MOSCOW — With recession looming, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the West has had his nation in the crosshairs for “centuries” and vowed that Russia would be unbowed in its attempts to pursue an independent and muscular foreign policy.
In an annual state of the nation address delivered to Russia’s political elite, Putin blasted the West and “speculators” who he said were waging an economic war against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. He made no concessions in response to Western sanctions on Russia, saying instead that they were a spur to bring offshore money home and to invest in domestic industry.
In his speech, delivered in a vast gilt hall in the Kremlin, Putin said Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean Peninsula in March was a “historic event” that would not be reversed. He likened Crimea to the Temple Mount — a sacred site in Judaism, Islam and Christianity — in its foundational importance to Russian civilization. The Crimean annexation kicked off the worst stretch of relations between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
“This year we faced trials that only a mature and united nation and a truly sovereign and strong state can withstand,” Putin said. “Russia has proved that it can protect its compatriots and defend truth and fairness.”
He was more conciliatory on domestic policy, assuring investors that “Russia will be open to the world” and ready to do business with anyone — even the West. In the 70-minute speech, which was focused largely on the economy, he offered measures to streamline markets, spur investment and bolster Russian self-sufficiency. Unlike in previous speeches, he held back from condemning opposition forces at home and pressed only against the speculators who he said were profiting from the falling ruble.
Russia has been locked in a bitter fight with the West over the conflict in Ukraine, which has claimed more than 4,300 lives. Hours after Putin’s speech, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Russia brought on the sanctions because of its “own actions” in Ukraine.
Russia’s economy is expected to go into recession next year, the result of plummeting oil prices and sanctions that have crimped investments. The ruble has fallen significantly in recent weeks and has lost more than a third of its value against the dollar since July. On Thursday, it dropped more than 2 percent.
Putin’s popularity ratings remain near record highs, but surging inflation and diminished growth have made many Russians increasingly pessimistic about the economy.
Putin said the Western sanctions were the product of a fight against Russia that began long before what he called the “Crimean Spring.”
“If none of that had ever happened,” he said, “they would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.” The efforts to thwart Russia, he said, have gone on “for decades, if not centuries.”
Putin likened Russia’s enemies to the Nazis and said they should remember the lessons of World War II. Hitler “set out to destroy Russia and push us back beyond the Urals. Everyone should remember how it ended,” he said.
He also said that although Russia is boosting its defense spending, it did not desire a new arms race with the West, saying it had more inexpensive ways to strengthen its capabilities.
President Obama said a day earlier that Putin “has been improvising himself into a nationalist, backward-looking approach to Russian policy that is scaring the heck out of his neighbors and is badly damaging his economy.” Obama said the West intends to maintain economic pressure.
Obama’s comments are “obviously unfriendly and obviously unconstructive,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said Thursday.
Putin’s speech came shortly after the worst outbreak of violence in years in the Russian region of Chechnya, where he crushed an insurgency early in his presidency. Authorities said at least nine gunmen and 10 police officers were killed in a battle in Grozny, the regional capital. Putin said he had full confidence in Russian authorities’ ability to eliminate any threats.
In an effort to boost the economy, Putin said in his speech that he would freeze taxes on businesses for several years. He also promised to reduce government inspections of small and mid-size enterprises that are found to be compliant with Russian regulations. And he vowed to fight corruption and offered a full, no-questions-asked amnesty for Russians who bring money back from abroad.
Money has mostly been going in the opposite direction. Russia has been plagued by investors pulling their money from the country: Up to $128 billion in capital flight is expected in 2014.
The Economy Ministry said this week that it expected Russia’s economy to contract by 0.8 percent next year. Independent economists have forecast an even more biting recession.
Economic officials also have said that they expect inflation of up to 10 percent next year, largely driven by the falling ruble and the rising cost of food. Russia banned most U.S. and European Union food imports in August in retaliation for Western sanctions, and the move has driven up the cost of food staples.