Ukraine and COVID on the agenda as Putin delivers annual speech

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Vladimir Putin will be questioned at length by Russian and international media on Thursday about the political and military crisis shaking Europe’s security balance.

During this annual marathon press conference, starting at 10:00 CET (12:00 local time), he will also be expected to discuss the repression of the Russian opposition over the past year, the grim human toll of the pandemic in the country and economic difficulties.

As the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR approaches — the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” according to Putin — the Russian leader has considerably hardened his tone over the past few weeks towards his Western rivals and neighbouring Ukraine, to the point of raising fears of an armed conflict.

Observers and diplomats are hoping for details of the “military and technical measures” he has vowed to adopt if his demands are not accepted by the White House and NATO.

The Russian president, who in 22 years in power has gone from a rather cordial to a confrontational relationship with the West, is suspected of preparing an invasion of Ukraine, a now pro-Western former Soviet republic.

According to Washington, tens of thousands of over-equipped troops are deployed near the Russian-Ukrainian border and in Crimea, a peninsula annexed in 2014. Added to the equation are pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, with whom Kyiv has been at war for nearly eight years.

The Kremlin denies any warmongering, accusing the Americans and their allies of threatening Moscow with its politico-military support to Kyiv and its forces in the Black Sea.

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Putin issued demands to NATO allies last week to de-escalate tensions which include an end to NATO and Washington’s military support for Ukraine, a ban on any enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance and an end to all Western military activity near Russia.

They have been deemed “inadmissible” by many Western voices.

Washington and Moscow are planning to hold talks in January.

Repression, COVID and inflation

In addition to international tensions, Putin will be expected on Thursday to address the repression of Russia’s opposition and civil society, which escalated considerably in 2021.

The year began with the arrest of the main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, who had just survived a poisoning he claimed was ordered by the Kremlin. Then his entire movement was banned for “extremism”.

And 2021 ends with two trials, one of them on Thursday, which could lead to the liquidation of the NGO Memorial, a symbol of the democratisation that followed the end of the USSR and which investigates Soviet crimes and human rights violations in Russia.

Throughout the year, media outlets, NGOs, journalists, lawyers and activists have been targeted by various lawsuits. Some are in prison, many more in exile.

Among other uncomfortable topics for the Russian leadership, Putin is expected to be questioned about the ravages of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Low vaccination coverage, fuelled by public distrust, and the absence of strong health restrictions have led to a heavy human toll. More than 520,000 people died of Covid in less than two years, according to official statistics from the Rosstat agency.

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But these figures could be underestimated, as the natural decline in the population reached half a million people in 2020 and already exceeded 595,000 in the first half of 2021. Yet demographic recovery is one of Putin’s top priorities.

On the economic front, Moscow claims robust growth thanks to minimal sanitary restrictions and soaring hydrocarbon prices.

However, the president will have to reassure on the acceleration of inflation to 8%, while Russians have been impoverished for eight years due to a sluggish economy under Western sanctions. A reality that is eroding his popularity and that of his party and the government.

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