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A difficult year for Russia

December 30, 2015, 6:02 UTC+3 MOSCOW

The Russian leader admitted during his annual news conference that what had earlier seemed a black stripe looked not so gloomy against the backdrop of the current situation

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© Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS

MOSCOW, December 30. /TASS/. The outgoing year has been eventful for Russia. The persisting sanctions, falling oil prices and economic downturn, political confrontation, international terrorism… The Russian leader admitted during his annual news conference that what had earlier seemed a black stripe looked not so gloomy against the backdrop of the current situation.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin does not tend to dramatize the situation. Yes, the year has been quite difficult, said Dmitry Peskov who has been working in Putin’s team for fifteen years. However, talking to a TASS correspondent he urged not to succumb to emotions: the country has stronger positions now than before.

Without emotions

"If we recall the year 2000 when Russia was actually ‘taken to pieces,’ torn apart by regional politicians, tycoons and other, if we recall that oil cost twenty plus rubles, those days were probably harder," Peskov said. "Now the country is consolidated with a clear top-down command structure, it is united geographically, politically, ideologically and spiritually, and this, of course, gives more strength and capacity to counter challenges," the presidential spokesman said.

Peskov recalled that, just like now, at the dawn of the new century various challenges were facing Russia. "The genesis of these challenges has hardly changed," he said. "Elements of the confrontation with the West in their various interpretations were in place both at that time and now. The only difference is that now all this is more intensive, exalted, the masks have been torn off," the spokesman noted. "The international economic environment has impacted the Russian economy both at that time and now, the only difference being that today, in spite of all sorts of sanctions, we are much deeper integrated into the global economy," he went on to say. "The threat of international terrorism was relevant in those days — I mean the war in the Caucasus supported from the outside. The problem of terrorism is at the forefront today as well," Peskov added.

"Of course, one cannot call the outgoing year an easy one," he told TASS. "However, we should hardly succumb to emotions and talk about something extraordinary."

Isolation fails

What most certainly did not occur in 2015 was Russia’s international isolation, the talks about which began a year earlier in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and the imposition of anti-Russian sanctions. Throughout the year, the Russian president made a dozen and a half international trips to both European and Asian capitals and took part in major international forums — the UN General Assembly, the climate conference and the G20 summit. He did not become a persona non grata. On the contrary, on the sidelines of the summits Putin was one of the most highly sought-after interlocutors among fellow leaders.

Foreign leaders did not miss a chance to visit Moscow too. The celebrations dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Victory over Nazism, which Putin called the most high-profile event of the year, has brought together two dozen leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the Czech Republic Milos Zeman, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the leaders of many CIS member-countries. Besides, Russia hosted BRICS and SCO summits and the St.Petersburg International Economic Forum. Russia was also visited by a number of influential politicians, such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy whom Putin received in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to whom the Russian leader showed Crimea.

It is noteworthy that the intensity of the Russian leader’s personal contacts with the current occupant of the White House who may be called Moscow’s main opponent on the international scene almost exceeded that of the "reset" days. Over the past few months, Putin held a number of conversations with Barack Obama — at the UN, at the G20 summit and at the climate conference. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russia twice, in both cases he was received by the Russian president. After the last meeting Kerry admitted that Washington had no specific policy aimed at isolating Russia.

In November, Putin noted that, although there was no isolation, a year ago Russia’s relations with Western partners "were indeed more tense than today." In his opinion, new challenges dictate the need for joining forces in the international arena.

Syrian front

One of the challenges was the problem of terrorism represented in the outgoing year by the Islamic State extremist group that had gained control of large areas of Syria. Notably, the ranks of this organization outlawed in Russia were replenished by immigrants from Russia, which brought the threat levels closer to a critical point.

Moscow was an important diplomatic player in the Syrian settlement in the past as well. However, this year Kremlin has moved from words to deeds. By issuing an order to begin a military operation in Syria on September 30, Putin considerably strengthened Russia’s positions in this issue, if only because, unlike the US-led coalition, Russia’s Aerospace Forces are operating in Syria legitimately from the point of view of international law, at the formal request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Besides, during the first months the Russian Aerospace Forces not only pushed back the threat of Damascus capture by extremists, but also made it possible for the Syrian army to launch an offensive in several directions.

Such ‘aerobatic maneuver’ by Putin dealt a final blow to the idea of Russia’s international isolation. At the same time, the operation in Syria — the largest foreign military campaign in the history of new Russia — showed increased capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces, which was acknowledged even by skeptics in Western media.

Not without losses

Terrorists dealt a blow to Russia — on October 31, Russia’s A321 passenger airliner was blown up in the sky over Sinai, all 224 passengers were killed. "We will not wipe away tears from our hearts and souls. This will remain with us forever. But this will not prevent us from finding and punishing the perpetrators," Putin said, ordering to punish those responsible for this tragedy.

Human casualties could not be avoided in Syria too. However, the death of marine Alexander Pozynich and pilot Oleg Peshkov was not the consequence of a terrorist attack but "a stab in the black" by Turkey.

Putin’s response to the attack of the Turkish Air Force against Russia’s Sukhoi Su-24 jet on November 24 was tough. The dialogue with Ankara at the highest level was effectively terminated. Russia’s military grouping in Syria whose airspace was repeatedly violated by Turkish aircraft was reinforced with the S-400 air defense systems. Finally, sanctions were imposed against Turkey. However, Putin noted, "We consider the Turkish people to be a friendly people and do not want our relations with the Turkish people to be severed. As for the current [Turkish] leadership, the morning sun never lasts a day."

Ukrainian conflict

Against the backdrop of all these events the Ukrainian issue has been pushed to the background by the end of 2015. However, the beginning of the year was disquieting in the war-torn Donbas region. It was only possible to stop the hostilities after the adoption of declaration by the "Normandy Four" leaders and the signing of the Minsk agreements based on it between Kiev and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. After 16 hours of talks in Minsk, which lasted all night, Putin said, "That was not the best night in my life, but I believe that the morning is good, because, despite all difficulties of the negotiation process, we managed to reach an agreement on the main things."

It turned out that the signing of the document did not guarantee its implementation by the Ukrainian side. Kiev essentially sabotages the implementation of the accords, above all in their political part, while Russia, which is not a party to the conflict, promotes their implementation in every possible way. Putin even raised the level of Russia’s presence at the Contact Group by appointing domestic policy heavyweight Boris Gryzlov special envoy in it. Yet, in the last days of the year observers expect the leaders’ decision on the extension of the Minsk agreements.

Sanctions as chance for diversification

Busy foreign policy agenda could not but affect the format of the president’s work on the domestic track. Putin did not pay less attention to the country’s socio-economic development. Rather, he gave the government greater opportunities for operational management on pressing problems joining this work in case of urgent problems in the "manual control" regime.

One of the most important tasks was import substitution. The reason for launching this program were sanctions imposed by Western countries. Both Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev admit that the issue should have been tackled earlier.

The president outlined the industries, in which Russia should provide itself 100% with its own production. These are the areas ensuring the national security in every sense of the word — from food to military security. As a result, Putin’s work schedule during 2015 included dozens of meetings dedicated to the development of the agro-industrial complex, medicine, space industry, and, of course, defense industry.

Budget and oil

The problems of Russia’s economy were exacerbated in the outgoing year not only by sanctions but also by the global situation. The energy prices that came down sharply have affected the ruble exchange rate.

Active anti-crisis measures taken by the government coupled with the president’s close attention to fiscal policy helped prevent the collapse. During his December news conference Putin said that no one had forecast the large-scale pressure from external economic factors during the preparation of the 2015 budget. As a result, the budget had to be amended and later transformed from a three-year to a one-year one.

Considering this, the preparation of the 2016 budget was conducted as thoroughly as possible. Despite all the difficulties, Putin demanded that the level of government responsibility should be preserved. In particular, the president outlined the basic requirements, including the deficit of no more than 3% of GDP, targeted social support measures and an array of others. The government complied with this guidelines when forwarding the draft budget to parliament.

In manual mode

In spite of all challenges, Putin has not abandoned the practice of personal involvement in solving pressing problems. One of the first instances in the outgoing year when the "manual control" regime was required was the situation with commuter trains cancelled simultaneously in several regions because of their unprofitability. The president’s phrase "Are you crazy?" addressed to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich helped to restore train traffic on the day the meeting was held.

Another reason for the head of state’s scrutiny became the situation in the Siberian republic of Khakassia affected by wildfires. Putin visit the region three times supervising the construction of new houses for the victims. He relied not so much on officials’ reports but on conversations with the locals and the personal examination of the affected area.

Crimea gets rid of past problems

Putin paid considerable attention to Crimea, which marked the first anniversary since its reunification with Russia. The Russian authorities were able to clean the "Augean stables" of socio-economic problems left over from Ukraine. However, Kiev tried to invent new forms of blockade of Russia’s Crimea — first the food blockade and then the energy one.

Ukraine’s efforts, which went as far as blowing transmission towers, turned out to be unsuccessful. Under the instructions of the Russian head of state, an energy lifeline connecting Russia’s southern Kuban region and Crimea was launched within a short period of time. Putin personally attended the ceremony of launching the first cross-flow, and that was his third trip to the Black Sea peninsula in 2015. The energy blockade backfired on Ukraine itself. Moscow warned Kiev and it would stop purchasing Ukrainian electricity in the near future.

Baker’s dozen for New Year

On New Year’s Eve, the president will address Russians with congratulations offering them to recall the outgoing year and take all the best from it to the coming year. If one takes into account Putin’s first New Year address on December 31, 1999, which he made as the acting president, the current address will be his thirteenth. The "unlucky" number logically completes the complex and controversial year.

However, the Kremlin is not prone to sentimentality. We should not succumb to emotions, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Putin himself is no less categorical. "There are always difficulties and obstacles on the way of any development," he said in his address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. "We will respond to all challenges, we will act creatively and effectively, work for the common good and for the sake of Russia. We will move forward together and we will be sure to succeed," the president said.

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