Threats, Blame, and Excuses
Putin’s speech has been an excruciatingly long ordeal, and one that started with aggressive yet somewhat reused statements. The first key point brought forward was a reaffirmation of Russian commitment to the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. No changes to the character of the operation have been introduced, nor has any de-escalation been announced – it might be observed that quite the opposite thing happened. The speech was poised to stoke the fires of war in Russia, aimed to rouse and rally the Russian population behind the war banners. Putin attempted to demonise the West and Ukraine by providing an extensive list and vivid descriptions of their “depravities and crimes”. Firstly, according to the Federation’s President the entire conflict has been caused by Ukraine and inflamed by the West. Ukraine apparently oppressed the population of Donbas, to whom Russia came with help. The Federation wished for a peaceful resolution to the tense situation in 2014, issuing several proposals to the West and Ukraine. The West however, wished for an escalation and wanted to wage a war against Russia, thus purposefully rejecting peaceful solutions, which forced Russia to employ more direct measures. Now Ukraine’s nazi regime holds Ukrainian people hostage as it wages war against Russia, which now has to protect its people and territories from Ukrainian aggression. These laughable statements were followed closely by claims of societal and cultural depravity, such as religious blasphemies or indoctrination of children to be paedophiles. These accusations all presented in the opening parts of Putin’s speech were aimed to provide a moral basis for the continuing of war in Ukraine, while at the same time declaring Russian commitment to the war itself. This presentation of the “Special Military Operation” as a righteous crusade was meant to appeal to the values held by the wider Russian population and encourage them to support the war effort. And it seems successful as each statement and vow of commitment was met with vigorous ovation from the gathered officials. While this rhetoric might seem insignificant in the West it could play a vital role in the preparation of Russian society for a protracted and additional war, aimed at grinding down Ukrainian defences with time, men, and unfaltering devotion to the threatened Motherland.
Praises, Rewards, and Consolidation of Popular Support
Putin then went on to praise all the soldiers fighting in Ukraine, who fight for the safety of the people and truth. Along with the praises came promises of rewards, additional social benefits, more pay, and passes to recuperate, though these will supposedly be granted only to servicemen who went to Ukraine voluntarily, so it’s hard to estimate if any will actually be given. These promises were made to gather support for the continuation of the war, and most probably to prepare the Russian population for a second mobilisation, which is speculated to begin in April and would include university students. The additional benefits, especially those granted to volunteer soldiers, are aimed to boost the number of available soldiers, by making the service a very attractive prospect. This could work, especially due to the fact that the Russian economy is struggling, with people having few choices on how to provide for themselves and their families. Furthermore this could also soften the outrage caused by the second mobilisation, as soldiers would be more handsomely rewarded, and the number of mobilised could be smaller due to potential volunteers.
The topic of education and further reforms was picked up by Putin several times. These are aimed to modernise and support the education of university level students, allowing them to more directly interact with industry professionals, though it seems like this is more aimed at supporting the defence industry by shaping and scouting talent. The educational projects also included projects taking place in occupied Ukrainian territory, such as the building of schools, educational centres, as well as art, culture, and science institutions. These costly investments play into the narrative of Russian annexation of Ukrainian land, aimed to show both Russians and the western world that these territories are now, and will be a part of the Federation.
In an effort to reassure the Russian people, Putin also dedicated a large portion of his speech to describing the striving economy of the motherland. The bold statements of unprecedented success were preceded by stark reminders of the evil Western sanctions that aim to hurt Russia and its citizens. However, as Putin claimed, the sanctions only hurt the West, where people starve and freeze, whereas the Russian economy emerged victorious, reshaped to better benefit the people. This bold claim was followed by the declaration of an increased minimum wage by 18.5 percent. This is most probably a show of strength, that means to suggest that the war in Ukraine is not costly to the Russian people.
Shows of strength, rash decisions, and the lack of friends
Vital part of Putin’s performance was a show of strength and commitment to the war. Numerous statements of Western aggression, and Ukrainian plans to attack Russia, Crimea especially, were used to boast about the invincibility of Russian troops and inevitability of their victory. Putin claimed that the West launched an extensive information campaign against Russia, aimed to present them as a losing side, to which Putin retorted that: “It is impossible to win a war against Russia.” These claims were further followed by a symbolic recalling of Stolypin’s words: “In the business of defence of Russia we need to unite and coordinate our forces to defend our right for Russia to be strong.” A very Russian approach, claiming strength, unity of purpose and reliance on symbolic values, while at the same time a show for the Western coalition claiming that Ukraine will not win, and supporting it is not worth it.
In a more direct manner Putin also announced the withdrawal from the START bilateral nuclear arms control treaty. Federation’s leader spoke of the western enrichment on the Russian security and invigilation of its most vital assets. This he claimed is a play by the West aimed to control and neutralise Russian ability to defend itself, while west maintains its own arsenal intact. This claim was “supported” by the statement that nations of the Western coalition refused to allow Russian specialists to conduct controls on their stockpiles. Thus, Putin declared that Russia must ensure the readiness of its nuclear troops, but added that they will never strike first. This serves as a reminder to the West that Russia will not give up, and if pressed hard enough it could unleash atomic fire.
In an interesting development the almost two hour long speech never once mentioned China. The last several days have been filled with discussions about China’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stating that China already supplies Russian troops with non-lethal supplies, and might begin sending lethal equipment soon.[i] The comment sparked outrage in China, with the country’s top diplomat having a heated discussion with Blinken during the Munich Security Conference. This was also followed by China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warning the US from interfering in relations between China and Russia.[ii] The lack of any mention of China by President Putin during his speech suggests two things. Either there is nothing worthwhile happening between the two countries or whatever is happening is purposefully kept secret. The latter would mean that China might actually be preparing to increase its support of Russian operations in Ukraine.
Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
[i] Samuel Horti, and James Landale, “Ukraine war: Blinken says China might give weapons to Russia”, BBC News, February 20, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64695042.
[ii] Samuel Horti, and James Landale, “Ukraine war: Blinken says China might give weapons to Russia”, BBC News, February 20, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64695042.