In his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly—the rough equivalent of the U.S. State of the Union address—President Vladimir Putin used a striking analogy when discussing the annexation, or “reunification” as he puts it, of Crimea. In today’s speech, he described it as having “invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
The Temple Mount comparison is a provocative one in light of recent violent conflicts over the site. It’s also a somewhat confusing one. The defining political characteristic of the Temple Mount is that more than one group has a long-standing cultural and religious claim to it, which seems like the opposite of what Putin is suggesting in the case of Crimea.
Though this specific comparison is new, the general tenor of Putin’s remarks is not. As I discussed in a recent article, the president has often used religious rhetoric to cast his foreign policy in terms of a historical struggle to defend Russian civilization. In his speech, Putin referred to events which took place in the 980s, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized in Crimea and converted his subjects to Christianity, an event often considered the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church. He also called Crimea “the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state.” By contrast, church leaders, including Patriarch Kirill, leader of the church, have been more circumspect on the Ukraine issue, caught between their loyalty to Putin and a desire not to alienate their adherents in Ukraine, some of whom support the Kiev government.
Most of the rest of the speech was fairly standard Putin rhetoric. He condemned Western sanctions and the “coup” in Ukraine as part of a long-standing effort to contain and divide Russia.
The elephant in the room is the dire state of the Russian economy. He promised more investment in infrastructure, particularly in the east, and a crackdown on currency speculation. Addressing the concerns of businesses that have pulled out of the country, he promised “full amnesty for capital returning to Russia,” meaning that for business leaders, there will be “legal guarantees that he will not be summoned to various agencies, including law enforcement agencies, that they will not ‘put the squeeze’ on him.”
Putin suggested Western sanctions were an opportunity for the development of Russian industry and for building ties to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. He didn’t discuss the impact of plummeting oil prices. (Oil and gas account for about half of the government’s revenue.)
Overall, the speech felt like that of a leader confident that his citizens still have faith in him, despite what is almost certain to be a long and painful economic downturn. With his popularity still above 80 percent despite the gloomy forecasts, he’s probably right.