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 second of three essays.
4. Amorality. In these annual addresses President Putin used to make a habit of citing Russian fascists, as I and others pointed put. This practice seems to have been brought to an end. This year we are left with the vague idea that Western countries have lost their "spiritual and moral values," whereas Russia has held to them. Generally this means that people in the West are gay and Russians are straight, but even this was not specified this time around.
The issue in Putin's address was the quantity of Russians rather than their qualities. His major topic was that there are not enough Russians in the world, which is of course a sexual anxiety, if not directly expressed. Such worries about demography are the common currency of the far right; there is nothing at all Russian about them. The fact that demography has now been constitutionalized, as Putin mentioned, just shows that the far right is in power in Russia.
The speech ended with vague threats against foreign powers who do not understand Russian values. But it is hard to understand Russian values when the country's problem of today, covid, is misrepresented, and its problem of the century, oligarchy, is unmentioned. It is harder still when the country's president says only that Russia is easily angered by various unnamed things and reacts asymmetrically.
Putin mentioned red lines but also said that their location is unknown. That is just not what it means to draw a red line. To draw a red line means, well, drawing it, not just waving the uncapped red marker in the air. Unpredictable ire is not a value, and certainly not a moral one. It is just a confession that the state does not function according to laws or principles; in other words, that it is a tyranny.
5. Ukraine. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, demography was also a vexing issue. Russian leaders of the USSR were troubled that Russians might become a minority in what they thought of, at some level, as their country. Their concerns were chiefly about the southern republics of the USSR and their Muslim populations. In the last Soviet census, in 1989, Russians were a bare majority of the population. In this situation, the existence of Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet republics gave some comfort. If Ukrainians and Belarusians were added together with Russians, then a clear "Slavic" majority could at least be counted. Accordingly, Ukrainian and Belarusian communists were entrusted with important positions, alongside Russians, in governing the Soviet Union's outer reaches.
In Soviet times, Ukrainians were portrayed as the second nation of the USSR, in a special if subordinate relationship to Russians. But the existence of a Ukrainian nation was not in doubt. Since 1991, and especially under Putin, this has changed. Russian propaganda, especially since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, has taken a much more heavily colonial line, claiming that Ukrainians cannot run their own state, or should perhaps not be seen as a people at all.
By annexing Ukrainian territory in that war, Putin bound his country's future and his own to a story or stories about Ukraine: that it must fail, or did not exist, or was governed by nationalists, or maybe fascists, or was populated by Russians who wanted unity with Russia. Most of this is contradictory and none of it is true. Ukraine had a Jewish prime minister for years and now has a Jewish president; it will be a long time before any other country (besides Israel!) manages that.
But some of this Putin might actually believe. He does seem to think that there is a strong pro-Russia party in Ukraine, which is just not the case. By invading Ukraine, Putin chose to end the friendly feelings many Ukrainians felt towards Russia. But it seems that this miscalculation can lead to further mistakes.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin already had a friendly ruler, Viktor Yanukovych, who was willing to do almost everything Moscow wanted. But Russia pushed Yanukovych to do something that was vastly unpopular in Ukraine, namely break ties with the European Union. Russian pressure momentarily changed Ukraine's foreign policy, at the price of huge popular protest. When Yanukovych's government killed protestors, he fled to country, to Russia naturally. Today Russia has a president in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won an election while promising to seek peace with Russia. But Russia has made the same mistake again. It demands things of Ukrainian leaders that they simply cannot do in a democracy. Russian leaders who believe neither in democracy nor in Ukraine cannot grasp this. Putin has made Zelensky's promises of peace seem impossible by massing forces at the Ukrainian border. Now Zelensky has no choice but to present himself as a wartime president and seek aid from the West.
6. Overreach. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 seemed to many Russians like a triumph at the time. Russia had pushed Yanukovych to use violence against protestors, and then he had fled. Ukraine was in a confusing interregnum, and the Ukrainian armed forces did not at first react to the Russian invasion. Western governments also urged Ukraine not to fight. Russia overran and claimed the Crimean Peninsula, the part of southern Ukraine that juts out into the Black Sea, and managed to destabilize two further Ukrainian regions in the extreme southeast.
This has been a disaster for Ukraine: thousands killed, two million internal refugees, a disrupted economy. But it has been something of a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. It satisfied a short-term political goal by giving Russians a sense of triumph. But just a bit of additional empire has been difficult and costly for Russia to manage.
The boundaries of Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states are inheritances from the Soviet Union. The Crimean peninsula is part of Ukraine today because it was part of Soviet Ukraine before 1991. The area was the historical homeland of the Crimean Tatars, who were ethnically cleansed by Soviet power in 1944. In 1954 Crimea was transferred from one part of the Soviet Union to another, from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet republic. This move was made with much fanfare, as a sign of the eternal friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. In fact, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine for practical reasons. From the point of view of Russia, Crimea is an island. There is no land connection between Russia and Crimea. From the point of view of Ukraine, Crimea is a peninsula. Soviet leaders understood that it would be far easier to supply Crimea with electricity and water from Ukraine, and scored some propaganda points along the way.
Because of its strategic position in the Black Sea, Crimea was an important site for bases of the Russian imperial navy and then the Soviet navy. Russia inherited those bases after the end of the Soviet Union. In treaty negotiations with Ukraine in 2010, it was able to preserve the basing rights for the next twenty-five years. Four years later Russia invaded Ukraine anyway. Now that contemporary Russia has conquered Crimea for itself, its rule is logistically problematic. It had the bases before it invaded, and it still has the bases, but it cannot really govern the region. It has been unable to supply the inhabitants of Crimea with fresh water.
That seems like a clear sign of imperial overstretch. But it is only the beginning of the geopolitical difficulty. To be continued…