For Putin, the War on Terror Makes for Good Politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address on Thursday. Ukraine was conspicuously absent, but the war on terrorism was not.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 03: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the hall to deliver the Federal Assembly annual speech in Grand Kremlin Palace on December 3, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 03: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the hall to deliver the Federal Assembly annual speech in Grand Kremlin Palace on December 3, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual State of the Nation address last year, the ruble had just collapsed, fighting in eastern Ukraine was in full swing, and the sting of Western sanctions was starting to be felt in Moscow. Putin went on to use the public address as a platform to stand defiantly against the West’s meddling, employing an arsenal of colorful analogies to tout Russia’s resurgence on the global stage, including as a wild bear that refused to be chained up.

This year, Ukraine was noticeably absent from the Russian president’s speech. Instead, as Putin began his hourlong address Thursday inside the glittering halls of the Kremlin, there was another topic on his mind: Moscow’s fight against Islamist militants. The Russian leader called for pooling global efforts to combat terrorism following the attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt, both of which have been claimed by the Islamic State.

Throughout his speech, Putin defended his decision to deploy Russian troops and aircraft to Syria in late September, saying that Russia must fight terrorism abroad to prevent it from striking at home.

“Russia has long been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism. This is a fight for freedom, truth and justice, for the lives of people and the future of the entire civilization,” said Putin, addressing lawmakers and top officials during the televised event. “We must leave all arguments and disagreements behind and make one powerful fist, a single anti-terror front, which would work on the basis of international law under the aegis of the United Nations.”

It wasn’t the Russian president’s most inspiring speech, notable in the fact that many in the audience, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, struggled to stay awake. But what Putin lacked in soaring rhetoric, he made up with vitriol directed towards Turkey, which has become a target of the Kremlin’s fury since Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber over the Syrian border on Nov. 24. Putin vowed Turkey’s leadership would be made to regret the downing of its aircraft.

“We will remind them not just once about what they have done, and they will feel sorry about it more than just once,” Putin said without referring to any specific action. “We always considered, and will always consider, treachery to be the ultimate and lowest act. Let those in Turkey who shot our pilots in the back know this.”

Turkey has become Moscow’s new international enemy after it shot down a Russian jet. The Kremlin responded to the downing with a wide array of economic sanctions targeting $30 billion in trade between the two countries, along with bans on the import of fruit and vegetables and the sales of tour packages. Before the current fallout, Ankara and Moscow enjoyed a reasonably close bilateral relationship. Now the incident highlights the entrenched differences between intervening parties in Syria, with Russia backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey calling for his ouster.

“Only Allah, most likely, knows why they did this. And evidently Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by depriving them of their intelligence and reason,” Putin said.

Russia accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of personally profiting from the oil trade with the Islamic State on Wednesday. Following the downing of its jet, Moscow also deployed the s-400 long-range air defense missile system to its base in Syria, approximately 30 miles south of the border with Turkey.

“We are not planning to engage in military sabre-rattling,” Putin said, mincing no words for Turkish leadership. “But if anyone thinks that having committed this awful war crime, the murder of our people, that they are going to get away with some measures concerning their tomatoes or some limits on construction and other sectors, they are sorely mistaken.”

The trade war with Turkey comes as the Russian economy continues to stall. The combination of falling energy prices and Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 continue to take hold, with the International Monetary Fund predicting that Russia could lose up to 9 percent of GDP due to the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. A large section of Putin’s speech focused on economic proposals, from corruption to jury reform to economic growth.

Putin called for strengthening “the trust between government and business” and “to improve the business climate in the country.” In acknowledging the growing economic burden facing everyday Russians, Putin said that the economic situation was “very difficult” but “not critical.”

“Russia should not wait for oil prices to grow. We have to be ready for the fact that sanctions and low prices will stay with us for a while,” Putin said.

Shortly after the speech, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak announced the suspension of talks between Ankara and Moscow over the major TurkStream pipeline project. Negotiations over the pipeline have been floundering since the Kremlin launched its air campaign in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to hold talks later Thursday with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of a conference in Belgrade. The meeting is the first face-to-face sit-down between the top diplomats since the plane downing, and comes after Putin snubbed Erdogan at the U.N. climate summit in Paris last Monday.

Photo credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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