In his year-end address to the Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin offered little in the way of a strategic vision for the nation.

The live broadcast of Vladimir Putin's Annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly at the M-Video electronics store in Veliky Novgorod. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Dec. 1 Federal Assembly address puzzled the Russian media this year. It was routine, boring, tedious and, most importantly, it didn’t contain “spicy” political invective, emotional phrases or colorful definitions, all of which were common for his previous addresses.     

In 2014 and 2015, Putin was emotional due to events involving Ukraine and Turkey. His colorful quotes and turns of phrase were a big gift for journalists and pundits. However, this time around, despite the fact that 2016 was also a very controversial year from a foreign policy perspective, Putin decided to shift his focus to the economy and social policy.

And he made it clear at the beginning of his speech. After this, those who expected any sensational statements could relax: Everybody in Russia knew that Putin would be talking about the economy and society. His style (as well as the style of his spin-doctors) was almost reminiscent of Soviet-style reports and accounts.

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First come some achievements, then “some flaws” and then the announcement of large-scale bold plans. This is exactly how Putin delivered his annual address to Russia’s parliamentarians. However, he didn’t seem to like his speech when he was reading it. The President didn’t have a way with rhetoric this time — he was hesitant and could not find the necessary words and intonation to highlight the key ideas of the speech. In fact, he just looked like a person, who was concerned with something more important while giving his address. 

However, his audience seemed to fail to catch these signs and gestures. That is why the media started speculating that something was wrong with Putin. Why was he so calm and boring? It is pretty relevant, at least because today — after Ukraine, Syria and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — his audience expanded significantly and comprises not only those inside Russia, but also a growing foreign audience.    

So, why was Putin so unspectacular in his delivery? Probably, he might have come to the understanding that the era of the Kremlin’s foreign policy gambles and victories had come to an end. In fact, all global regions where Russia has vested interests are faced with serious transformations, which could lead to unpredictable implications. Today, it is commonplace for Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Russia partly contributed to these controversial transformations, but lost control over them.

After all, what can Putin say about U.S.-Russia relations today, with Republican Donald Trump having been elected and members of his administration waiting to start their jobs? Putin’s comments on this topic could only be very cautious and very superficial.

How should the Kremlin deal with Europe and Ukraine? With the upcoming presidential elections in France and Germany, there is no certainty. The Aleppo bombing (which Russia’s aviation participated in) is far from over, with the future of the Syrian city in limbo, depending on different circumstances.

Thus, President Putin, labeled by the media as “the most influential person in the world,” found himself in the role of a separate and detached observer, who follows the global transformations and at the same time, fails to come up with the ways of how to deal with urgent challenges.    

Nevertheless, despite the routine character of his Federal Assembly speech, one can find there are some important nuances and hints, which could help reveal Putin’s intentions and plans.

First, he is still looking for the ideological foundations of his policy, which could be attractive not only to a Russian, but also a foreign audience.

“Principles of justice, respect and trust are universal,” he said. “We firmly defend them on the international arena and it brings some results. To same extent, we are obliged to guarantee the implementation of these principles within our country for every person and the entire society.”   

Indeed, what do “justice, respect and trust” mean, as Putin understands these categories? Why does he talk about these principles in his address, not, let’s say, “freedom, fraternity and brotherhood.” As indicated by Putin’s speech, he really believes that “justice, respect and trust” fit Russia’s current political system and, according to him, it could foster peace, which is essential for Russia to counter threats from the liberal opposition and pro-government radical campaigners.

The fact that Putin tries to address Russia’s upcoming challenges is a good sign. However, the danger is that, instead of strengthening institutions and fostering healthy political rivalry, he concocts ideological, and perhaps even mystical, recipes and formulas.

Moreover, it is unclear how these noble principles will help Putin in the international arena. Indeed, what did he really mean when he said that Russia defended these principles in the international arena?

Second, Putin’s address lacked any specific decisions of how to tackle the current economic stagnation. The lackluster state of the economy has become obvious, with its aggravation year by year. His spin-doctors failed to offer him a coherent strategy to bolster the country’s economic growth.

This year, Putin just reiterated his traditional ideas about the importance of boosting agriculture, the defense sector (as a driver for the civilian economy) and new information technologies. Nothing new. Generally, he produced a very discouraging impression on the audience: the President seems to prefer to follow the same course without bringing sweeping changes to the economy. He seems to hope that the economic situation will improve without decisive structural reforms.

Third, Putin prefers to deal with the most important and sensitive questions “in the manual mode” without thorough preparation and planning, as indicated by the fact that he didn’t mention the most relevant political question during the address: the 2018 presidential elections. Will they take place in accordance with the Russian Constitution and will there be a further reshuffle within the political elites?

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Thus, Putin’s 2016 presidential address to parliamentarians can be seen as a good example of Russia’s political rhetoric, with nothing new and specific said. After all, if Putin were more specific, it could impose certain obligations on him and, most importantly, restrict the freedom of his political maneuvering.

During a period of increasing unpredictability in global affairs and the Kremlin’s reluctance to discuss domestic reforms publicly, his address adds nothing substantial to the dialogue and, unfortunately, doesn’t reveal his strategic plans for the nation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.