Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, as he speaks during his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to address the nation on Wednesday in his annual “State of the Nation” address, a speech that will take place amid growing tensions with Ukraine and a hunger strike by dissident Alexei Navalny.
In the last week, there have been further reports that Russian troops are massing at the border with Ukraine, potentially preparing for military action.
Navalny, on hunger strike in a Russian prison, has become dangerously ill and has been moved to a prison hospital. The news prompted warnings from the U.S. that there would be “consequences” if Russia allows Navalny to die in jail.
In addition, Russia has been accused of orchestrating an attack on a Czech armaments dump in 2014, with the Czech Republic expelling 18 Russian diplomats this week. Russia denies that two of its military intelligence agents — the same men believed to have carried out a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain in 2018 — carried out the Czech attack, but the news has nonetheless added to the negative news flow around Putin’s Russia.
Last week, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on Russia over 2020 election interference, a cyberattack on U.S. government and corporate networks, its annexation and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and human rights abuses.
Whether Putin will address such recent events in his annual address on Wednesday is uncertain. Although, as Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft noted Tuesday, the speech has often been “the set piece for major policy announcements.”
The address usually covers a wide range of topics, from the economy and defense to education and family life. The coronavirus pandemic is bound to be on the agenda, too, with the virus hitting the country hard over the past year.
Russia’s plans when it comes to foreign policy and geopolitical relations are bound to be closely watched by experts, particularly when it comes to its neighbor Ukraine.
Close watchers of Russia are particularly perplexed by reports that the country has been massing troops at the Ukraine border, with the EU’s foreign affairs chief estimating on Tuesday the size of the deployment to be 100,000 troops.
“Only last week military analysts were playing down the size of the Russian deployment but it now looks pretty sizeable,” Timothy Ash, a senior emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in a note Tuesday.
“(You’ve) got to ask yourself why Putin feels the need to put such a large force ‘in theatre’ as it goes a lot further than sabre rattling. The deployment is bigger than 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas — let’s not forget that. Why bother unless something serious is actually planned?,” he asked.
Ash questioned what Putin’s strategic objectives could be in Ukraine, a country with whom Russia has had tense relations ever since its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“Is that securing water supplies for Crimea, (a) land bridge to Crimea, or giving Ukrainian forces such a beating that the government in Kyiv sues for a peace which gives Russia lasting strategic dominance over Ukraine?,” Ash asked.
The 44-year-old Navalny was moved to a prison hospital this weekend as his health deteriorated during a hunger strike he has staged as a protest against his treatment in prison. He has said he has been denied urgent medical treatment, a claim denied by the Russian authorities.
Navalny is in prison after a Russian court sentenced him in February to more than two years for parole violations, charges he said were politically motivated.
At the weekend, his doctor’s warned that Navalny was in danger of a heart attack or kidney failure. The physicians had not been able to visit Navalny in prison but said medical tests provided by his family showed he was dangerously ill and “could die at any moment.”
The U.S. administration has warned the Russian government to not let Navalny die in custody, adding that there will be “consequences.”
Navalny’s team has called for mass protests on Wednesday, a move likely to set up clashes with police.
Verisk Maplecroft’s McDowell noted that tensions between Russia and the West have been steadily ratcheting up since the start of the year, driven by the Biden administration’s more confrontational policy and the return of Navalny.
“Navalny’s imprisonment, and the rapid deterioration of his health, has both galvanised Russia’s domestic opposition and become an international PR headache for the Kremlin, with European governments under pressure to take a harder line towards Moscow,” he said.