Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot accept that his incompetent army has failed in its invasion of Ukraine.
So he’s desperately trying to spin a story to his people that they’re already at war with the West.
First, Putin insisted his invasion was to “de-nazify” the Kyiv-based Ukraine government – despite President Volodymyr Zelensky being a Jew.
Then, once his three-day invasion began dragging on for months, his war was recast as a “holy crusade” battling the “forces of Satan”.
Now, as the conflict approaches its third year, Putin is having to find a fresh argument to appease a general public struggling to come to grips with a horrific death toll.
“Ukraine itself is not our enemy,” Putin told a soldier while visiting a hospital for war wounded. “Those who want to destroy Russian statehood and to achieve a strategic defeat of Russia on the battlefield are mainly in the West.”
Putin then attempted to recast his war as Russia’s eternal ideological struggle.
“The point is not that they (the West) are helping our enemy. They are our enemy,” he said. “They are solving their own problems with their hands. That is what it is all about. Unfortunately, this has been the case for centuries and continues to be the case today.”
Analysts for the US-based think-tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believe Putin’s rhetoric is a sign the war is no closer to ending.
Instead, his words display “an effort to set conditions for permanent Russian military build-up and to justify high battlefield sacrifices.”
“Putin’s statements likely suggest that he is preparing a long-term justification to keep forces mobilized and engaged in combat for the perpetual defense of Russia’s sovereignty against the West,” it concludes.
A high blood price. But what’s the product?
“Though it has been their (the West’s) goal to deal with Russia from time immemorial, we will deal with them faster,” Putin assured the wounded during his hospital visit.
“And the most important thing we have is … the unity of our people and society. Because there is an understanding of how important your job on the battlefield is in the armed struggle for our country and our future.”
That, Russian analysts believe, is the whole point of Putin’s latest spin.
“The war in Ukraine created an entirely new political reality for the Kremlin and prompted the enshrining of a revamped ideological foundation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule,” argues Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Andrei Kolesnikov.
Now, Putin is all about “traditional spiritual and moral values.”
And his totalitarian government, says Kolesnikov, “requires a certain degree of self-justification.”
But Putin’s previous proclamations of “denazifying” Ukraine and “battling the forces of satan” are no longer enough.
A recent declassified US intelligence report estimates Russian casualties (dead and wounded) since the start of the war in February 2022 to be about 315,000.
Ukraine’s losses remain classified.
But they are also believed to be devastatingly high.
“Such high casualties for small territorial gains are likely prompting Putin to present a strong and ideological justification to continue the prolonged war of choice on which he has launched Russia,” the ISW analysts agree. “Ukraine needs no such contorted justifications for the high losses and suffering that Putin’s invasion is inflicting on its people, even when Ukraine’s military operations do not produce the desired results. The war really is existential for Ukraine as it is not for Russia.”
“The Putin regime has put in place a permanent government and highly personalized style of semi-totalitarian rule,” argues Kolesnikov. “Such a regime requires the enshrinement of basic ideological precepts and historical justifications for its despotism, all of which must also be spread to the masses.”
It also explains the constant stream of outlandish and implausible claims voiced by Kremlin propagandists.
“The messages pushed by the Putin regime’s leading ideologists increasingly resemble caricatures,” Kolesnikov states. “Indeed, the less credible the information, the more willing Putin’s ideologists are to use it.”
One recent accusation by long-term Putin associate Security Council chief Nikolai Patruschev states that “Anglo-Saxon elites” believe Siberia to be the safest refuge from an impending eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano in the western United States. And that, Patruschev insists, is why the West wants to invade Russia.
Other such extraordinary claims include Poland having secret territorial designs over Belarus and Ukraine.
And Finland wanted to seize a broad swath of northern Russia.
But none of this masks Russia as being the state that invaded a neighbor.
“The pattern is as self-serving as it is clumsy and implausible,” says Kolesnikov.
“All of this may look like empty political talk, but such claims serve several purposes all at once. They are simultaneously a means of delivering ideology (and) the instruments that are used to define and create it … In the hands of the Kremlin, ideology under Putin is both a political strategy and the product of its employment.”
The Kremlin relies on stories designed to support slogans such as “We are not the same as everybody else!” “We have a special DNA!” “We are fighting godlessness and the enemies on our country’s Western borders!” “We have to defend ourselves by reclaiming our ancient territories and ‘liberating’ them!’”
“In short, the best defense of the beleaguered Russian nation is offense,” says Kolesnikov.
Signs and portents
“They (the West) have been nurturing the Kyiv regime for quite a long time, precisely to create this conflict,” Putin proclaimed. “Unfortunately for us, they have achieved this: they started this conflict and are trying to achieve their objective, namely the task of fighting Russia.”
His goal, the ISW analysts believe, is to convince his troops – and public – that the unexpectedly successful resistance by Ukraine was to be expected.
That the battle had always been against Europe and the United States.
And that the fighting must continue.
Former New Zealand diplomat Ian Hill argues in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter that Putin is displaying renewed confidence amid support from his allies in China and North Korea, and the US Republican Party’s opposition towards rearming Ukraine.
“The war in Ukraine may be deadlocked for now, but Putin thinks it’s going Moscow’s way,” he writes. “Economic stability, coupled with tough domestic controls reinforced by pervasive propaganda, has ensured political quiescence within Russia. Surveys indicate the war in Ukraine is increasingly unpopular with Russians. But there’s no sign yet this jeopardises the regime’s secure hold on power.”
President Putin recently asserted that Moscow had recruited an extra 486,000 men for the army in 2023.
He states that they will be equipped and trained in time for a new major offensive in 2024.
With the failure of international sanctions to cripple his economy, his greatest challenge is now to motivate his populace.
“Having failed to chart a workable path for Russia’s future and having lost a race with the so-called global West and a rising global East centered on China, Putin’s regime is unable to abandon its leadership ambitions,” concludes Kolesnikov. “Instead it is directing all of its energy into clawing its way back to a storied past.”