In his annual end-of-year speech at the Kremlin, president Vladimir Putin reiterated his emphasis on Russia’s current foreign policy direction, with Eurasian integration still a top priority.

Vladimir Putin addressing the Russian Parliament. Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta / Konstantin Zavrazhin

December 12 was a big day for Russia’s top officials as more than 1,000 civil servants gathered in the Grand Kremlin Palace for the annual state-of-the-nation speech. The date of the presidential address was specifically picked to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Given before the Russian Parliament, this speech normally concludes the political year and lays plans for the following one. 2013 was not an exception, yet this year’s address was surrounded by a number of rumors suggesting that the President could announce a long-awaited amnesty plan or propose amendments to the constitution.

In an hour-long speech, Vladimir Putin covered issues of domestic and international politics, ranging from migration and technologically outdated medical institutions inside the country to development of new kinds of nuclear arms.

Russia’s aspiration for military leadership

Vladimir Putin made a declaration that Russia does not aspire to superpower status, but rather, will aspire to become a leader by protecting international law and insisting on respect for national sovereignty. For those monitoring Russia’s participation in Middle Eastern politics, it is a clear reference to recent political gains that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy made in the region.

In the past year, the international community made significant attempts to resolve the crisis in Syria and agree on Iran’s nuclear program. According to the president, this became possible, in large part, thanks to Russia’s diplomatic efforts, which re-introduced the country as a “guarantor of global stability and security.”

Although the United States was not mentioned in the presidential speech, Putin implicitly reproached the country for its military policy: “The increase by foreign countries of their strategic, high-precision non-nuclear systems potential and boosting missile defense possibilities could ruin earlier reached agreements on nuclear arms control and reduction, and lead to the disruption of the so-called strategic balance.”

Alexander Kolbin, military analyst and PIR-Center expert, believes that Putin implicitly indicated that the United States remains Russia’s number one rival. However, while in the past, Putin had often talked about multilateralism and trying to create a multipolar global order, today this bit of rhetoric did not make it into his speech, argues Michael Slobodchikoff, Lecturer in the Political Science Department at Troy University.

Development of the Russian armed forces is still seen through the prism of competition with the United States as the Prompt Global Strike Concept, mentioned by Putin in his address, had been first developed by the United States,” says Kolbin. In this context, the president’s comment that Russia will not allow any country in the world to achieve military superiority over it seems quite logical.

The military aspect of the presidential address touched base on a number of other priorities that are expected to strengthen Russia’s armed forces: “Putin talks about the necessity to develop the country’s system of global reconnaissance and target designation, without which the use of precision-guided weapons is impossible.” According to Kolbin, the idea to strengthen the “nuclear triad,” expressed by the president in his speech, is a result of the need to catch up militarily, as its nuclear arsenal is the sole guarantor of security for Russia today.

Foreign policy priorities: Eurasia comes to the fore

Vladimir Putin’s recent shift of political priorities to the East was once again reiterated in the speech, as the president made an emphasis on developing Siberia and the Far East. According to him, the two regions should become new centers for development and investment in Russia attracting foreign companies by their favorable economic regimes and benefits. The Far East should be transformed into another center for exercising the country’s foreign policy in Asia.

The issue that has been making headlines in world newspapers - the protests in Ukraine - was mentioned in the annual speech only briefly but again, in the context of Eurasian political integration. Michael Slobodchikoff suggests that the world was watching to see what Putin would say about the great power conflict between the EU and Russia over the former Soviet Union. Instead, Putin took a much more global perspective.

“Since May of this year, Ukraine has participated in all meetings of “the three” (Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine) as an observer, participated in discussions and expressed its desire several times to join several Customs Union agreements.”

According to Putin, Russia will continue to work with Ukraine based on equality and mutual economic interest. Indeed, advancement of the Eurasian integration project that is seen as a brand new Eastern vector of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy became a highlight of the speech.  In particular, the president talked about the road map for Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union, a decision that caused an outcry in the West.

Michael Slobodchikoff was surprised, however, not to see more in the speech about cooperation with specific Asian states, first of all, with China. “This could indicate Putin's belief of Russia as a major global power and not just a regional one.  In other words, Russia is reasserting itself on the global stage,” Mr. Slobodchikoff argues.