‘Make Russia great again’: Why Putin’s annexation speech hit its mark

As perverse as it sounds, Vladimir Putin gave a pretty good speech on Friday in proclaiming the illegal seizure of four provinces of Ukraine where his military campaign is falling apart faster than a rusty Kalashnikov.

I don’t mean it was good in the sense of being eloquent, morally uplifting or intellectually stimulating. It was none of those things. Its content was a maggot-ridden borscht* that reads as if it was rattled out at midnight by a Twitter crusader tanked up on bootleg vodka. Andrei Kolesnikov called it “a set of unbelievably illiterate conspiracy cliches that 30 years ago could be read in marginal national-patriotic newspapers”. The only surprise was that he didn’t round it off with ‘lol’. But it was a good speech in the way Hitler’s speeches were: it knew its audience and how to engage them. It also showed Putin had lost none of his ability to deceive several groups of people at once, which has been instrumental in securing his grip on power. For those reasons it should not be entirely dismissed as the ravings of an over-promoted taxi driver.

One audience was domestic: the still considerable number of people in Russia who support the war and who discourage the doubters from sticking their heads above the parapet. The references to a tausendjähriges Reich (‘thousand-year-old power’) and ‘historically greater Russia’ that will not yield to western colonialism was for them. It blended nostalgia for the Great Patriotic War with the implication that opposing the invasion of Ukraine was a betrayal not only of the people who had just voted at gunpoint to join them, but their ancestors who had spilled so much blood in preserving Europe’s last empire.

But Putin’s speech was also crafted for the western social media sphere where he has been so successful in disrupting the mainstream. Within hours, an incomplete translation, posted by a reporter for RT, was doing the rounds on Twitter. His attacks on the west were a laundry list of the grievances that fuelled the Trumpian militant right, couched in the same hysterical tone. Anyone still wondering about the origins of the culture wars only had to look at this speech: here was the master reading straight from his own textbook. Russia was the only country strong enough, and pure enough, to stand up to the warmongering Americans, their European poodles and the elites who had betrayed their own people to feed their insatiable greed. It was a red-pill fallacy at its finest – western civilisation was a veneer that allowed its depraved leaders to act with impunity under the cover of the ‘international order’.

‘Putin needs the debate about Ukraine to be conducted in the same squealing tone as his speech, to create a climate of endless, exhausting fury.’

In Putin’s view, Russia was weak because it had allowed itself to be infected with western decadence. While its citizens were blindsided by Big Macs and washing machines, devious capitalists sneaked in to plunder its resources and ‘pump trillions of dollars out of the country’. Putin inverted the liberal view that the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall were a time of freedom and hope for Russia. In his reboot of the Dolchstosslegende, this was when the seeds of the disaster were sown. Curiously, he omitted to mention that it was also the time when a certain Vladimir Putin rose to power as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, where he authorised the outflow of billions of dollars across Russia’s borders in his capacity as head of the Committee for Foreign Economic Relations.

Putin claimed his country was the victim of centuries of ‘Russophobia’ from resentful western powers who had failed to colonise and divide his country. Unlike the vassal states of Europe, Russia was standing up to the Satanists of the United States, with their corrupt morals, fake rules and gender neutral toilets. The ‘liberation’ of Ukraine was the first step towards a ‘multipolar world’, an age of freedom, prosperity and sovereignty. He would make Russia great again.

It found a receptive audience among those who believe the last American presidential election was stolen, US civic leaders are running child exploitation rings from pizza basements, and coronavirus was a hoax created to destroy people’s freedoms. And that was the point. The ‘truth’, or more accurately truthiness, of Putin’s speech is easily disputed, but the dispute itself is what Putin has successfully weaponised for the last decade. Expect excerpts from his speech to be widely quoted in the run-up to the midterm elections in November, when Congressional candidates will come under pressure to support a reduction in US support for Ukraine. This is one of the last remaining battlegrounds where Putin is still in with a fighting chance of turning the tide of the war. End US military support for Zelenskyy and the odds will swing back in Russia’s favour.

Putin wants the debate to focus on his statements about Nato expansionism and wounded Russian pride, and not about the atrocities being committed by his armies on a daily basis. And he needs it to be conducted in the same squealing tone as his speech, to create a climate of endless, exhausting fury. The best rebuttal is to contrast his words with his actions. No civilised nation drops bombs on maternity hospitals. No self-respecting country rounds up children and transports them into camps. No disciplined army tortures, mutilates and castrates prisoners of war. Proper soldiers don’t shoot unarmed civilians on bicycles, loot their houses and fling their bodies into mass graves. No real leader threatens the world with starvation and cold because his invasion of a country that posed no strategic threat to him is coming apart at the seams. Yes, the Americans have done appalling things in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. None of it excuses the carnage Russia is inflicting on Ukraine.

Interestingly, the one bogus justification for the invasion that was dropped from Putin’s latest speech was the depiction of Ukrainians as ‘drug addicts and neo-Nazis’. Yet on the battlefield, as Ukrainian soldiers clear out the invaders from Lyman and push on into Luhansk, it looks to be the one part of his prophecy that stands a chance of coming true. The neo-Nazis are indeed being banished from Ukraine, just not in the way he intended.

* I must credit Lawrence Freedman for the reference to the scene in Battleship Potemkin.

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