WASHINGTON — Even as he prepared to illegally annex Ukrainian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded a note of exceptional grievance at a Kremlin ceremony on Friday. An observer might have thought that here was a man who was on the cusp of accepting final defeat, letting loose with all of his complaints one last time before accepting surrender. Victories, after all, tend to occasion at least a little jubilation.
"The dictatorship of the Western elites targets all societies," Putin said. "This is a challenge to all. This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a 'religion in reverse' — pure Satanism."
His embittered tirade against the West came at a time of acute turmoil in Russia and deepening desperation for its armed forces. On the battlefield, the Ukrainian army, bolstered by Western aid, recently routed Russian forces in a stinging counteroffensive in the very regions Putin has usurped. Lacking sufficient volunteer and mercenary soldiers, the Kremlin pressed 300,000 men into active service, triggering nationwide protests and leading to a mass exodus into neighboring countries. Russian partners like China and India are edging away from the Kremlin, while fears that an increasingly isolated Putin is serious about using nuclear force are rising.
All of this, according to Putin, is the fault of the United States and its European allies, whom he accuses of trying to fulfill a long-standing project to weaken Russia — a project in which Ukraine is, in this cynical vision of the global order, nothing more than a pawn.
“Putin seems desperate to blame the West for everything, which isn't unexpected, but the intensity of the sentiment makes you wonder what lengths they will go as a result,” Ben Friedman, a policy expert at the security think tank Defense Priorities, told Yahoo News. “Annexing territory Russia seems likely to have trouble holding, and hinting about nukes to defend it smacks of desperation and should make all reasonable people nervous.”
Putin’s complaints were legion. In his speech from the Kremlin, he quickly shifted from the annexation of the four regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson) to a litany of historical and cultural complaints that had seemingly had nothing to do with the proceedings at hand — but also gave an indication of the ideological battle Putin is waging, an existential contest against Western powers he believes are intent on destroying Russia.
Among other things, he denounced transgender rights, the Allied aerial assault on German cities during World War II, slavery, the opium trade, neoliberal capitalism, “the American elite,” secular society and a Western media that he described as essentially mimicking the work of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Even veteran observers were stunned by the 37-minute tirade. “One of the craziest speeches Putin has ever made,” one Russia expert, Christo Grozev, mused on Twitter, adding a profane term for bat droppings for emphasis.
Putin offered a grandiose vision of Western crimes that seemed to ignore a number of inconvenient facts, perhaps foremost among them that the very ceremony over which he was presiding involved the illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory in an aggressive war launched under the flimsiest of pretenses.
As that war continues to fare poorly for Russia, Putin has cast the conflict in stark, religious terms, almost relishing in the apocalyptic vision he has outlined. That vision, however, cannot obscure reality. Persistent protests against the “partial mobilization" of veterans and reservists are clear evidence that a Russian public that had been promised a quick, painless engagement in Ukraine is starting to lose patience with casualties, sanctions and international condemnation.
During his speech on Friday, Putin noted — as he has before — that the United States remains the only nation to have deployed nuclear weapons in war.
“And they created a precedent,” Putin warned ominously.
Many experts continue to believe that even as Putin threatens nuclear war, he knows that such an escalation would prove disastrous for his own regime. Such threats may be as much for his own citizens as for Western leaders who have vowed to defend Ukraine.
“I think it is Russia’s deep insecurity coming out as paranoia,” says Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Russia scholar. “These antics also help him to sell the Western encirclement lie to the Russian general public, as the Kremlin experiences unrest because of the mobilization call. It has hints of Stalinist-era myths of ‘capitalist encirclement’ that led to increased repressions within the USSR.”
But some of Putin’s most ardent supporters cheer his rhetorical assaults on the West, which they hope are more than just the posturing of a faltering autocrat. “This is a fundamental declaration of war against the modern West and modern world in general,” the pan-Slavic philosopher Alexander Dugin, who has been nicknamed “Putin’s brain,” wrote on Telegram.
Top clerics in the Russian Orthodox Church have also justified the Ukrainian invasion, earning condemnation from religious leaders in the West.
In a lengthy briefing on Thursday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, was asked by Yahoo News about the prevailing assessment in Washington that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a hopeless quagmire.
“Washington needs to believe in God,” Zakharova said in response, “because it is impossible to commit so much lawlessness while simply relying only on your own exceptionalism. There are somewhat higher forces.”
God was also invoked at a Red Square rally in Moscow to support the annexation of Ukrainian territory. “It would be right to call it a holy war,” Ivan Okhlobystin, an actor and defrocked former Orthodox priest, told cheering masses.
Ordinary Russians may be confused by such rhetoric, which clashes starkly with Kremlin assurances that nothing more than a “special operation” has been taking place in Ukraine. And while Kremlin-friendly propagandists freely muse about nuclear annihilation, ordinary Russians could face punishment for simply acknowledging the obvious reality that the conflict is indeed a war.
Putin’s ceremonial annexation can hardly disguise Russia’s tenuous control over territory in eastern Ukraine — control it seems to relinquish on a nearly daily basis. Even as Putin threatened the West and invoked Russia’s might, Ukrainian forces soon retook the city of Lyman, which is in one of the regions Russia has annexed.
“Putin is not fighting against Ukraine or even against NATO. He's fighting against reality,” a former Putin speechwriter, Abbas Gallyamov, wrote on Facebook after the speech.
The explosions that damaged the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines last week seemed to provide Putin with another reason to escalate the conflict beyond Eastern Europe —and to lob a fresh round of accusations against the West, which the Kremlin says masterminded the attack.
NATO leaders have said they believe the pipelines — which extend from Russia to Germany — were sabotaged by Russia, both to punish an energy-hungry Europe and to further the Kremlin’s deepening and delusive aura of victimhood. Though the lines weren’t running, the leaks spewed hundreds of thousands tons of methane gas, which flowed into the Baltic Sea.
“It was a deliberate act of sabotage,” President Biden argued. “And now the Russians are pumping out disinformation and lies.”
In her briefing last week, Zakharova seized on a tweet by the former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, in which he thanked the U.S. for destroying the pipeline. “What more proof do you need?” Zakharova wondered when Yahoo News pressed her for evidence of American involvement. “What else is necessary?”
The White House strongly disputed Zakharova’s allegations. “This is ridiculous,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told Yahoo News. “We all know Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation and is doing it again here.”
Biden also dismissed such claims. “When things calm down,” he said, “we’re going to send the divers down to find out exactly what happened. We don’t know that yet, exactly. But just don’t listen to what Putin’s saying. What he’s saying we know is not true.”
The protests against Putin’s war suggest that he has failed to convince many Russians. The bored faces of high-ranking Kremlin officials at the annexation ceremony made much the same point. But with none of his top advisers willing to acknowledge reality, Russia will remain trapped in Putin’s fictions.