Vladimir Putin used his state-of-the-nation speech on Thursday to warn the United States that Russia has new high-technology nuclear weapons that he said could overcome any defences.
“Efforts to contain Russia have failed, face it,” the Russian president said in a nearly two-hour address he illustrated with video clips of the new arms, which included underwater drones, intercontinental missiles and a hypersonic system he said “heads for its target like a meteorite”.
The unusual display of military might was the most dramatic element of Mr Putin's speech, which started with pledges to deliver a “decisive breakthrough” to boost living standards and raise spending on health and infrastructure. Mr Putin used the annual address to lay out priorities for the fourth presidential term he is expected to win easily in elections this month.
But the toughest language was aimed at the US, with which Russia has increasingly come into confrontation in the Middle East. Russia's 2015 military intervention in Syria succeeded in shoring up its ally President Bashar Al Assad against rebel forces backed by the US and its allies, while strengthening its presence in the region.
Mr Putin said Russia had long warned Washington not to go ahead with anti-missile systems that Moscow feared could erode its nuclear deterrent. “Nobody listened to us. Listen now,” he said, to a loud ovation from the crowd of legislators, officials and dignitaries.
“We’re not threatening anyone,” Mr Putin said of the new weapons. “Russia’s growing military might is a reliable guarantee of peace on our planet because it ensures the strategic balance in the world.”
He singled out a new US nuclear-strategy document as threatening to lower the threshold for using the weapons. He warned that any use of nuclear arms against Russia or its allies would meet a “immediate response”.
While past addresses had been staid affairs held in the Kremlin’s ornate Georgievsky Hall, this year the event was moved to the Manezh exhibition venue nearby to allow Mr Putin to show the videos and animated charts on a giant screen behind him. The new weapons were shown in computerised animations evading defences as they headed toward targets, sometimes appearing to be in North America.
Among the systems was a nuclear-powered cruise missile that Mr Putin said had “unlimited range” and could dodge defences. Underwater drones launched from submarines were shown striking ships and coastal cities, while a new hypersonic missile called “dagger” destroyed a military installation and a new laser weapon was shown preparing for operation. As he catalogued the systems - all of which he said had been developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union - he announced an online contest to name some of the newer ones.
The address is his first major policy statement since he formally kicked off his campaign for the March 18 presidential election. Mr Putin, 65, is all but certain to win re-election for a fourth and likely final term to extend his rule to 2024. With factions jostling for advantage over the succession, his biggest challenge will be to build a team and a system capable of sustaining Putinism after he leaves office.
While his approval ratings have remained consistently above 80 per cent since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, public discontent is rising amid weak economic growth that has followed the longest recession this century. Many of his promises from his last campaign have remained unfulfilled amid the weak economic performance. Deepening tensions with the West threaten to further isolate the Kremlin.
Mr Putin addressed domestic issues head on in his speech, pledging to cut the 20-million-strong ranks of Russia’s poor by half by the middle of the next decade and boost incomes across the country. He called for raising spending on roads, health care, pensions, and efforts to reverse the decline in Russia’s population. He also called for making “hard decisions” on long-overdue reforms, but did not spell them out.
“We need to make a decisive breakthrough in the prosperity of our citizens,” he said. “Falling behind is the main threat, that’s our enemy,” he added, targeting a 50 per cent increase in per capita gross domestic product by the middle of the next decade.
Mr Putin had cut back his public campaign appearances in the last two weeks as a result of what the Kremlin said was a cold. On Thursday, he sounded hoarse and coughed as he spoke. He is expected to appear at a rally of supporters in Moscow on Saturday.