Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, speaks during his annual State of the Union Address in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, January 15, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the nation in his annual State of the Nation speech on Wednesday. This speech will take place amid mounting tensions with Ukraine and a hunger strike by dissident Alexei Navalny.
Last week there were further reports that Russian troops were gathering on the border with Ukraine, possibly preparing for military action.
Navalny, who is on hunger strike in a Russian prison, fell dangerously ill and was taken to a prison hospital. The news sparked warnings from the US that there would be “consequences” if Russia let Navalny die in prison.
In addition, Russia was accused of orchestrating an attack on a Czech arms dump in 2014. The Czech Republic expelled 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 the UK in 2018 – carried out the Czech attack, but the news still added to the negative news flow surrounding Putin’s Russia .
Last week, the US imposed more sanctions on Russia in 2020, a cyberattack on US government and corporate networks, the annexation and occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, and human rights violations.
It is uncertain whether Putin will address such recent events in his annual address on Wednesday. Although, as Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and Russia’s chief analyst at Verisk Maplecroft noted on Tuesday, the speech was often “the cornerstone of major political announcements”.
The address, due to begin around noon in Moscow, typically covers a wide range of topics, from business and defense to education and family life. The coronavirus pandemic is sure to be on the agenda as well, as the virus hit the country hard over the past year.
Russia’s plans in terms of foreign policy and geopolitical relations need to be closely watched by experts, particularly with regard to neighboring Ukraine.
Close observers from Russia are particularly perplexed by reports that the country has rallied troops on the Ukrainian border. The EU foreign minister estimated the size of the operation at 100,000 soldiers on Tuesday.
“Just last week military analysts downplayed the size of the Russian operation, but now it looks pretty massive,” Timothy Ash, a senior emerging market strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in a note Tuesday.
“(You have to) ask yourself why Putin feels the need to bring such a large force ‘into the theater’, since it goes much further than saber-rattling. The stakes are bigger than in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbass – let’s not forget that. Why bother, unless something really serious is planned? “he asked.
Ash questioned Putin’s strategic goals in Ukraine, with which Russia has had close ties since annexing Crimea in 2014.
“Does that secure the water supply in Crimea, (a) the land bridge to Crimea or the Ukrainian armed forces so strong that the Kiev government is pleading for a peace that gives Russia permanent strategic dominance over Ukraine?” Asked Ash.
Navalny, 44, was rushed to a prison hospital that weekend after his health deteriorated during a hunger strike he staged to protest his treatment in prison. He said he was denied urgent medical treatment, a claim that was denied by Russian authorities.
Navalny is in jail after a Russian court sentenced him in February to more than two years in prison for parole violations.
Over the weekend, his doctor warned that Navalny was at risk of a heart attack or kidney failure. Doctors had been unable to visit Navalny in prison but said medical tests on his family showed he was dangerously ill and “could die at any moment”.
The US government has warned the Russian government not to let Navalny die in custody, adding that there will be “consequences”.
Last summer, Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany from a Russian hospital after being poisoned by a chemical agent on nerves. The German government said toxicological reports showed “clear evidence” that Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent belonging to the Novichok family, developed by the Soviet Union.
Toxicological tests carried out in France and Sweden also came to the same conclusion. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied playing a role in Navalny’s poisoning.
Continue reading: The US was concerned about the deteriorating health of incarcerated Kremlin critic Navalny
Navalny’s team called for mass protests on Wednesday, which is likely to lead to clashes with the police.
Verisk Maplecroft’s McDowell noted that tensions between Russia and the West had steadily increased since the beginning of the year, driven by more confrontational policies by the Biden administration and the return of Navalny.
“Navalny’s detention and the rapid deterioration in his health have both stoked domestic Russian opposition and created international PR problems for the Kremlin as European governments are under pressure to take a tougher line towards Moscow,” said he.