A year after the start of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has been unable to provide any solutions to the key issues faced by the Russian state. What is the end goal of his “special military operation”? How can the constant escalation of war and the increasing number of its victims, despite any significant successes on the front, be explained? When will the war end and is Putin even able to put an end to it? Finally, if everything is going according to plan and an endless war awaits us, then what rules should the Russian society live by now?
The answers to these questions are required from Putin not so much by the political opposition, whose members have either left the country or been imprisoned, as by “the party of war”, whose representatives think that the public did not take well to the social mobilisation carried out with the angle of “historic tasks to confront the global West”. TV propaganda predicted that the 21 February address would be a traditionally historic speech by Putin, in which he would finally give the command to “take Berlin for real”.
These answers are awaited by the former “Putin’s majority” that is trying to adapt to the life in wartime Russia and ensure at least some predictability in their lives, as well as the safety of their families. No answers were provided either to the so-called representatives of the Russian elite, who cannot decide how big of a military-patriotic wager they should be making.
While the mayor of Moscow poses in camouflage once every three months and is taking part in the renovation of Luhansk, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev sees himself as the head of a virtual fascist junta that is threatening the entire world through Telegram posts.
Furthermore, there is no shared understanding of what is going on among the figures representing Putin’s regime, who listened to their president’s address from the first row and gave him 53 rounds of applause, including several standing ovations.
Putin’s main domestic political product was the so-called stability. Now, the chaos he has been sewing in the world for many years has become the defining factor of life in Russia itself. No one knows what new sacrifices are expected tomorrow for the sake of the war: lives of their loved ones, their careers, or their property. Under these circumstances, the main survival strategy is driven by biological reflexes — a significant number of Russians are playing dead.
The address to the Federal Assembly has renewed this ambiguity for the next season. Putin avoided key questions and preferred to focus on familiar topics. The president’s speech had no mention of war losses, however, a big part of it was dedicated to “social support measures”, quite modest in terms of real money. The Russian treasury no longer has the means to resort to its former generosity of its national projects and COVID pay-outs era, something that Finance Minister Siluanov, who was present in the room listening to his president’s speech, knows all too well.
Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly. Photo: Getty Images
Putin described Russia as the country of big opportunities, using the rhetoric of the pre-war era, mentioned infrastructure projects, and promised a huge new partnership in the East. But no one knows for certain what these opportunities entail. What happened on 24 February 2022 showed even the most loyal Russians that any future plans can be ruined by a sudden geopolitical fit based not so much on rational calculations as on Putin’s “geopolitical messiahship”.
Over the last year, Putin and his inner circle did not find the time to explain in detail the reasons for a global war that they are recruiting Russians for. The 21 February speech did not lead to a breakthrough on this topic either, except for Putin insinuating that the entire problem lies in the Church of England’s attempt to promote a “gender-neutral god”.
Meanwhile, the Russian god, we are to understand, has clear sexual characteristics, so it is defending the god’s right to keep them that is the reason for missile attacks on Ukrainian cities.
To the clear dismay of his own propaganda mouthpieces, Putin did not announce a change in the “special military operation” status and did not declare any concrete plans to use nuclear weapons. The speech in general was somewhat demoralising for those who were waiting for the commander-in-chief to give an order to press the button. Instead, Putin delivered an address from the past: despite some difficulties, for example, the administrative hurdles our businesses are facing, everything is going according to plan and there is nothing to worry about. The exact goal of the war will be established by qualified professionals. In the meanwhile, Russian people together with their wise leader can enjoy grand plans for the future. In particular, the next presidential elections will be held on time, in 2024, and as always will be conducted “in a democratic manner and in accordance with the procedures”. This statement showcases an attempt to give the promise of stability to his subjects, because the results of these democratic procedures are crystal clear to everyone. Still, the population of Russia does not seem to be expecting a celebration of democracy: they are wary of the second wave of mobilisation instead.
Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev upon signing the New START treaty in Prague, 8 April 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0
The speech ended, as always, on the topic of nuclear war, but even this declaration he put almost no enthusiasm into. Putin stated that Russia would unilaterally suspend its participation in the Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START). He added that the Kremlin can now resume nuclear tests, “if the US does it, as they are planning to”.
To sum up, Putin is not only conducting a criminal war against Ukraine, but also leading the world several decades into the past, towards the worst years of the Cold War, when two nuclear superpowers directly threatened each other and humanity as a whole with total destruction. The only difference is that currently, the Russian president wields no superpower. Without any clear explanation of the current situation, Russia under Putin is destroying its own future in demographic, social, and economic terms.
US President Biden’s visit to Kyiv the day before Putin’s “historic speech” shows that the West realised the Kremlin’s unwillingness to have a dialogue and is now betting on the economic and military defeat of Putin. These days, Ukrainians, unlike Russians, have all the answers to their existential questions. They know why they are fighting, against whom, and what for.
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