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Russian President Vladimir Putin stands during a TV address to the nation on 31 December in Moscow.The annual New Year's address here, given in the waning moments of the old year, is usually a chance for the Russian president to list the country's accomplishments, recall the year's high points and wish everyone a happy holiday.

But as Russian President Vladimir Putin rang in 2015, his tone was decidedly more measured as he glossed over the bulk of geopolitical shifts Russia experienced or caused in the past year, and quietly warned the Russian people to brace for more hardships.

Remember that Crimea is ours, he said, and that the Olympics were a success – and thanks for sticking together through everything else. Please continue to do so.

Putin has managed to ride through a year of geopolitical ups and downs with his approval rating mostly intact at about 85 per cent in December.

But the bulk of 2014 has posed the greatest challenge yet to Putin's legacy, built on his reputation as a leader who brought prosperity back to Russia after difficult years of post-Soviet transition. In the past nine months – since the annexation of Crimea – Russia has witnessed its relations with the West deteriorate to levels of hostility not seen since before perestroika because of its involvement in Ukraine, its major industries all but locked out of the global lending markets, and the value of the ruble and the price of oil – exports of which form the bedrock of Russia's economy – erratically plummet.

"You'll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius," US President Barack Obama said in an interview that NPR broadcasted this week. "And he had outmaneuvered all of us and he had, you know, bullied and, you know, strategised his way into expanding Russian power."

"And today, you know, I'd sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn't so smart."

The events of 2014 have not only soured Russia's diplomatic relations abroad, but they also have refuelled the ambitions of a dormant opposition movement at home, members of which rallied outside the Kremlin to call for a new president on the eve of Putin's New Year's address. And just the day before Putin's taped address aired on television stations across the country at midnight Wednesday, Russia's finance minister forecasted harder times.

"We are going to have to use our safety cushion," Anton Siluanov said in an interview on state television station Rossiya 24, predicting that Russia would have to raise the legal limits on how much of the national reserve fund the state could spend in 2015 if it wanted to avoid rampant inflation and other economic shocks.

Siluanov warned that if a deluge of state spending couldn't right the economy in "just a year," Russia would have to undertake drastic budgeting changes.

"The time is coming when this must be tackled more seriously," he said.

Yet, dire warnings and developments have done little to inspire a public culture of reflection in Russia. Instead, many ordinary Russians – encouraged by authorities – have adopted a heightened patriotism, girding themselves for tougher times as a way of supporting their country when many here believe the world is against them.

Putin tapped such sentiments in his New Year's speech.

"Love for the motherland is one of the most powerful, uplifting feelings," he said. "The year will be what we make of it ourselves – however effectively, creatively and efficiently will depend on each of us."

"There is simply no other way," Putin continued. "And we need to accomplish, to realise all that we planned – for ourselves, for the sake of our children and for the sake of Russia."

And woe, apparently, to those who criticise Russia in what Putin called on 31 December "a time of trials."

Earlier that day, as the Kremlin was offering New Year's greetings to the various leaders and governments of the world, Russia's Foreign Ministry was issuing a particularly strongly worded warning to the United States and Europe to butt out of Russia's domestic affairs.

"Our Western partners should have to deal with what is happening in their homes," said Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's human rights chief, listing among the United States' domestic problems the recently disclosed CIA torture abuses, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the Ferguson protests – which Russian authorities and media have had a field day opining on – and the "murders of Russian foster children."

"If the West is offering us such standards of the rule of law, it is clearly not meant for us," Dolgov said.

Karoun Demirjian
The Washington Post
LEHTIKUVA / AFP PHOTO / RIANO VOSTI / ALEXEY DRUZHININ

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