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Julian Glover: Vladimir Putin dispenses velvet-covered threats at Davos

Guardian Economics 28th January 2009

It beggars belief to hear a Russian leader warn the west not to turn into the Soviet Union – but Vladimir Putin did just that in Davos today.

In a tough speech, a list of velvet-covered threats, the Russian prime minister said that the financial crisis was leading to "an excess of interference of the state" in the economy.

It was, he said, a natural reaction – but the wrong one. In the Soviet Union "we paid a very dear price". Businesses now might look to governments to bail them out but state money is "exhaustible and not always efficient," according to Putin. Try telling that to Gordon Brown.

Putin's address had some obvious omissions. No mention of any Russian error; no mention either of President Obama, a man Putin is said to want to get close to. Friendship with the US was not evident at the start of his speech, which began with an all fists-flying attack on the American executives who, he said, spoke in the same hall a year ago of the shining strength of their national economy.

"Better than criticism, describe the real situation," he said grimly. "Today the pride of Wall Street basically doesn't exist anymore".

Like China's premier Wen Jiabao, who spoke just before him, Putin blamed the rich west for causing the crisis and said that the poor states of the world would no longer tolerate the consequences.

"Simple, populist recipes are quite tempting," he said, with the tone of a man who knows something about them. He cracked only one joke: that the economic crash arrived "as unexpectedly as winter comes to Russia every year". It came across as more menacing than comic. Putin comes across as threatening even before he speaks. His facial muscles hardly move, his body remains taut and his blue eyes come across as almost undead. His eyelids twitch from time to time. But he is a man who expects deference, and gets it.

Russia's strength in the world comes from energy, and from its remaining military might. On the former, Putin called for stability, as well he might given the huge fall in gas and oil prices. Would he have made the same point had they continued to climb?

On weapons, he called for disarmament – speaking on the day Russia scrapped plans to deploy nuclear weapons to its Kaliningrad European outpost.

He wanted, he said, to see "reasonable restraint". He did not sound like a man who expects to see it.

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