MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin cast Russia Thursday as a defender of conservative values against the “genderless and infertile” Western tolerance that he said equates good and evil.
Putin’s 70-minute state-of-the nation address marked a determined effort to burnish Russia’s image that has been dented by Western criticism of an anti-gay law which has stoked calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, his pet project.
Putin’s speech also contained a strong warning to those abroad who he claimed were seeking a military edge over Russia – a clear nod at the U.S. effort to develop long range non-nuclear weapons that Russia sees as a threat to its nuclear deterrent.
Russia has insisted that a law banning “propaganda of non-traditional relations” does not discriminate against gays, but gay rights group say it has given a green light to harassment and intimidation.
Without directly referring to the anti-gay law, Putin focused on upholding traditional family values, which he said were the foundation of Russia’s greatness and a bulwark against “so-called tolerance – genderless and infertile.”
Putin’s posture as a protector of conservative values and his scathing criticism of the West have been part of efforts to shore up his domestic support base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees against mounting criticism from the urban middle class. But his speech also was pitched to conservatives worldwide.
“Many countries today are reviewing moral norms and erasing national traditions and distinctions between nationalities and cultures,” Putin said. “The society is now required to demonstrate not only the sensible recognition of everyone’s right to freedom of conscience, political outlook and private life, but also the mandatory recognition of the equivalence of good and evil, no matter how odd that may seem.”
He argued that the “destruction of traditional values from the top” going on in other countries is “inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.”
Without naming any specific country, he blasted “attempts to enforce allegedly more progressive development models” on other nations, saying they have led only to “decline, barbarity and big blood” in the Middle East and North Africa.
In an apparent jab at the U.S., Putin said that Russia is not “seeking a superpower status or trying to claim a global or regional hegemony ... not trying to patronize or teach anyone.”
He denied that Russia was trying to coerce Ukraine into joining a Moscow-led free trade pact. The Ukrainian president’s decision last month to spurn an alliance with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia has triggered massive protests in Ukraine’s capital that have been going on for three weeks.
Without naming the United States, Putin described the U.S. program of developing “prompt global strike” weapons as an attempt to tilt the strategic balance in its favor and vowed to counter it.
The U.S. program envisages creating long-range non-nuclear weapons that could strike targets anywhere in the world in as little as an hour with deadly precision.
Putin said that Russia sees the effort a threat to its nuclear deterrent and will take countermeasures.
“Expanding the potential of strategic non-nuclear precision weapons along with developing missile defense systems could nullify all earlier nuclear arms reduction agreements and upset the strategic balance,” Putin said. “Russia will respond to all those challenges, both political and technological. No one should have an illusion that it’s possible to achieve a military superiority over Russia.”
He boasted about the nation’s nuclear arsenal, saying that foreign powers will have to catch up with the level of new Russian nuclear weapons.
A day earlier, a senior Russian official warned that Moscow reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional strike.
Russia-U.S. relations long have been strained by a dispute over the U.S.-led NATO missile defense system, Moscow’s human rights record, and, most recently, Ukraine.
Putin also announced a sweeping crackdown on Russian offshore companies to bring billions of dollars home.
“You want to have offshores? Fine. But get the money here,” he said.
For years, many Russian companies registered in countries such as Cyprus or Luxembourg to avoid Moscow’s heavy-handed regulation and unpredictable legal and tax practices.
Putin insisted that foreign-registered companies that operate in Russia and are owned by Russian citizens should be obliged to pay taxes in Russia.
He said that Russian companies registered offshore will not be allowed to bid for state contracts, a major source of income for many Russian businesses.