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'Listen To Us Now': Putin Unveils Weapons, Vows To Raise Living Standards In Fiery Annual Address


Journalists watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state-of-the-nation address in Moscow on March 1.
Journalists watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state-of-the-nation address in Moscow on March 1.

Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of powerful new nuclear weapons, pledged to cut the country's poverty rate in half, and vowed to make its economy one of the world’s mightiest in his annual state-of-the-nation address on March 1.

Speaking before hundreds of top officials and lawmakers 17 days before an election that seems certain to hand him a new six-year term, Putin set out ambitious domestic goals and issued defiant warnings to the West, which he accused of trying to hold Russia back.

"I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed at containing our country's development: Everything that you wanted to impede with your policies has already happened," he said. "You have failed to contain Russia."

Putin said Russia had tested new nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a nuclear-capable underwater drone that, Putin claimed, would be impossible to intercept.

Using colorful graphics and video, Putin said the high-speed underwater drone capable of carrying a nuclear warhead could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities.

Putin said that Russia also tested a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, called Sarmat, with a range and number of warheads exceeding its predecessor.

Putin contended that Russia was forced to upgrade its nuclear arsenal after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002.

Putin said Russia warned it would take such measures in 2004, but that the West didn't want to talk with Russia.

"No one listened to us then. So listen to us now,” Putin said to thunderous applause in the speech, which was held at a venue just outside the Kremlin and televised live nationwide.

A video screen shows the Kinzhal shipborne surface-to-air missile system as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers an annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on March 1.
A video screen shows the Kinzhal shipborne surface-to-air missile system as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers an annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on March 1.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White downplayed Putin’s comments, saying the U.S. military was capable of defending the country from any threats.

“We're not surprised by the statements, and the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared," she told reporters.

She added that U.S. missile-defense systems in Europe are not focused on Russia but are more designed to defend against Iran, North Korea, and other rogue threats.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a regular briefing that “Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known for a long time [and which] Russia has denied prior to this.”

“Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for more than a decade in direct violation of [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty obligations.”

"We have a new defense budget that's over $700 billion. We believe that our military will be stronger than ever," she added.

However, she also appeared to downplay the Russian leader’s remarks. Noting that Russia’s presidential election is approaching, she said that Putin "was playing to the [domestic] audience, certainly.”

Putin's 'Invincible' New Weapons
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Putin has rattled Russian sabers repeatedly in the past, and independent Moscow-based military analyst Aleksandr Golts said a lack of detailed information made it difficult to assess his statements about weapons.

Golts said it would be “groundbreaking” if Russia had developed a compact nuclear reactor to power a drone, for example, but added: "We can’t find anything about this [development] from open sources."

"It could either be a bluff or the hard truth,” Golts told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Part of a video Putin used to highlight one of the "new weapons" was 11 years old, according to some reports.

Opposition figure Leonid Gozman said on Twitter that anyone alarmed by Putin's remarks should not be, suggesting that corruption or incompetence would undermine efforts to make strides in weaponry. But he expressed concern about the reaction of the officials and lawmakers in the audience.

"The worst thing about the address was the stormy, sincere, hysterical ovation in response to Putin's militaristic passages," Gozman tweeted. "That was worse than what he actually said."

At one point in his address, Putin said the names of the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the drone haven't yet been chosen and suggested the Defense Ministry run a nationwide contest to select them, triggering loud applause.

"No one in the world has anything like that," he said. "It may appear someday, but by that time we will develop something new."

Journalist Leonid Ragozin called Putin's remarks on Russia's arsenal "nuclear trolling" and said the speech included "practically no international agenda at all."

Putin focused on domestic matters for much of the address, speaking about the economy and quality-of-life issues ranging from roads to health care and saying that Russia needs to improve living standards.

Putin said 20 million Russians now live in poverty compared to 42 million in 2000, but called he figure “unacceptable” and said Russia should cut the poverty rate in half in the next six years.

Putin -- who is 65 and will be barred from seeking a fifth term in 2024 unless he changes the constitution -- said the coming years will be “decisive” for Russia.

The well-being of Russia and the well-being of our citizens must be the foundation of everything, and it is in this area that we must make a breakthrough," Putin said.

He called for a technological push to improve Russia's living standards and economy.

"Lagging behind in technology is the main threat and our main enemy," Putin said.

"To move forward and dynamically develop, we need to expand liberties in all spheres," he added.

Putin called on authorities to create an environment under which businesses can thrive.

"The unjustified persecution [of businesspeople], including by the security services, is absolutely unacceptable," Putin said, adding that this "undermines people's faith in the law and in justice."

The Russian leader said that while the state will support Russian business, its share in the economy "should gradually decline."

Putin stated that Russia should become one of the world’s top five economies over the next six years, aiming to raise its GDP by 150 percent over that time.

"This is a complicated task, but I am sure that we are ready to accomplish it," Putin told lawmakers.

The address is one of three regularly scheduled national appearances Putin makes each year -- the others being a lavish question-and-answer session with the public and a stage-managed annual press conference.

Putin spoke in front of colorful graphics and video.
Putin spoke in front of colorful graphics and video.

It was the 14th time Putin has given the address, before an audience that traditionally includes both houses of the legislature, or Federal Assembly; government ministers; judges from the Constitutional and Supreme courts; leading regional officials; and other members of the political elite.

In the past, the address has normally lasted about one hour.

The constitutionally mandated address is normally given in December in the lavish St. George's hall in the Kremlin. This year, however, it was relocated to the Manezh, an exhibition hall just off Red Square and adjacent to the Kremlin, and was repeatedly postponed in a move that observers say was intended to bolster Putin's reelection campaign.

"Even though the address is being given in the name of the president and not the candidate, no one can ban Putin from presenting his vision of the future," Moscow-based political scientist Vladimir Slatinov told the state-run news agency RIA Novosti ahead of the speech.

"Of course, Putin can't use his official post for his campaign. He can share his vision for the development of the country and the solution of key problems facing Russia."

"It is a clear public gesture intended to enliven the election campaign," Slatinov added.

Putin's spokesman said the Manezh was chosen because the number of invitees has been substantially increased and because it has large video monitors and other technology for infographics and multimedia segments. The Kremlin made prolific use of the screens, showing graphics ranging from charts of the social statistics to a computer simulation of potential Sarmat launch trajectories.

On February 27, the liberal Yabloko party -- whose candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, is one of seven people running against Putin -- issued a statement saying, "the choice of the date for presenting the address and its transformation into essentially a campaign-platform declaration is a violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation."

Putin has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999. Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who has been barred from running in the election because of a felony conviction that observers denounce as politically motivated, has dubbed the election "the reappointment of Vladimir Putin" and has called on voters to stay away from the polls.

Putin has refused to participate in televised debates or other traditional public campaign events.

Analysts believe the Kremlin fears that a low turnout will undermine the appearance of the election's legitimacy. The government appears to be taking numerous measures to boost turnout, including moving the day of voting to March 18, the fourth anniversary of Russia's formal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Those events, while widely condemned by the international community, were welcomed among Putin's supporters in Russia.

In addition to the election, Putin's state-of-the-nation address also comes in the context of international sanctions imposed on Russia for its interference in Ukraine, tense relations with the United States, and a struggling economy.

Government statistics show that real incomes fell in 2017 for the fourth straight year. The government's economic program forecasts that the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line will be reduced from the current 13.8 percent to 11.2 percent by 2020. However, that figure is higher than the 10.7 percent posted in 2012.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, TASS, RIA Novosti, and Vedomosti
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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