Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address last week in Moscow. Most of it was boring, and the remainder was selfish. Lengthy platitudes and indignant expostulations are the natural modes of expression for the leader of an aging regime. But the address deserves more analysis to than it has received. Attention to what the Russian president said, and what he did not say, can give us a sense of what is wrong with the Putin regime, and what might come next. This is the final of three essays.
7. Repetition. President Putin gave his speech at a time when the Russian army was again encamped at the Ukrainian border. He said nothing about this. One can only guess at the purposes of this buildup, but a reasonable hypothesis would seem to be the lack of any better ideas. Elections to the Russian parliament are coming in September, and in the absence of any other plausible source of popularity, why not threaten Ukraine a second time?
Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Vasily Grossman said that you cannot enter the same Gulag transport twice. You also cannot fight the same war twice. Ask the Americans about Iraq.
It turned out that Russians were not as moved this time around by anti-Ukrainian propaganda. In 2014 Russia used a false story of a murdered boy to great effect; this time around a similar story (equally false) drew far less attention. Meanwhile, the problem with access to fresh water in Crimea (discussed in the last post) is very real: given basic facts of geography, which no amount of disinformation can alter, Russia would have to invade more of southern Ukraine to solve it.
This cannot be ruled out, but it would certainly come with higher costs than last time. Despite Putin's militaristic bravado, his system is almost as sensitive to military casualties as a western democracy. During the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it quickly became impossible to report on Russia's war dead, although courageous journalists did their best.
Domestic policy in the Putin regime is essentially impossible, thanks to oligarchy. Foreign policy must substitute for domestic policy. Russian foreign policy is chiefly disinformation. The idea is to make citizens of other countries, especially democracies, believe that their own systems do not work. What Russia actually does abroad should is an element of this disinformation, a sort of prop. In addition to cyberwar, familiar in the United States, this includes taking military action in countries that cannot fight back. But few options of that sort remain. Russian military actions in Ukraine and then Syria were certainly impressive in their execution, but what did they bring Russians over the long term?
And it is the long term that now concerns Putin. He has cleared the way to be president until 2036. Insofar as his address was about any period in time, it was less the 2020s than the 2030s. In other words, the speech was a prediction, or really an embodiment, of an age of stagnation.
Another problem with repetition is that it calls attention to what happened the first time. It now appears that Russia was concerned enough about Ukrainian resistance in 2014 to take action on the territory of NATO members. At the time, Ukraine was trying to buy arms from a Bulgarian arms dealer. In what seems not to have been a coincidence, he was poisoned, and a cache of arms was destroyed in the Czech Republic. The people who died were Czechs. Now a Czech investigation has established a chain of events that leads back to Russian security officers. This serves to remind people that Russia's first invasion of Ukraine had been bloody, and bloodier than we knew. The discovery had special resonance in the United Kingdom, since the Russian officers suspected of the attack in the Czech Republic in 2014 were the same two men accused of carrying out poisonings on British territory in 2018.
8. Geopolitics. Perhaps more worrying for Putin is that Russian propaganda about Ukraine is working less well this time in Europe and America. Although the reaction to the Russian military buildup has been mild, few people take seriously this time around Russian tales about Ukrainian crimes, failed states, nationalists, and the like. When Russian invaded Ukraine in 2014, its chief success was precisely in propaganda. The simple fact of one country invading another was shrouded by a very intelligent internet campaign, with topics and memes aimed at audience vulnerabilities. For whatever reason, this did not work very well the second time around. Russia called a hybrid war in April 2021, but nobody came.
Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has pushed Russia closer to China. This is a geopolitical problem for Russia, and it is of Putin’s making. Russia's geopolitical position depends upon the ability to navigate between the West and China. Putin had his reasons for not mentioning China by name in his address: under his rule, relations with China have grown too close for comfort. In foreign policy, Russia has the problems that it creates and can usually control, namely in its relations with the West. It also has a deep vulnerability that it cannot control, which is its long border with a greater power, China. Tilting too far down the slope towards China is unwise. At some point you cannot climb back out.
Whereas the preferred Russian propaganda move is to speak about nefarious American or European plans to seize Russia's resources, China is the real threat to Russia's resources, and in the long run to Russia's sovereignty. China deals with Russia much the way it deals with Africa: supporting a leader it favors, amused by a corruption it can manage with its vast economic power.
Invading Ukraine made it very hard for Russia, or at least Russia under Putin, to move away from China and back towards the West. Beijing is aware of this and delighted by it. Everything that Putin has done since invading Ukraine has been a distraction from, and an exacerbation of, Russia's real geopolitical problem.
9. Narcissism. Whereas most of the address was boring, the last part was, to put it gently, self-absorbed.
Like tyrants everywhere and at all times, Putin is concerned with the reality that he will not live and rule forever, and is seeking to blame others for the verdicts of the laws of nature and politics. In a long speech, the only people Putin actually mentioned by name are his fellow dictators. His appeals for sympathy were all about them, as though they are the only people who matter. The only place where Putin was truly emotional was towards the end, where he discussed the prospect that dictators somewhere in the world might actually lose their power. This should be troubling for Russians, because it indicates that Putin identifies with foreign dictators more strongly than he does with them, and that sees the whole world through the prism of his own predicament.
It makes matters worse that Putin expresses his fellow feeling for dictators by making things up. Last year Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka lost an election and faced months of protests. Such a scenario for Putin is a nightmare, given his own falling popularity; he issued the wild assertion that what really happened in Belarus was a "coup d'état." This is the same, and by now boring, claim that Putin has made about all popular protests. They all are sponsored by the West, and they are all directed against legitimate rulers, by which he means dictators.
When Putin inveighed against "political assassinations" towards the end of his address, this was a rhetorical tactic: boldly accuse the other side of something outrageous that you just invented, change the subject thereby, make yourself a victim. But this is all wearing very thin. Today, when it is obvious that political assassination is a tool used by Putin rather than against him, it seems like displacement.
On a simple tactical level, it was a mistake to speak of political assassinations, since it draws attention to a hallmark of the Putin regime. It was on Putin's watch, after all, that leading opposition activist Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015 near the Kremlin. And it was his security service that tried to murder Russia's leading opposition politician today, Alexei Navalny.
Political assassinations do take place in Russia, because they are Russian policy. But they serve no Russian purpose. They only serve the purposes of the man who presents himself as the victim. What Russia needs is a reasonable expectation of a peaceful transition of power, ideally by a democratic election. By prolonging his own rule indefinitely, Putin makes a violent outcome more likely. But this has nothing to do with foreign powers. Narcissus perished all on his own.
10. Catastrophism. The world is facing a present disaster, a pandemic. It is facing a coming catastrophe, climate change. The note on which Putin closed was essentially to threaten the world with yet another, so to speak redundant, crisis.
A greatest achievement of Russia, we are to understand, is the devotion of Russian financial and scientific resources to the renewal of the nuclear arms race. In Putin's own words, "standing on combat duty are the latest Avangard hypersonic intercontinental missile systems and the Peresvet combat laser systems, and the first regiment armed with Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles is scheduled to go on combat duty in late 2022." The United States is also deploying new nuclear weapons, and nuclear arms control is a very good idea. But it is strange to speak of such weapons as a source of national pride.
Russian nuclear weapons could incinerate the United States, just as American nuclear weapons could incinerate Russia. This has been true for decades. The claims that new Russian weapons upset the nuclear balance, although they are not true, make nuclear war more rather than less likely, because they make a first strike by both sides just a bit more likely. Leaders should not choose words that make the end of civilization more likely, especially if the motive is personal and petty. Shortly before the last presidential election, Mr. Putin stated that the buildup was about getting attention: "Nobody wanted to talk to us." But it seems a risky and weird gambit for attention. As Russians must understand, these weapons can never be used without Russia being destroyed.
Of course, this would not matter to a tyrant who does not distinguish between the end of Russia and the end of his rule.