From Kommersant, March 1, 2024, p. 1. Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – On Feb. 29, at midday, as the spring month of Nisan was drawing nigh,1 Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared before the members of the Federal Assembly. Kommersant special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov tries to figure out what it might mean this time around.

* * *

To be precise, Vladimir Putin appeared at 12:20 p.m., not at noon. In other words, he was late – something he has never done before when delivering his Message to the Federal Assembly.

I have to tell you, if you do what Ramzan Kadyrov did this year – i.e., catch a cold and stay home to watch the whole thing on TV (which is what I did as well) – instead of sitting in the room with everybody else and waiting, you will still see a lot of interesting stuff.

First of all, I was deeply impressed with the TV anchors. They came up with countless ways to botch the name of the event, calling it “The Federal Message” or “The Message to the General Assembly,” among other things.

Then there was a young woman who, when approached for a comment, pretty much took the correspondent hostage and introduced herself as “the incumbent president’s surrogate” – although it was very obvious that she could not be Vladimir Putin’s surrogate, if only because it is presidential candidates who need surrogates; once a candidate is elected president, they are well able to take care of business on their own, without any surrogates.

Also, TV hosts kept saying that the president’s address was essentially his campaign platform, which, again, sounded weird. I don’t think the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) would look favorably on such a claim. The idea behind the Message to the Federal Assembly is for the incumbent president to give an overview of the state of the nation, not to turn it into a campaign event.

If this were a campaign event, it would change everything. Any promises would be campaign promises, which mean nothing. In fact, the CEC could hold Vladimir Putin accountable for violating campaign laws.

Another thing that struck me about the onsite TV anchors was that they kept referring to the people in the audience as “spectators,” suggesting that they were there to witness some sort of spectacle. Would the incumbent president agree with such a description of what was about to happen? (On the other hand, come to think of it, Vladimir Putin might heartily agree with such a characterization.) The same goes for the “spectators” themselves, i.e., members of the Federation Council and the State Duma, cabinet ministers and many others – I don’t think they would appreciate being described as mere “spectators.” In the meantime, as part of the live broadcast, you could see staff members running around to fetch more chairs for “spectators.” (Perhaps the organizers expected that, like at any other public event, at least some of the invitees would never show up.)

Be that as it may, it seemed pretty rude to the participants.

The participants, however, were completely unaware of how they were being depicted. On the contrary, they seemed perfectly happy, hugging each other. At some point, I couldn’t watch it any longer. The density of hugs and kisses per minute was way over what you normally get in a Mexican or Turkish soap opera. In fact, it was way over anything you will ever see. . . .

In short, by the time Vladimir Putin appeared, I regretted getting sick. I wished I could have been there in person to get the complete picture instead of being shown only some fragments, sometimes unimportant ones.

We know that this was Putin’s longest Message to the Federal Assembly ever. But in reality, what people will remember most of all is just the beginning and the end.

As the president reminisced about the days when “we, for example, repelled an attack by international terrorists” (referring to what is commonly known as the [second] Chechen war – A.K.), the camera panned to the inspired faces of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and A Just Russia/For the Truth leader Sergei Mironov, who were diligently taking notes. I could see them scribbling away in their notepads: “. . . pre-serv-ing Rus-sia’s u-ni-ty. . . .”

“Our soldiers and officers – Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and Jews, men of various ethnic and cultural origins, coming from all over Russia – have shown with their actions, which speak louder than a thousand words, that the unity of the Russian people, resulting from centuries of common history, is an immense, all-conquering power. Standing together, shoulder to shoulder, they fight today for our common Motherland! We, the people of Russia, will fight together to protect our freedom, our right to live in peace and dignity. We alone will decide which path we want to pursue. We will preserve the heritage of previous generations, that is, the continuity of our historical development. We will pursue the goals we set for ourselves based on our values, our traditions, our beliefs, which we will pass on to our children,” Vladimir Putin said.

Somewhat surprisingly, everybody in the audience was still fully awake at this point.

People started falling asleep later on, which, I think, was inevitable. It happens every time without exception.

“I want to thank all those fighting for our Fatherland today, all those going through the fiery trials of combat, all those putting their lives on the line daily. The whole nation admires your heroism. We all mourn those killed in action. Russia will always remember its fallen heroes,” the president said, asking for a moment of silence.

It’s hard to see why the president has to repeat the same mantra time and again, but there you go. “We are not the ones who started this war in the Donetsk Basin. But, as I have said a number of times before, we will do whatever it takes to finish it,” the president said, repeating the mantra again, even though he just admitted that he had said it many times before.

He repeats so often that it wasn’t us who started the war that, after a while, you can’t help but wonder, “What if it was us, after all?” Otherwise, why would someone repeat something so simple so many times?

“Our strategic nuclear forces are 100% ready to be used if necessary. All the weapons programs we had planned, everything I mentioned in my 2018 Message [see Vol. 70, No. 10-11, pp. 3-9], it is all done,” the president said confidently. But then he added, “Or, at least, this work is being completed.”

Hold on, I thought. So, which is it? Is it done? Or is it being completed? Because if it’s being completed, it means it’s not done. These two statements mean two opposite things.

Not to worry, though – the president soon explained the seeming contradiction. And every word in his explanation sounded like music to the top brass:

“For instance, the Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile has entered service and proved extremely effective against high-value targets in the special military operation. The Zircon hypersonic sea-launched missile has also been battle-tested. I didn’t actually mention this system in the 2018 Message but, anyway, it has been deployed. The Avangard hypersonic intercontinental system and the Peresvet laser system have entered service as well. The test launches of the Burevestnik unlimited-range cruise missile and the Poseidon unmanned underwater vehicle are in their final stages. The first few Sarmat heavy ballistic missiles have been delivered to our military. We will soon display them on combat readiness in their silos.”

So, when Vladimir Putin said “being completed,” he must have meant the Sarmat missiles. . . .

Next, the president made it clear he had no illusions about the intentions of the US. “We are dealing with a nation whose ruling class is openly taking hostile action against us. Do they seriously expect us to discuss strategic stability with them while they seek to defeat Russia strategically, to use their own expression, on the battlefield?” he asked.

The example Vladimir Putin used to illustrate this clearly came from the heart: “For instance, we hear a lot of unfounded allegations lately, claiming that Russia plans to deploy nuclear weapons in space. These insinuations – because that’s what they are, insinuations – are just a ploy they use in order to drag us to the negotiating table and make us accept their terms, which benefit the US alone. At the same time, they keep ignoring our proposal, which has been sitting on the table for over 15 years. I’m referring to a treaty banning weapons in space, which we drafted back in 2008. There has been zero reaction to our proposal. I have no idea what they’re talking about,” the supreme commander in chief said, shrugging his shoulders.

The subject [of nuclear weapons in space] is still very much on his mind. It was obvious even in his meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu earlier. On that occasion, Vladimir Putin spent a lot of time on this matter and spoke about it in similar terms. . . .

Next, Vladimir Putin commented on a recent remark by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he did not rule out deploying NATO forces to Ukraine. “We remember what happened to those who sent their forces into our country. Only this time around, consequences will be much more tragic for those who dare to intervene. They should remember, after all, that we, too, have weapons capable of hitting targets in their countries – and they are aware of that, as I just said.”

At that point, the president was still talking about conventional weapons. But then he went on to talk about nuclear ones. “Don’t they realize that all these inventions they use to intimidate the rest of the world may lead to an actual nuclear conflict, which will be the end of civilization? That’s because those people have no idea what war is. They’ve never been through this kind of trial. We, on the other hand, do have such experience. Even the current generation in Russia knows what war is, because we went through this trial when we fought international terrorists in the Caucasus. And today, the same thing is happening in Ukraine. They think that for them [war] is all some kind of cartoon,” [the president said.]

That largely concluded the section of the address devoted to international affairs. And it would be no exaggeration to say that this section was devastating – or at least the weapons the president brought up to make his point were.

The rest of the time was given to domestic affairs: helping families with three or more children, fighting poverty, improving life expectancy, promoting a healthy lifestyle (“Do you remember, there was this popular slogan. Everyone remembers the joke, ‘It’s time to quit drinking and start skiing!’ It appears this is the moment!”), fixing up school buildings, etc.

Vladimir Putin proposed launching a few more national priority projects – for instance, one focusing on young people and another one offering advanced training to produce skilled workers. For every project, the president mentioned how much the government planned to spend on it. The amount of money Russia plans to spend over the next few years seems astronomical. The big question is: Who is going to manage all those funds? Who is the smart executive who will run this whole program? I really wonder who it might be. . . .

Higher salaries, new university campuses, investing in science, technological sovereignty, engineering schools, AI. –  It all sounded logical and even impressive, but somehow the audience was not excited. There were people in the audience who weren’t just sleeping – it was more like “Survivors 2: The Awakening,” because by now one could see, here and there, people who suddenly woke up from their sleep.

In the meantime, the president introduced a new term – the “not-so-large” company, which is, apparently, something in between “small” and “medium-sized.” On the other hand, it is possible that he used “not-so-large” as a blanket term for small and medium-sized businesses. “I want the government and the parliament to consider the parameters of an amnesty for not-so-large companies that had to resort to tax optimization schemes while growing their business. Such companies should give up their unnatural and, essentially, fraudulent practice of breaking up their business into several smaller companies. They should return to the civilized practice of structuring their business in a natural way. Let me stress that there will be no penalties and no back taxes from previous years – that’s why we call it amnesty,” the president said. . . .

His next proposal had to do with “not-so-large” companies as well. “After Jan. 1, 2025, I think we should give up our current practice of imposing temporary moratoriums on business inspections. Given all the experience we have acquired over the years, I suggest we amend our legislation and move on to a risk-oriented approach. Where we don’t see any risk, we should limit ourselves to preventative measures and minimize the number of inspections. And one more point: I suggest we offer a special benefit to not-so-large businesses. Once every five years, those companies will have the right to claim a tax holiday, suspending their loan payments for a period of up to six months, and this will not affect their credit score,” Vladimir Putin said.

Authorities in the regions were extremely happy when the president announced that the central government was willing to write off two-thirds of their debt. “According to some estimates,” he said, “this will allow Russia’s regions to save about 200 billion rubles annually between 2025 and 2028.” He continued: “I should add that the money saved through this decision must be reserved for specific purposes. The province may only use it to incentivize investment and support infrastructure projects. Distinguished colleagues, please take note of this condition.”

The governors who had been making timely payments on their loans were probably not as excited as those who hadn’t been paying their debts. When Vladimir Putin delivered his Message to the Federal Assembly in 2018, before the previous election, he offered to relieve provinces by replacing their commercial loans with government-issued ones. This time, he just wrote them off. . . .

“I ask that the government design and launch a new program to resettle people living in dangerous buildings,” Vladimir Putin said.

Wait, but what happened to the old program? I think I know the answer: It’s too old.

And, to be fair, decrepit.

[The president went on talking about] fixing up kindergartens and colleges, providing schools with new buses, building new roads going around cities [to reduce transit traffic], building expressways running through cities, building new railroads, etc.

This Message, just like the earlier ones, contained a lot of specific and smart ideas. As a matter of fact, this time the ideas might have even been smarter than before. And future addresses will probably contain a lot of new ideas as well. Perhaps even more than this one. Because the ideas contained in this one will all get too old by the time the president delivers his next address.

“We have a new major road construction project. I’m referring, of course, to the Dzhubga-Sochi Highway. This new road will reduce the travel time between the M4 Don motorway and Sochi to 90 minutes, a quarter of what it is currently. In addition, this will boost the development of the Black Sea coast,” Mr. Putin added.

Actually, people have been hearing promises about this new road for a few decades.

The address was approaching the two-hour mark, which was unprecedentedly long. (Some people in the audience were eager to jump up and give the president a standing ovation at every opportunity – in my opinion, not because they felt they could not fully express their excitement sitting down, but mainly because they were desperate to stretch their muscles at least a little bit.) Still, the nature of the address could hardly be described as militaristic. The president hadn’t said a single word about great advances in the defense industry or the need to develop it further (and he wouldn’t later, either).

As for participants in the special military operation, though, the president said they would play an important role in Russian art. He was referring primarily to the art of governance, it turned out. “You know, when I look at these courageous people – some of them very young, just kids – I can tell you without exaggeration, my heart is full of pride for our people and specifically for them. People like them will never give up, never let you down, never betray you!” the president said, looking admiringly at veterans in the audience, as the camera picked out their faces in the crowd (and there were quite a few people in military uniforms in the audience). “We should put them in key positions in the education system so they offer proper guidance to our young people, in nonprofit organizations, in government companies, in business, in government bodies at the federal and municipal levels. They are the ones who should be running our regions, our enterprises, our most important national projects.” This sounded a lot like a new mobilization announcement, only this time people were being mobilized into civilian service. And it was perfectly clear that this part of the president’s speech was carefully scripted.

“Many of these real heroes and patriots are very shy and modest,” the president went on. “They don’t boast of their achievements. They aren’t good at giving speeches. But at a critical moment, it is these people who step up and take responsibility. They really care about Russia. It means everything to them. One day, these people can be trusted to take over and take care of Russia.”

So, if the president ever allows anybody to take over, these may be the people he will want to take care of Russia.

“I would like to thank all of you, dear colleagues, and all the people of Russia for their solidarity and reliability. We are all one big family. We always stick together, and that’s why we will definitely fulfill all our plans, desires and dreams,” the president said, finally wrapping up. He sounded sentimental, which is not typical of him when delivering such speeches.

You’re right, we’re like a family – and one with a lot of kids, I responded mentally. And the problems we have are about the same that a family like that is bound to have. . . .

1[Reference to the line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” in which Pontius Pilate first appears. – Trans.]