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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Main Tasks, 2 Possible Successors

The two main tasks that President Vladimir Putin set in his state-of-the-nation address will stretch far beyond his presidency and are currently the responsibility of his two most plausible successors.

Putin's goal of raising the birthrate by giving cash incentives to mothers, as stated in Wednesday's address, looks like an additional job for First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who handles spending on Putin's four national social projects. Taking care of improvements in the armed forces falls to Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

The fact that Medvedev and Ivanov -- who are widely believed to be in competition for Putin's blessing as the next president -- will oversee the nation's latest tasks is further, albeit indirect, proof that one of them could become president, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation think tank.

Nikonov, who is close to the Kremlin, said Putin's address did not favor one minister over the other. However, the Defense Ministry received more airtime because Putin exchanged remarks with a ministry representative before he embarked on the portion of his speech about demographics.

After discussing economic matters, Putin said, "And now the most important thing -- what is most important?" "Love!" shouted the representative, presumably Ivanov, in what looked like a carefully orchestrated exchange.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said Thursday that he was uncertain exactly who said "Love," and was unable to say whether any other ministry representative other than Ivanov had attended the speech in the Kremlin. A Kremlin spokeswoman on Thursday did not have the information either.

Putin probably did not intend to support any specific presidential contender with his speech, said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Instead, Putin wanted to reshape Russia's image by dropping liberal messages and replacing them with ideas of a populist, paternalistic and "majestic" Russia, she said. "Any candidate can be selected to suit this image in the next two years, not necessarily Medvedev or Ivanov," she said.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin consultant who has grown critical of Putin, agreed the speech was not tied to the naming of a possible successor. "All of the programs that Putin considers important are taken care of by people who are close to him in one way or another. But that doesn't mean they are all his successors," he said. "The successor ... may be chosen quite unexpectedly."

In a sign that the Kremlin can make unexpected decisions, Putin thwarted predictions and leaks from his own administration that his address would focus on foreign policy. Belkovsky speculated Putin had avoided the issue because the Kremlin could not formulate a clear foreign policy. Shevtsova said the leaks had probably come from administration officials who were unsuccessfully lobbying to make foreign relations the speech's pivotal point.

Instead, the main portion of the address was dedicated to demographics, with Putin promising financial aid to women willing to have more than one child.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov said Putin's initiative would require 30 billion rubles to 33 billion rubles ($1.1 billion to $1.2 billion) in additional spending next year alone.

The money would cover monthly payments to mothers, grants for housing or children's education expenses, free medicine for pregnant women and increased payments for families who take in orphans, Zurabov said, Interfax reported.

National newspapers on Thursday offered extensive coverage of Putin's speech, and most of the published reactions of the political elite were positive. Izvestia, which is owned by state-controlled Gazprom, ran a front-page story and printed the entire speech over two pages inside.

Kommersant wrote that Putin was right to say that financial aid would not be enough to resolve the demographic crisis without a societal change of attitude toward family and family values.

"But for that there should be serious changes in other areas, including realistic army reform, otherwise a fear that a child returns crippled from the army would continue to deter the birthrate. However, it looks like Russians have no hope in this area," it said.

Western newspapers focused on the military component of Putin's address, in which he called for smarter defense spending and a modernization of the army that would allow Russia to resist political pressure from abroad.

"Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, raised the specter of the Cold War yesterday, likening the United States to a voracious wolf and declaring that the arms race was not yet over," Britain's Daily Telegraph said.

The Guardian newspaper said that "relations between the U.S. and Russia sank to the lowest point in a decade when Vladimir Putin harshly rebuked Washington for the criticism voiced last week by Vice President Dick Cheney."