We’re all trying to work out what Vladimir Putin ‘really’ wants. Does he know? Does the idea of ‘someone knowing what they really want’ even make sense?
Still, President Putin went out of his way to explain his policies and wider approach in his long televised address to the Russian people on 21 February. The Kremlin’s website is alas currently down(!) and I can’t find a Russian version. But here is The Spectator’s transcript in English. It looks like a solid effort.
Let’s inspect some noteworthy aspects.
Putin starts with blaming NATO:
It is well known that for 30 years we have persistently and patiently tried to reach an agreement with the leading Nato countries on the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we constantly faced either cynical deception and lies, or attempts to pressure and blackmail, while the North Atlantic Alliance, in the meantime, despite all our protests and concerns, is steadily expanding. The military machine is moving and, I repeat, is coming close to our borders.
He presents the fact that different states have freely chosen to join NATO as something posing an immediate pressing danger to Russia. Tosh. Following the last sizeable enlargement in 2004 (that included for the first time three former Soviet republics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) NATO has added Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. This is not a moving military machine ‘coming close to Russia’s borders’.
That said, Ukraine is increasingly keen to join NATO, not least because it feels menaced by Russia. Even without the latest developments, Ukrainian membership would be a protracted and probably inconclusive process: would all NATO member states even want to commit themselves to defend Ukraine from Russia?
An important feature of Putin’s address is its over-rich vocabulary, with up to 60(!) clunky adverbs and all sorts of extravagant nouns and adjectives. ProTip for Kremlin speechwriters: less is more – far fewer adverbs !
Why is all this happening? Where does this impudent manner of speaking from the position of one’s own exclusivity, infallibility and permissiveness come from? Where does the disdainful, disdainful attitude towards our interests and absolutely legitimate demands come from?
Everything that does not suit the hegemon, those in power, is declared archaic, obsolete, unnecessary. And vice versa: everything that seems beneficial to them is presented as the ultimate truth, pushed through at any cost, boorishly, by all means. Dissenters are broken through the knee.
Such blustering volleys of aggressive words don’t help a speaker sound convincing. “My arguments are lame! But my adjectives and my adverbs are awesome!”
He presents the collapse of the Soviet Union as evincing Russia’s loss of will and self-confidence:
The Soviet Union in the late 80s of the last century weakened, and then completely collapsed. The whole course of events that took place then is a good lesson for us today as well; it convincingly showed that the paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete degradation and oblivion. As soon as we lost confidence in ourselves for some time, and that’s it, the balance of power in the world turned out to be disturbed.
Well, maybe if for over 70 years you’ve built an economic system that can not even sell bananas to ordinary Russians, maybe you should lose some confidence?
You don’t have to look far for examples. First, without any sanction from the UN Security Council, they carried out a bloody military operation against Belgrade, using aircraft and missiles right in the very centre of Europe.
Of course, Putin is mainly right to say that Russia was left a far weaker power after the USSR broke up. And his ensuing list of all the cack-handed post-Cold War interventions led by the USA might give us all pause for thought.
Nonetheless, he wisely avoids exploring the Serbia/Kosovo case. Russia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. But wait. If the proud Russian speakers of the Donbass can decide to break from Ukraine despite Kiev’s objections, why can’t the proud Albanians of Kosovo opt to break from Serbia despite Belgrade’s objections? Yet Russia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Confusing!
In general, one gets the impression that practically everywhere, in many regions of the world, where the West comes to establish its own order, the result is bloody, unhealed wounds, ulcers of international terrorism and extremism.
More naff overwrought language.
What if Russia had stepped back from propping up grotty failing dictatorships and thrown its significant diplomatic and political muscle behind reformist elements in Belgrade, Libya, Iraq and Syria (and Zimbabwe and Cuba)? That need not have meant submitting to a facile ‘Western’ view of the world. Instead Russia could have made itself a leader in forging a new tough-love global consensus. Russia’s clumsy zero-sum thinking (no doubt reflecting legacy KGB/GRU machinations and networks in these states) has helped make each of these problems far harder to manage, and left Moscow wailing and gnashing on the sidelines.
The United States is still a great country, a system-forming power. All her satellites not only resignedly and dutifully assent, sing along to her for any reason, but also copy her behaviour, enthusiastically accept the rules he proposes. Therefore, with good reason, we can confidently say that the entire so-called Western bloc, formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, all of it is the very ’empire of lies’.
Haha a dim Kremlin speechwriter tries to find a soundbite to echo Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech. Kapow! Take THAT, Washington!
… we have a question: what to do next, what to expect? We know well from history how in the 1940s and early 1941s the Soviet Union tried in every possible way to prevent or at least delay the outbreak of war.
DISHONEST NONSENSE. In 1939 Hitler and Stalin connived to invade and carve up Poland, with Stalin then committing a staggering war crime by murdering up to 30,000 captured Polish officers.
Putin of course rests his core argument on the Big Lie that the Second World War began in 1941 after Hitler attacked the USSR. He has to. Without the faux-legitimacy of the Great Patriotic War, the USSR is merely a bumbling brutish disaster.
As for the military sphere, modern Russia, even after the collapse of the USSR and the loss of a significant part of its potential, is today one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world and, moreover, has certain advantages in a number of the latest types of weapons. In this regard, no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and dire consequences for any potential aggressor.
Hmm. As no-one’s threatening a ‘direct attack on Russia’ that seems a bit over-stated? Or does Putin count economic sanctions against Russia as a ‘direct attack’?
Even now, as Nato expands to the east, the situation for our country is getting worse and more dangerous every year.
Not true. It’s because of Putin’s own aggressive policies (including annexing Crimea) that Russia has lost a couple of TRILLION dollars of potential growth over the past decade.
The point, of course, is not the Nato organisation itself – it is only an instrument of US foreign policy. The problem is that in the territories adjacent to us, I will note, in our own historical territories, an ‘anti-Russia’ hostile to us is being created, which has been placed under complete external control, is intensively settled by the armed forces of Nato countries and is pumped up with the most modern weapons.
Maybe it’s Russia’s own policies that create ‘anti-Russia’ feelings within former parts of the Tsarist empire that quite like being free for a change?
And for our country, this is ultimately a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a people. And this is not an exaggeration: it is true. This is a real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty. This is the very red line that has been talked about many times. They passed [it].
Tosh. The ‘very existence’ of Russia and its sovereignty is NOT threatened by any of the things he’s mentioned.
The entire course of events and analysis of incoming information shows that Russia’s clash with these forces is inevitable. It is only a matter of time: they are getting ready, they are waiting for the right time. Now they also claim to possess nuclear weapons. We will not allow this to be done.
Huh? That strange sucking sound of Plot being Lost.
You and I simply have not been left with any other opportunity to protect Russia, our people, except for the one that we will be forced to use today. Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate action. The people’s republics of Donbass turned to Russia with a request for help.
In this regard, in accordance with Article 51 of Part 7 of the UN Charter, with the sanction of the Federation Council of Russia and in pursuance of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance ratified by the Federal Assembly on 22 February this year with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, I decided to conduct a special military operation.
What’s Article 51? Thus:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security…
So, President Putin, where is the armed attack against Russia that is needed to trigger Article 51? The only one we all see is an armed attack by Russia against Ukraine!
Its goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous, bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.
Wait … Nazis and genocide? If there’s one thing that’s conspicuously absent in today’s Ukraine it’s genocide.
And where are all the Nazis you’re talking about? Maybe those fanatics who elected a Jewish-Ukrainian TV comedian as the country’s President?
Let me remind you that neither during the creation of the USSR, nor after the Second World War, people living in certain territories that are part of modern Ukraine, no one ever asked how they themselves want to arrange their lives. Our policy is based on freedom, the freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their own future and the future of their children. And we consider it important that this right – the right to choose – could be used by all the peoples living on the territory of today’s Ukraine, by everyone who wants it.
OK. But what about the right to self-determination of all people’s living on the territory of today’s Russia? Ah. You’ve made advocating for ‘separatism’ a criminal offence!
I repeat, our actions are self-defence against the threats posed to us and from an even greater disaster than what is happening today. No matter how difficult it may be, I ask you to understand this and call for cooperation in order to turn this tragic page as soon as possible and move forward together, not to allow anyone to interfere in our affairs, in our relations, but to build them on our own, so that it creates the necessary conditions for overcoming all problems and, despite the presence of state borders, would strengthen us from the inside as a whole.
Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in ongoing events. Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.
Hmm. What exactly are you threatening here? Nuclear strikes, so that you be left free to kill Ukrainians who resist your invasion?
Dear citizens of Russia!
Well-being, the very existence of entire states and peoples, their success and viability always originate in the powerful root system of their culture and values, experience and traditions of their ancestors and, of course, directly depend on the ability to quickly adapt to a constantly changing life, on the cohesion of society, its readiness to consolidate, to gather together all the forces in order to move forward.
Rambling nonsense. But the sense is clear. Mobilise for the Russian Soul! Merge your insignificant selves into the glorious Great Russia Collective!
Forces are needed always – always, but strength can be of different quality. The policy of the ’empire of lies’, which I spoke about at the beginning of my speech, is based primarily on brute, straightforward force. In such cases, we say: ‘There is power, mind is not needed.’
And you and I know that real strength lies in justice and truth, which is on our side. And if this is so, then it is difficult to disagree with the fact that it is the strength and readiness to fight that underlie independence and sovereignty, are the necessary foundation on which you can only reliably build your future, build your home, your family, your homeland.
Good point. But what if millions of Ukrainians too summon the strength and readiness to fight for their independence and sovereignty and their homeland? How many of your Slavic brothers and sisters, and how many Russians, will you sacrifice to slug it out?
* * * * *
My speechwriting book Speeches for Leaders ended with some words of praise for V Putin’s oratory:
President Putin’s speeches project strength and self-confidence: in a word, leadership. They draw on subtle language in closely woven intellectual arguments to exemplify patriotic pride and defiance. The audience at home and beyond Russia’s borders is left in no doubt that what President Putin says is what he believes, and that under no circumstances will he ever apologise for anything. He is only concerned about the fate of Russia …
Vladimir Putin’s speeches are full of ripe, chewy, raw political meat. President Obama’s speeches are soufflés, impressive to behold but oddly insubstantial and unsatisfying when examined closely.
That was then. But now? What a mess of a speech. A tower of bad arguments based on dishonest examples and manipulations of history. His framing of the post-Cold War policies of Western governments is banal. There’s no sense of self-criticism – the idea that his own policies might have been different or wiser. Or that if he has real concerns about Ukraine that there might be other ways to address them rather than a full-scale invasion
Instead it’s mainly the lugubrious self-pitying Russia-as-Eternal-Victim noises of the worst Russian nationalists. How many Russians watching it will have thought that he’s making a serious case for what he wants to do, or that they’ll end up better off because of it?