets and outreach efforts” with its “integration partners within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU),” and “coordinate the activities of the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”
Central Asia may suffer from instability in the next five years. The returned Islamic State terrorists may pose significant challenges for Central Asia. Also, many countries in this region will see leadership transition, which may result in conflicts among political elites.
The situation in Central Asia is a vital challenge to Russia’s regional influence, as Moscow has always prioritized the Commonwealth of Independent States members, including those in Central Asia, in diplomacy. The current situation may push Russia to strengthen and even institutionalize the Greater Eurasian Partnership.
Third, Putin emphasized in his address that “Russia’s equal and mutually beneficial relations with China currently serve as an important factor of stability in international affairs and in terms of Eurasian security, offering a model of productive economic cooperation.” Looking East will still be the unshakable direction of Moscow’s diplomacy. Hence, consolidating Russia-China ties is the key to Russia’s development in the Far East and its integration into the Asia-Pacific economic circle.
For the third consecutive year since 2016, Putin praised Russia-China relations in the address, indicating his consistent attitude toward bilateral ties. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Moscow. The two sides will hold activities to promote cooperation.
To sum up, the address clearly suggests that Russia will never sacrifice its core interests in exchange for currying favor with the West. In this context, Russia always needs to maintain its strategic partnership with China.
This article was originally published in Global Times.