Putin curbs anti-Western rhetoric, says wants to get on with Trump

Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly on 1 December 2016. [The Kremlin]

President Vladimir Putin struck an unusually conciliatory tone in his annual state of the nation address yesterday (1 December), saying Moscow wanted to get on with the incoming US administration and was looking to make friends not enemies.

Putin has used previous set-piece speeches to lash out at the West and the United States in particular, but he reined in his criticism this time round and focused most of his speech on domestic social and economic issues.

“We don’t want confrontation with anyone. We don’t need it. We are not seeking and have never sought enemies. We need friends,” Putin told Russia’s political elite gathered in one of the Kremlin’s grandest halls [full speech here].

“We are ready to cooperate with the new US administration. We have a shared responsibility to ensure international security.”

Any US-Russia co-operation would have to be mutually beneficial and even-handed, he said.

Putin has spoken previously of his hope that US President-elect Donald Trump may help restore tattered US-Russia relations, and analysts said he was unlikely to want to dial up anti-Western rhetoric before Trump’s inauguration in January.

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That was a reference to Syria where Moscow is backing President Bashar al-Assad, while the outgoing US administration has supported anti-Assad rebels.

Russia hopes Trump will give Russia a freer hand there and cooperate militarily to fight Islamic State.

Putin’s tone may have been softer than usual, but he still made it clear that Russia would continue to robustly stand up for its own interests.

Complaining about what he said were “myths” about Russian aggression and Russian meddling in other countries’ elections, he said Moscow wanted to independently decide its own fate.

“We will build our future without advice from anyone else,” said Putin.

The main target of Putin’s speech appeared to be the Russian people though.

His message was that the worst of a grinding economic crisis was in the past and that it was now time to focus on improving living standards by investing more heavily in education and health.

The next presidential election takes place in 2018, and though he has not said yet if he will seek another term, Putin is widely expected to run.

Stars align for Putin

Held at diplomatic arm’s-length for years, Putin is pivoting back to centre stage as his admirers and international allies rise to power, a move that analysts say the Kremlin will be quick to exploit.

In Europe, France’s presidential primaries saw former prime minister François Fillon, who favours closer relations with Moscow, become the rightwing champion for next year’s vote.

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And in Russia’s backyard, pro-Moscow candidates Rumen Radev and Igor Dodon have triumphed in presidential polls in Bulgaria and Moldova respectively.

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These elections show how Putin’s standing has surged, said independent analyst Maria Lipman.

“Russia has been able to considerably strengthen its position on the international scene, and its leader has become attractive in the world,” she said.

Putin, she said, is riding an “anti-establishment” trend, although unlike figures such as Trump or Radev, he “has been putting this political course into practice successfully for a very long time.”

“Leaders who reach out to less educated people, who speak against the establishment, against globalisation… are becoming more and more popular,” she said.

“Putin fits very well into the image of such a leader.”

European jitters

The European Union, which had already been weakened by the growing power of populist nationalist movements, suffered a serious blow from Britain’s June referendum on EU membership.

Trump then sent shockwaves through European capitals by appearing to question US commitment to NATO – the alliance that has underpinned western European security for nearly seven decades.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the stronger proponents of Russia sanctions who is up for re-election next year, has already expressed worry for Trump’s admiration for Putin, and observers say the EU’s main France-Germany alliance would be strained by differences in attitudes toward Putin if Fillon wins.

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“For Putin it makes more sense to negotiate with an out-of-balance Europe,” commentator Konstantin Kalachev said. “It’s easier to reach separate agreements.”

Washington’s global authority eroded “after a number of major international errors,” said Lipman.

A divided and worried Europe “plays into Putin’s hands” by fracturing Western solidarity, she said.

Sanctions eased?

Easing the restrictions imposed for the Crimea annexation is a priority for the Kremlin.

Combined with low oil prices and structural problems, the sanctions have badly damaged the Russian economy and shrunk Russians’ purchasing power.

With his new friends, Putin is likelier to find a sympathetic ear for removing the clamp, Lipman said.

“The international context allows us to consider the possibility of their softening.”

It will be harder to keep the West united toward Russia with Donald Trump as United States president than it has been with Barack Obama, European Council President Donald Tusk said in comments published yesterday (1 December).

"Keeping European unity towards Russia in the conflict with Ukraine, and more broadly also in global issues, was possible also thanks to the large support from President Obama," Tusk told Polish TVN24 broadcaster.

"Today, I think that after the election and the victory of Donald Trump, it will be harder to build such unequivocal and uniform policy of the whole western world towards Russia. But one cannot given in," he said.

Asked whether he would support inviting Russia back to talks with the Group of Seven (G7) club of major industrialised nations, Tusk responded in the negative.

"There are reasons for which the western world ... has decided in favour of such a tough stance versus Russia and none of these reasons have disappeared," he said.

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