Putin lashed out at the West during his keynote speech at St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) on June 17, claiming that it was using Russia as a scapegoat to excuse its failure to control inflation. He went on to appeal to Russian’s strong sense of national pride and assured the audience that “Russia is a strong country and we will prevail.”
SPIEF is Russia’s premier investment showcase, dubbed “the Russian Davos”, but this year it has been a muted affair, with few Western companies making the pilgrimage to the northern capital to hobnob with Russia’s elite.
But with all eyes on Russia as it wages its destructive war in Ukraine, Putin used the event to justify his war to the Russian people and shore up support as sanctions start to make visible cuts into the standards of living.
The event also has an international dimension, where Moscow called on its friends to show solidary with Russia and publicly attend the forum. Putin shared the stage with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who also gave a speech, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also participated in the session, backing Russia and calling for an end to the sanctions regime.
And in a new direction, Russia is pushing hard for closer relations with Africa since it has been locked out of Western markets. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also attended the session, as Cairo is becoming one of Moscow’s closest allies in North Africa. Putin co-hosted the first Russia-African Summit with el-Sisi in November 2019 and that country remains very dependent on Russian grain and energy exports.
But Putin was pragmatic and admitted that Russia has been wounded by the sanctions and that life will get more difficult for the average Russian, but he spent half his speech blaming the problems on the West and the other half rousing nationalist sentiment to rally the population to his flag.
The world will never be the same again and it is impossible to "wait it out" during the current turbulent changes in the world, Putin told the audience – sentiment also expressed the day before by the leaders of Russia’s economics team.
Addressing the plenary session of SPIEF, the Russian leader said that the world is living through "fundamental, watershed and inexorable" changes. "It is wrong to think that one can, so to say, wait it out during the time of turbulent changes, that everything will be back to normal and will be as it used to be. No way!" he stressed.
"These are objective processes, really revolutionary, tectonic changes in geopolitics, the global economy, in the technological sphere, in the entire system of international relations, with the role of dynamic, promising states and regions going up significantly. And it is impossible to ignore their interests any longer," he said.
But Putin took no blame for the extreme sanctions that have been rained down on Russia in what Putin characterised as an “economic blitzkrieg.”
Putin made it clear that he sees the sanctions attack as being led by the US and derided the rest of Europe as US colonies for blindly following the “insane sanctions” lead of Washington.
“The haste and the amount of the current sanctions the US-led West levelled against Russia are record-setting,” Putin said. "The number and the speed at which they were churned out was never seen before. The idea obviously was to impudently crush the Russian economy," he stated. Putin slammed the sanctions against Russia as "insane and mindless."
Then Putin picked up one of his favourite themes, attacking what he has dubbed the US’ “unipolar” view of the world where a “golden billion” (the populations of the G7 nations, led by the US) see countries in the rest of the world "as their colonies, and the peoples living there are considered to be second-class individuals, because they [in the West] consider themselves exceptional."
Russian has strongly rejected the criticism levelled at it and China for ignoring human rights and the rule of law. Both Xi and Putin made the same point that emerging and developing markets should be free to follow their own economic and political models without interference from the G7 members.
Instead, Putin claimed that the West strives to “crush those who break away from the fold and who refuse to submit, while shamelessly implanting their own ethics, cultural views and vision of history,” on the rest of the world.
"If some rebel cannot be pacified, they try to isolate him and cancel him," the head of state continued.
"They go after everything – sports, the Olympic movement, culture and art. And the only reason for that [getting cancelled] is the fact that the authors are of the wrong origin This is the nature of the current bout of Russophobia in the West," he concluded.
Inflation blame game
One of the most serious consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine is that it is stoking an inflation fire that was already burning brightly due to supply chain disruptions causes by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Supplies of food deliveries from Ukraine, a major exporter, have only been further disrupted and threaten to cause a food crisis and global stagflation, the World Bank warned in its latest economic update.
Russia has been blamed for causing what is a worsening and increasingly serious economic crisis, but Putin rebuffed this criticism, saying that the West was to blame for the inflation – accusing the West of irresponsibly printing money to fund a debt-funded life it can’t afford. He said specifically that Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine has nothing to do with the inflation pressure in Western countries.
"I have been hearing about the so-called “Putin’s inflation” in the West. Each time I see it I wonder who this absurdity is meant for? Those who cannot read and write? People who can read understand what is really happening: Russia and our operation to liberate Donbass have nothing to do with that. Skyrocketing prices, inflation, food problems, fuel, gasoline prices, the situation in the energy sector in general are the result of systemic mistakes in the economic policies of the current US administration and European bureaucracy," he said.
He admitted, however, that the special operation in Ukraine "did have certain impact." "But the problem is rooted in their erroneous economic policy… Too much money is coined," he noted.
In rhetoric reminiscent of a Soviet lambast of Western capitalism, Putin then ran through numbers that claim the West is importing more than it exports and paying for the difference with printed money. He highlighted that the US used to be a net exporter of food and is now a net importer.
"The dramatic inflation growth on the commodity and mineral markets happened long before this year’s development. <…> Failing to invent or unwilling to use other solutions, the governments of the leading economies have simply switched on the printing press to cover unprecedented budgetary deficits [in] this unsophisticated way," Putin said.
Putin loves rattling off statistics and told the audience that the US [debt] has increased by 38% in the past two years, and by 20%, or by €2.5 trillion, in the European Union, which has driven prices up across the board. This part of his message was clearly aimed at the inflation-sensitive domestic audience, which is suffering from a surge in inflation to 16.8% in May.
"Our goal is to ensure the stable development of the economy for years to come, lower the inflation burden for citizens and businesses, reach the targeted inflation level of 4% in the mid-and long term," he said, noting that "the 4% target remains."
"These processes only accelerated and invigorated during the coronavirus pandemic as far back as 2020. Both supply and demand for goods and services dramatically shrank back then. The question is: what our military operation in Donbass had to do with that? nothing," Putin added.
For the Russian people, Putin remains the man with a plan and spent part of his address talking about the National Projects and dived into the details of the economy reform and investments into things such as improved housing in Russian villages. He also confirmed a mortgage subsidy plan that will hold mortgage rates at 7%, at a time when the prime rate is now 9.5% – one of the government’s most popular social spending programmes.
He was upbeat about the disappearance of Western technology that experts say will be impossible for Russia to replicate or replace, as bne IntelliNews reported in a feature on high precision tool use in Russia.
The head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, who was moderating the session, held up a packet of juice that was almost entirely white as Russia has just run out of printing ink, almost all imported, that was needed for the packaging industry. She asked the president if Russia could solve problems like these.
Putin was dismissive and invoked Russia’s long history of excellence in the sciences to assure that Russia would develop whatever technology it needed in core industries, but admitted that it would not solve all the problems. He cited the work of Dmitry Kozlov, a Soviet scientist, who has a claim to the title of “the father of space travel” for his seminal work on the development of rockets and is known to every Russian schoolboy.
Ukraine and the new world order
Putin didn’t dwell on the conflict in Ukraine beyond reiterating his propaganda points that it is a fight against Nazis and the “special military operation” was forced on Russia to protect its national security interests.
"Let us discuss progress in the special military operation in Ukraine. As it has been expected, the main clashes are not with regular army units, but with nationalist groups, which, as is known, are directly responsible for genocide in Donbass and for the civilian casualties in the people’s republics," Putin said referring to the Azov units serving in the Ukrainian arm that have ties with far-right groups.
"It seems that you and I will have a better chance of reaching an agreement than with that gang of junkies and neo-Nazis that are holed up in Kyiv and is holding hostage the entire Ukrainian nation," Putin added.
He also played on Russia’s strong sense of national pride several times, playing the “enemy at the gate” card that was so effective in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea and sent his personal approval ratings into the stratosphere.
"We are strong people and can cope with any challenge, just like our ancestors, we will solve any problem. The entire thousand-year history of our country proves it," Putin said.
In the context of the external threat, he also linked Russia’s future prosperity to a commitment to the country, specifically calling on oligarchs and wealthy Russian that have moved money offshore to bring it home.
"Today I would also like to address our leaders, large company owners, our major entrepreneurs and managers. Dear colleagues, friends; real lasting success, a sense of dignity and self-respect come only when you connect your future, your children's future with your Motherland," the head of state emphasised, speaking at the SPIEF plenary session.
The sanctions that have targeted Russia’s oligarch class have only boosted Putin’s rhetoric as Russia’s richest have seen their houses and yachts seized by European countries. Putin has been running a long-standing de-offshorisation campaign that has already banned public servants from having bank accounts or assets overseas. In this sense the oligarch sanctions will be seen as a bonus for Putin.
"Recent events have only confirmed what I kept saying earlier: it's safer at home. Those who didn't want to hear this obvious message lost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in the West. This is how the supposedly safe haven for capital turned out," Putin stressed.
Putin downplayed the shock to global food supplies Russia’s war has caused. He pointed out that while Russia and Ukraine combined account for some 30% of traded grain, this is still only about 1% of global food production; almost all countries produce most of the food they consume themselves.
"Speaking of Ukrainian food exports to global markets, we have not been hampering these, for Christ’s sake! It wasn’t us who mined Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Let them have the ports de-mined to export [foods]," Putin said. He also pledged security guarantees for civil vessels to be involved in the exports.
However, those countries that are unable to produce enough of their own food – mostly in North Africa and the Middle East – are heavily dependent on Russian grain imports. Egypt is one of those countries and currently the biggest importer of grain in the world.
Putin is clearly intending to leverage his ability to constrict the flow of food to the global markets as leverage in his pushback against the Western sanctions regime.
Putin concluded by painting a black picture and preparing the Russian people for a protracted standoff. By launching the war in Ukraine Putin has definitively broken ties with the West. He has condemned Russia to a second-tier growth track. However, Russia’s president doesn’t seem to care and is putting what he sees as Russia’s security concerns above economic prosperity, and intends to challenge directly the previous international order.
"International institutions are collapsing and security guarantees are being devalued. The West has emphatically refused to fulfil its earlier obligations. It has turned out to be simply impossible to reach any new agreements with it," Putin concluded.