WASHINGTON — The speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin made on Wednesday bore the hallmarks of unapologetic authoritarianism, Russia experts and observers said.
“We are well post-1934,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at the New School in New York City, referencing the year when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin began his murderous purge. Putin is an unabashed admirer of Stalin and has worked — successfully, in Russia — to rehabilitate his image, which suffered for years after a posthumous denunciation in 1956 by Khrushcheva’s great-grandfather Nikita Khrushchev, then the Soviet leader.
In his unsettling remarks, Putin lashed out at “national traitors” he blamed for undermining the war he launched against Ukraine.
“Putin really wants to take Russia back to Stalin days,” Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote on Twitter. “He has always emulated Stalin, and this speech is definitely angrier and stronger than previous speeches.”
President Biden said on Wednesday that Putin is a “war criminal,” and the rhetoric the Russian leader used was strikingly similar to the language that authoritarians have deployed to demonize, persecute and kill ethnic minorities and political opposition groups.
Even as Western efforts at diplomacy continue, the Kremlin remains in the grip of profound geopolitical grievance, which could make a peace settlement difficult. Putin said true Russians would “always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors,” presumably a reference to Russians who have protested his invasion of Ukraine in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thousands with the means to do so have left Russia, which is facing widespread cultural and economic isolation.
Russia “will simply spit them out like an insect in their mouth, spit them onto the pavement,” Putin said of Russian “fifth columnists” with Western sympathies.
“The whole speech was pure Dr. Strangelove — bodily fluids, purification and what not,” Khrushcheva told Yahoo News, referencing Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 satire about nuclear war. “Very Hollywood, only it’s happening to us, not on screen,” she wrote in an email.
Putin clearly sees Russia as the victim, denouncing the “economic blitzkrieg” of Western sanctions in his remarks, a reference to Adolf Hitler’s favored mode of sudden, overwhelming attack. “I want to be as direct as possible: hostile geopolitical designs lie behind the hypocritical talk and recent actions by the so-called collective West,” he said, according to an English-language transcript of his speech provided by the Kremlin. “They have no use — simply no use — for a strong and sovereign Russia, and they will not forgive us for our independent policy or for standing up for our national interests.”
Putin has maintained that he needed to invade Ukraine to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarize” the country, but he also fears that the Western sphere of influence is increasingly close to Russia’s borders.
The event on Wednesday was billed by the Kremlin as a discussion between Putin and regional leaders about “socioeconomic support.” It was a brief section of Putin’s comments from his introduction, however, that caught the attention of social media users, with millions having viewed a short clip in which he caustically pointed his finger at Russians who have grown rich during his tenure but are now abandoning the country as it becomes an international pariah.
“I do not in the least condemn those who have villas in Miami or the French Riviera, who cannot make do without foie gras, oysters or ‘gender freedom,’ as they call it. That is not the problem, not at all,” Putin said, referencing the elevated standard of living that Russians have enjoyed since he stabilized the economy after a chaotic period of unfettered capitalism in the 1990s.
He also played on long-standing Russian feelings of inferiority relative to the West, reminding supposedly disloyal critics of his Ukrainian campaign that they would never be allowed into “the superior caste, the superior race” of Western society. The West, he suggested, sees Russians not as equals but as “expendable raw material” to be exploited.
The speech left Lautman of the Center for European Policy Analysis stunned. “Everyone soon will be fifth columnists as Putin gets more enraged,” she told Yahoo News in a text message. “There will be a purge from his agencies, military, and everyday citizens. It was really such a dark speech.”