Concentration of Ideological Formulas as the True Message of Vladimir Putin’s Annual Address to Parliament
March 4, 2024
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst
Journalist Sergei Shelin notes that at Putin’s recent address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian president did not even mention the election coming up in two weeks; rather, his speech was a demonstration of undivided and unlimited power.
The original text in Russian was published in The Moscow Times; a slightly amended version is being republished here with their permission.
President Putin's annual address. Gostiny Dvor, Moscow, February 29, 2024. Source: VK
Vladimir Putin’s recent annual address to the Federal Assembly took a record two hours and six minutes (the previous record was one hour and 55 minutes, set in 2018). Still, by today’s standards the address cannot even be called particularly long. The ruler has found it increasingly difficult to stop himself over the years.

Another aspect of the address was Putin’s subpar delivery: he was coughing, while there were clearly more incorrect readings of words and numbers than usual. He is no spring chicken. The passages were interspersed with tired sighs, and the audience constantly had to applaud to give the president breaks. Sergei Mironov, the leader of A Just Russia,obsequiously counted: 116 times! Applause every minute and six seconds!

When the nobles and other guests could let their guard down, they began to gossip or simply yawn. An exception was the head of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, who was dressed in dark clothes and seemingly immersed in gloomy thoughts. Indeed, she had a lot to be down about – Putin did not say a word about whether he intended to maintain a balanced budget.

He also did not say anything about the upcoming presidential election in March or about the incomparably more pressing issue – the outlook for the war.

Not explaining or apologizing

No hints were made about terms for a peace; nothing was said about the possibility or impossibility of a new mobilization, much less an analysis of the situation at the front. Putin limited himself to official-sounding praise of heroes and promised veterans of the war against Ukraine career advancement across civilian, commercial and military institutions.

Replacing the outgoing “elite” of the 1990s – for whom the ruler reserved several hostile remarks – will be those who “rise to the attack and sacrifice themselves for us” and to whom “Russia can be handed down and trusted,” since they “will not betray [the country].” After the “special military operation,” a “special personnel program” called "Time for Heroes” will start. Its purpose is to help heroes to rise to the top in all spheres.

In the very long speech, only a few minutes were devoted to military issues, however.
Thus, Putin retains complete freedom to wage war for as long as he likes or, conversely, to end it at any moment on terms that he does not consider necessary to stipulate in any way in advance.
Stalin’s public speeches during World War II were completely different. The two rulers’ ideas about personal responsibility, at least to their own regimes, are radically different.

As for the rest of foreign policy, Putin’s speech was extremely laconic and boiled down to a few vague and ominous threats toward America and the West. He refuted rumors about Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons in space and preparations for an invasion of Europe, doing so in his favorite manner of duality: technically denying them, but intonationally confirming them.

If anyone was expecting some kind of olive branch from this speech, they were certainly disappointed. Even cheap hints about a desire for peace or openness to negotiations were absent. However, after Navalny’s death they certainly could not be present – Putin is confident that such hints would be perceived by the outside world as an apology.

Updated template

Ninety percent of the address was not about the war or the West. Putin acted as a ruler entering another six-year period of his rule and informing his subjects about plans for domestic policy.

A critic might say that these plans should have been voiced after the “election,” not before. After all, the contest has yet to be decided by voters and, technically speaking, he has challengers. But the beauty of Putin’s position is that there is no one in Russia who wants to criticize him.

For that reason, Putin’s address had the same template as the one delivered exactly six years earlier, on the eve of the 2018 election. Both then and now, Putin laid out his upcoming “May decrees,” i.e., the next six-year plan.

And here we see the difference between Putin and Brezhnev. Speaking at a congress, the ruler of the USSR not only promised achievements, but also reported on, to a certain extent, how his previous promises were being fulfilled.

Putin is free from this burden: everything has been done.
Though the promises made six years ago went almost completely unfulfilled, he never said anything about it. Many of the promises of the 2018 address were simply recycled in the 2024 address.
Vladimir Putin's address to parliament was shown in movie theaters across Russia. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, a high-circulation pro-Kremlin tabloid, in some places only a few people showed, though others had full houses. Source: VK
For example, non-commodity, non-energy exports were promised to grow by two thirds by 2030. This means to about $240 billion (since in 2023 they reached $146 billion). Meanwhile, six years ago Putin targeted $250 billion for 2024. Promises regarding increased life expectancy, the share of small businesses in the economy and much more were similarly reused.

Yet there were three noticeable differences.

Incantations that are always in his head

The first was the degree of boasting. Almost half of the 2018 address was devoted to advertising new weapons systems, about which Putin tirelessly and enthusiastically talked and showed animations. Their very names seemed to delight him.

He could not resist this time either and listed them (Kinzhal, Zircon, Avangard, Peresvet, Burevestnik, Poseidon, Sarmat), but did not show animations, only assuring the audience that six years ago he had not lied about them and that almost all of the weapons systems are either already in service or will be soon. The former exaltation was no longer there.

Second, the numerous benefits that will be bestowed upon various groups of the Russian population were presented in such a way that they do not form a complete picture of government spending for the coming six years. In 2018, that was not the case. Likewise, this time it is unclear what the budgets will be for the new national projects that are to replace the old ones. The ruler announced a whole barrel of such “pork” for Russian magnates without indicating how much money he would give for it.

Putin’s freedom of action has increased here – in terms of budget strategy – as well. He could start cutting government spending and fight inflation, or perhaps, if he wants, he could do the opposite and become an inflationist.

The promises made concerning the social sphere clearly show a willingness to spare no money to boost the birth rate. Putin needs soldiers. And since a soldier must not only be born but also raised, all the ideological personnel at schools, universities and, it seems, even kindergartens will have their salaries significantly increased and feel even more empowered.

And Putin instructed all the nobility gathered in Gostiny Dvor to follow their lead. This is the third and perhaps most important aspect of the address, regardless of whether the ruler intended it or, rather, simply spouted out the incantations that are always sounding in his head.

“Traditions... beliefs... interests of the Fatherland... crucible of trials... the West continues to lie... Russophobia... family values... moral foundations... Russia is a bulwark of traditional values... this is our Motherland and it is dear only to us... we are one big family and we will do what we want...” The concentration of ideological formulas, without which not a single passage of the speech was complete, was precisely the true message that the distinguished audience took away.
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