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As Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address this week, offering one social handout after another, praising heroic doctors and vaccine researchers and promising to toughen environmental regulation, it felt like a trip to a parallel reality. Yet notwithstanding Putin’s largely empty domestic exhortations, his message to the West highlighted a radical difference in approach from that of his Soviet predecessors. 

In Putin’s world, Russia was an advanced country overcoming the Covid pandemic and trying to resolve some inevitable but not particularly daunting social and economic issues. In another world outside the cavernous hall of tense, mostly maskless faces hanging on Putin’s every word, troops were massing on the Ukrainian borders. European and US leaders were calling for a de-escalation and their calls were being ignored...

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