Putin’s annexation speech: more angry taxi driver than head of state

The Guardian
The Guardian

Eight-and-a-half years after Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea, he gathered the elites of Russia in the Kremlin’s St George Hall for another land-grab ceremony: this time laying claim to four more Ukrainian regions.

The annexation formalities were preceded by an angry, rambling speech that dwelled only briefly on either Ukraine or the four regions of which Russia now claims ownership. Instead, Putin railed at the west for a litany of sins, ranging from destabilising Russia in the 17th century to allowing gender reassignment surgery.

He also reiterated his threat to use nuclear weapons, claiming the US had “created a precedent” for the use of nuclear force in 1945.

Friday’s speech is likely to go down as another milestone in Putin’s long reign over Russia. And while it was the same hall, the same crowd and the same message as the Crimea annexation in March 2014, the context is very different.

Then, Putin carried much of Russia’s elite and society with him, on a wave of patriotic fervour boosted by state television propaganda. Outside Russia, while many were shocked at the naked land grab, others felt Putin had a point: after Iraq and Libya, how could the west lecture others on violating sovereignty? Many European politicians wanted to get back to business as usual with Russia as quickly as possible.

This time, the domestic and international situations are far less favourable for Putin. At home, he has embarked on an unpopular mobilisation drive, prompting hundreds of thousands of Russians to try to leave the country. The improvements in quality of life that the first years of Putinism brought are drying up amid sanctions and international isolation.

Since February, the Russian leader has become an international outcast, with even non-western leaders rebuking his blatant aggression in Ukraine, undermining his claims on Friday to speak for the whole non-western world.

In 2014, he railed at the hypocrisy of western politicians who “call something white today and black tomorrow”, and many nodded along.

Today, he offered an angrier but less coherent denunciation of the west, more angry taxi driver than head of state. “They don’t want us to be free, they want us to be a colony; they don’t want equal partnership, they want to steal from us,” he said.

Putin veered from denouncing the “totalitarianism, despotism and apartheid” of today’s west, to bringing up the historical pillaging of India, the bombing of Dresden at the end of the second world war and the “many genders” in fashion in the west.

Russia’s mission, he said, was to “defend our children from monstrous experiments designed to destroy their consciousness and their souls”.

Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Twitter: “Putin’s speech is a set of unbelievably illiterate conspiracy cliches that 30 years ago could be read in marginal national-patriotic newspapers.

“Now it has become the policy of the former superpower, which even in the days of the Soviet leaders could not afford such a discourse.”

On Ukraine, Putin said Russia was “ready for negotiations”, but immediately followed this with an insistence that the annexed territories would be part of Russia “forever” and could not be part of any talks.

Ukraine has already said it will ignore the annexations and continue its military campaign to regain territory. Kyiv believes any “ceasefire” would simply give Russia time to regroup before a renewed assault.

After all, in his March 2014 speech, Putin explicitly ruled out seizing more territory: “Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea … We do not need this.”

And yet, here they were, back in the St George Hall, applauding as four more Moscow-appointed puppet leaders signed over their regions to Moscow.

But annexation involves more than pieces of paper, and while in 2014 Russia had just carried out a swift and stealthy military operation to seize Crimea, this time things are far less clear-cut. Fighting continues in and around all four of the regions Russia is claiming, prompting the mobilisation order.

Putin’s speech left unanswered almost all the key questions about what might happen next. His spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, could not say on Friday morning whether Russia was claiming all of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, or only the parts of them it already controls, promising to “clarify” this later. The speech left us none the wiser.

Friday’s audience, predominantly older men with security and military backgrounds, grimly applauded their leader. But many in the Russian political elite are aghast at the events of the past few months, even if they have not made their criticisms public. They also remain in the dark about how events might develop.

“Nobody knows what happens next, it’s clear there is no grand strategy,” said one Moscow source, a well-connected political insider. “If one thing doesn’t work, we will try something else, and nobody knows where it will lead. Decisions are taken in the head of one man.”

While Putin has talked for two decades about the west’s desire to destroy Russia, the intensity and repetition with which he tackled the subject on Friday suggests this is not just political theatre: he has become a true believer.

What this means for the biggest question of all remains unclear. Does this fervour make him more or less likely to use nuclear weapons? Are his threats a bluff, or not? Again, those in Moscow are no better informed than the rest of us.

“Nobody knows. I doubt if he knows yet either, to be honest,” the source said.

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Precious Little MAGA Snowflakes

Putin is making America, the EU and NATO great again. lmao


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