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Putin: ‘This is Not a Bluff’ -- Fact Checks on Missiles, Corruption and Democracy in the Parliament Speech

RUSSIA -- Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 1, 2018
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

President of the Russian Federation

Putin: Now we have to be aware of this reality and be sure that everything I have said today is not a bluff

US DOD Spokesperson: "The American people should rest assured we are fully prepared,”

While both Putin and the U.S. talk tough, many experts downplay the saber rattling.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his nation Thursday Russia had developed nuclear weapons that are “invincible” in the face of U.S. nuclear defenses, making the point that the West has not contained Russia militarily or economically.

Putin’s comments are widely interpreted in Western media as saber rattling -- a warning -- Putin himself making the point that “…everything I have said today is not a bluff.”

U.S. military officials said they were “not surprised” by what they called familiar Putin rhetoric, yet they aimed their comments at the U.S. domestic audience.

"The American people should rest assured we are fully prepared,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters during a briefing Thursday.

It is tempting to put up a stronger verdict here than “unclear,” but the question of whether leaders are preparing for war can only be resolved by knowing their thinking.

“Thus is lunacy. The US in not 'getting ready' (for) an all (out) war with Russia. Nor is Putin doing the same the same with US,” tweeted former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, answering Twitter speculation on the topic.

Even Putin said Russia is “not threatening anyone.” McFaul said: “No need to overreact, but time to take arms control seriously again.”

Indeed, in praising Russia’s military achievements, Putin claimed Russia has not violated any arms control agreements while strengthening its defense potential in the face of U.S. global missile defense efforts.

"For my part, I should note that we have conducted the work to reinforce Russia's defense capability within the current arms control agreements; we are not violating anything,” he stated.

However, reports indicate that Russia has, in fact, violated at least one such agreement — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in 1987.

Under this Cold War-era Treaty, the U.S. and Russia agreed to eliminate and forswear nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with specified ranges, reducing threats of surprise and preemptive attacks.

The U.S. first accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014, and repeated the allegations in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Russia has consistently denied the charge, saying the U.S. has not, in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “provided any specific information.”

However, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon stated in 2015 that the evidence of Russia’s violations was “conclusive” and Russia has already tested this “real system.”

McKeon referred to a Russian cruise missile, designated by the U.S. as the SSC—8, which Russia tested in 2014. It subsequently deployed one of two SSC—8 missile battalions at a test site near Volgograd.

Slides from Putin's address depict a nuclear strike
Slides from Putin's address depict a nuclear strike

Russia has, in turn, claimed that U.S. deployment of Aegis interceptors in Romania and development of armed drones equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles violated the INF Treaty – a claim the U.S. denies.

In 2017, the U.S. underscored its commitment to the Treaty, saying it seeks Russia’s “return to compliance” and that it “cannot stand still” while Russia develops systems that violate it.

Corruption in Russia

Statement content: “By the way, we talk about corruption and corrupted federal workers all the time. I must say and I can't avoid talking about it: the majority of the people who work in the government are honest, decent and result-driven people.”

President Putin sounded annoyed during his address when he referred to the never-ending flow of the corruption stories, saying “by the way, we talk about corruption all the time.”

Multiple Western media outlets have investigated Putin’s personal involvement in Russia’s grand corruption schemes. The publication of some of these, including the so-called Panama Papers, have made international headlines.

The Time suggested that Vladimir Putin, who rose from a humble security services colonel to Russia’s president might be “the richest person in the world.”

In her bestselling book “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” American professor Karen Dawisha provides a damning account of Vladimir Putin’s involvement in a state level corruption.

Vladimir Putin’s family is also reportedly involved in mass corruption. According to Reuters series of investigative reports, Putin’s younger daughter Katerina Tikhonova and her husband, Kirill Shamalov have been constantly receiving federal government grants and contracts without any competition, and the money have never been accounted for.

Transparency International, the Berlin-based international corruption watchdog, ranked Russia 135th out of 180 countries on its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, with a low score of 29 points out of 100.

Russia was tied with the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mexico, Papua New Guinea and Paraguay, and just behind Gambia, Iran Myanmar, Sierra Leone and Ukraine, which were tied for 130th place.

According to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, corruption in Russia is "endemic" and a "defining characteristic" of Putin's regime.

The 2017 documentary “Don’t Call Him ‘Dimon’,” produced by Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, was viewed on YouTube 25 million times. It accused Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is Putin’s closest ally and was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, of large scale corruption. Neither Putin nor Medvedev contested the documentary’s findings.

RUSSIA -- Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny speaks during an interview with AFP at the office of his Anti-corruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow, January 16, 2018
RUSSIA -- Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny speaks during an interview with AFP at the office of his Anti-corruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow, January 16, 2018

Navalny’s anti-corruption team has produced documentaries on large-scale corruption involving Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and his sons, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov and his son and ex-wife, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and his wife, and many more.

(Videos have English subtitles)

​The Russian public was perhaps most outraged by the corruption case involving a former Russian Defense Ministry official, Yevgenia Vasiyeva, who was accused of laundering over $60 million. She was tied to former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was fired by Putin in 2012. ​

Vasilyeva was released on parole in 2015, which she spent in her 13-bedroom apartment downtown Moscow.

Still, anti-corruption rhetoric is omnipresent in Vladimir Putin’s vocabulary. There have been high profile cases, when the state prosecuted government officials. According to the Atlantic Council “…his style of rule implies a controlled corruption, when his cronies can reckon for the reward,” while those, who fell out of favor or were bold enough to oppose him can be made a showcase of in his fight against corruption.

These reportedly include a former Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev, who was sentenced to eight years in a high-security prison for corruption in 2017 in a case, widely viewed as a set up. And last month, Nikita Belykh, the former governor of the Kirov region, known as Russia’s only liberal governor, was sentenced to eight years in a high-security prison for corruption.

Putin also failed to mention the corruption that is reported in numerous sectors of Russian society, including interactions with police, healthcare, government services, and education.

Democracy and Freedom in Russia

Statement content: “Russia has established itself as a democratic society on an independent path. To go forward, to develop dynamically, we must increase freedoms by strengthening the institutions of democracy, local government, the structure of civil society, the courts. We must be a country open to the world.”

"We ensured sustainability and stability in almost all areas of life, which is critical for a huge and multi-ethnic country like ours with its complex federative structure and diversity of cultures, with historical divides that are still alive in people’s memory and major challenges Russia had to face over the course of its history."

Critics say President Putin is certainly right about one thing -- Russia does need to increase freedoms and strengthen institutions of democracy, local government, and civil society -- often demonstrated during Putin's tenure as president and as prime minister from 2008 to 2012. Political opponents have been jailed, faced harassment and physical attacks, and in the case of Boris Nemtsov, murdered.

RUSSIA -- Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (R) attends a rally in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in Moscow, February 25, 2018
RUSSIA -- Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (R) attends a rally in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in Moscow, February 25, 2018

Just days before Putin's address, a young activist in St. Petersburg was arrested for displaying an inflatable duck (a symbol used in past anti-corruption protests) in the window of his apartment. Thousands of Web sites are banned and blocked by the state communication watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the state is trying to make the use of VPN services and web anonymizers illegal. Citizens have been jailed for as little as sharing or even "liking" posts on social media. Civil society organizations have been restricted or in some cases forced to shut down due to an extremely vague "foreign agents" law. In many instances, the Russian government explains individual cases but critics say, at the least, there is plenty of room for improvement.

In asserting that he “ensured sustainability and stability or Russian life,” Putin spoke of Russia's federative structure and diversity of cultures as challenges already faced. In reality, Russia has suffered from ethnic tension during Putin's long rule. The case of the Republic of Tatarstan counters Putin's suggestions of ethnic harmony and federalism. In August 1990, the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic declared its sovereignty within the Soviet Union, and a referendum on a new constitution was held in 1992. The constitution, which established Tatarstan as a sovereign state, was approved with 62 percent in favor, but declared unconstitutional by Russia's Constitutional Court. In recent years, the Kremlin has taken additional steps to further rein in Tatarstan autonomy, beginning with an attempt to eliminate the office of the President of Tatarstan. More recently, Moscow pressured Tatarstan to adopt a new school curriculum which severely limits time dedicated to Tatar language education.

While Russia promotes separatism and "federalization" abroad, such as in Ukraine, it blocks efforts at autonomy elsewhere, such as banning marches and blocking social media pages of activists in Siberia in 2014. More recently, public calls for more federalization or even disagreement with the Kremlin's claim to Crimea can lead to jail sentences for "extremism" or "separatism."

“The majority of Russians have never experienced democratic institutions and don’t understand how they function,” wrote Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the New York Times in September.

The founder of Open Russia, who spent a decade in prison from 2003-2013 concluded, “Russia has once again become an authoritarian state.”

RUSSIA -- Riot police officers detain a protester holding a poster reading 'Putin, you are not my President' during a rally in St. Petersburg, January 28, 2018
RUSSIA -- Riot police officers detain a protester holding a poster reading 'Putin, you are not my President' during a rally in St. Petersburg, January 28, 2018