BASEL - President Vladimir Putin has warned Russians of hard times ahead and urged self-reliance, in his annual state-of-the nation address to parliament.
Russia has been hit hard by falling oil prices and by Western sanctions imposed in response to its interventions in the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine. The rouble, once a symbol of stability under Mr Putin, suffered its biggest one-day decline since 1998 on Monday.
The government has warned that Russia will fall into recession next year. Speaking to both chambers in the Kremlin, Mr Putin also accused Western governments of seeking to raise a new ‘iron curtain’ around Russia. He expressed no regrets for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, saying the territory had a ‘sacred meaning’ for Russia.
He insisted the ‘tragedy’ in Ukraine’s south-east had proved that Russian policy had been right but said Russia would respect its neighbour as a brotherly country. The final draft of Vladimir Putin’s annual speech is written by the president himself. It is his view of the state of the Russian nation and outlines his priorities for the year ahead. So it’s telling that Mr Putin chose to stress his unwavering hard line on the crisis in Ukraine: what happened in Kiev was an ‘illegal coup’ and Crimea, which Russia annexed, is like ‘holy land’ for Russia and will always be treated that way.
Vladimir Putin again accused the West of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs and using sanctions to ‘contain’ the country as it grew stronger and more independent. His response was a rallying-cry to Russians to pull together for the good of their country. That included a remarkable call for a one-off amnesty on the return of Russian capital stashed offshore. But people here are starting to feel the economic consequences of their president’s defiance, through sanctions. For those who are worried, this speech probably offered little reassurance.
On Monday, the rouble slid almost 9 percent against the dollar. It rallied after a suspected central bank intervention but was still down some 4 precedent. On Thursday it weakened again after strong morning gains as Mr Putin’s speech failed to impress investors, Reuters news agency reports.
Moreover, Washington does not want to see Russia isolate itself ‘through its own actions,’ US Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, calling on Moscow to help halt the raging Ukraine crisis.
‘The United States and countries that support Ukraine’s sovereignty and rights do not seek confrontation,’ Kerry said, insisting: ‘it is not our design or desire that we see a Russia isolated through its own actions.’
Kerry was speaking at the start of a meeting in Switzerland of top diplomats from the 57-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is charged with monitoring a shattered ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and separatist Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine reached in Minsk on September 5.
The overall ceasefire has failed to fully stop fighting in a conflict that has left some 4,300 people dead, and a long-awaited local truce around the flashpoint Donetsk airport appeared to crumble Wednesday just hours after it was signed. Before meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting, Kerry said ‘Russia continues to supply new weapons and increase support for armed separatists’ in Ukraine, and thus is failing ‘to meet its international and OSCE obligations and to live up to an agreement that it actually negotiated and signed.’
Russia, he said, needed to ‘takes steps now to implement the Minsk protocol in letter and spirit, (end) support for violence in eastern Ukraine, withdraw Russian weapons and fighters, use its influence on the separatists to release all hostages, (and) guarantee safe and unfettered access for OSCE monitors.’ He also urged Moscow to ‘cooperate in securing and respecting the entire internationally recognised Ukrainian-Russian border and end the illegal occupation in Crimea. ‘Moscow could rebuild trust and relationships if it simply helps to calm turbulent waters,’ Kerry said. ‘When rules are broken they need to be enforced, not rewritten.’