20 years under Putin: a timeline

On April 21, Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. Instead of making a big announcement (like in his 2014 Crimea speech) as was predicted by many experts against the backdrop of Russian military buildup at Ukraine’s border, the Russian president mainly drew upon domestic and social affairs. IMR has rounded up how Western observers reacted to the speech and its lack of foreign policy bombshells.


At the April 21 press briefing, the White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki briefly mentioned Vladimir Putin’s speech in response to a reporter's question regarding U.S. sanctions against Russia. Photo: YouTube.


Read further about the address in Back to the Russian Path by Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev

While Putin’s address focused mainly on domestic issues, this isn’t to say that the international audience wasn’t addressed at all: veiled threats were made as the Russian leader warned Western nations not to cross any “red lines.” Below is a rundown of what Western policymakers, think tanks, media outlets, and experts had to say about Putin’s speech.



There have been few comments from policymakers and government leaders in the West, with many instead choosing to address the situation surrounding opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment and April 21 protests in his support. 

A notable exception came at the White House press briefing where, in light of Putin’s annual address, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked for evidence that sanctions against Russia were working (the latest round of U.S. sanctions against the Putin regime was announced on April 15). Psaki responded that the point of the sanctions is to send a clear message that Russia’s behavior, such as troop buildup in Ukraine and the harsh prison treatment of Navalny, is unacceptable. As the New York Times reported, Psaki “reacted mildly to Mr. Putin’s tough words,” saying, “We don’t take anything President Putin says personally. We have tough skin.”


Think Tanks

Carnegie Europe: Putin’s Undeclared Red Lines—For Now

In her analysis, nonresident senior fellow Gwendolyn Sasse focused on the “red lines” that Putin warned other countries not to cross, explaining that “Putin gave no details on these red lines, but emphasized that the Kremlin would determine them as it sees fit whenever the need arises.” In addressing both domestic and international audiences, she observed, his messages were not new. However, Sasse pointed out that what Putin did not say was also important: Unlike his 2014 speech on the Crimea annexation, “[Putin] did not call for the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which would have been an indication of a plan to further integrate these territories into Russia. Nor did he elaborate on plans to pursue deeper political integration with Belarus.” Additional analysis from the Carnegie Moscow Center in Tatiana Stanovaya’s Putin Has Nothing to Say to Russians also noted the absence of any such sensational moment. 

Chatham House: Europe must admit Russia is waging war 

Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, wrote that Putin’s speech “contained telling indicators of his attitude to the West. He remains constrained by his Soviet past and his assumption that international relations are, by default, hostile.” They noted that Putin’s comment that “‘if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh’ is the purest projection of his own attitude. It is Russia, not the West, that interprets good intentions as weakness.”  



Media Outlets 

New York Times: Opinion | Putin’s Tough Talk

The newspaper’s editorial board opined that the highly anticipated speech fell flat with its almost exclusive focus on domestic affairs. However, Putin’s promise of an “asymmetric, fast and tough” response to anyone crossing a red line against Russia, “raised eyebrows in the West, even though Mr. Putin never said where the red line was.” Echoing Sasse’s analysis, the editorial concludes that what was left out of the speech seemed almost louder than what was included. 

The Timesreporting on the address also said “it was too early to tell whether Mr. Putin, 68, was pulling back from the brink. Now in his third decade in power, he appears more convinced than ever of his special, historic role as the father of a reborn Russian nation, fighting at home and abroad against a craven, hypocritical, morally decaying West.” Another article described Putin as “a leader facing an increasingly angry and desperate opposition but firmly in power with his country’s vast resources and huge security apparatus at his disposal.”

Washington Post: Putin vows a ‘quick and tough’ Russian response for its foes

The Post put the address into the context of current events unfolding in Russia, noting one particularly poignant moment regarding the Russian president’s grievances with the West: “In an emotional outburst, Putin chastised the West for acquiring a defiant stance toward Russia,” comparing U.S. allies to “a cowardly golden jackal” in The Jungle Book

Wall Street Journal: Russia’s Putin Issues Warnings Amid Military Buildup, Pro-Navalny Protests

The Journal reported on the speech in the context of pro-Navalny protests and quoted political scientist Stanislav Byshok, who explained Putin’s agenda for the speech: “Putin understands that Russian citizens are more interested in their wallet and their health. Given the negative economic dynamics in the context of sanctions, given the overlapping coronavirus, people wanted to hear exactly the answers to questions about social support for both ordinary citizens and businesses. And they got it.” 

Bloomberg: Putin Dares to Go Where Soviet Leaders Feared to Tread

Opinion writer Leonid Bershidsky underscored the differences between the approaches of Soviet leaders and Putin, referring to Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko’s insightful comparative analysis. Bershidsky observed that with his “reality distortion field,” Putin used “no fig leaves” to cover his “dictatorial inclinations,” and the author concluded that Putin’s words about red lines were a “statement of willful unpredictability,” which makes him more explicitly disregardful than his Soviet predecessors of Western opinions. While also evoking Soviet comparisons, another columnist, Clara Ferreira Marquez, saw more similarities with the USSR, calling the speech “a Brezhnev-esque hour-plus of populist tropes.”

Project Syndicate: Putin’s Sound and Fury 

Polish journalist Sławomir Sierakowski wrote: “Although Vladimir Putin’s annual state-of-the-union addresses are always occasions for bluster and saber-rattling, this year’s over-the-top display fell into a category of its own.” With talk of red lines and the subsequent withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border, he concludes that “fortunately, it is now obvious that the Russian president’s words signify nothing.”


Russia watchers (via Twitter)

Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, in a thread, called Putin’s address “underwhelming but informative.” He concluded with what was missing: “What Putin did not do today—and what he has not done for some time—is offer Russians a vision of the future that looks like anything other than a continuation of the present.” 

Oliver Carroll, Moscow correspondent for The Independent, noted how the whole speech was overshadowed by other pressing events in Russia: “On a normal day, Putin’s speech would be the main event, but not today. Even before Putin began his speech, protests in support of hunger striking ‘skeletal’ Alexei Navalny were underway in Russian Far East.” Overall, the speech was not as big a bombshell as expected. “Bit of a damp squib this speech, and certainly won’t be leading headlines later today.”


* Liya Wizevich is a leadership team member at the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. She holds B.A. in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and M.Phil. in History from the University of Cambridge.