Russian President Vladimir Putin said at least one thing Thursday that few could take issue with.
“Ahead is probably the most dangerous, unpredictable and, at the same time, important decade since the end of the Second World War,” Putin said. The war in Ukraine, he said (though he still wouldn’t call it a “war”) is only a part of the “tectonic shifts of the entire world order.”
After that, a much-anticipated speech veered to standard tropes of Kremlin misinformation (Ukraine is not a legitimate nation; the West caused the war) and some new variants (“The West” is a geographic entity marred by “dozens of genders” and “neoliberal elites.’’). Along the way, Putin managed to both reassure the world that he did not plan to use his nuclear arsenal — and stoke new fears that he would do exactly that.
The occasion was Putin’s annual address and question-and-answer session to the Valdai Discussion Club, a group named for its proximity to a lake of the same name. The “Valdai address” has been given since 2004, and it has become a tradition and chance to hear what might, for lack of a better term, be known as “the worldview according to Vladimir Putin.” Its length often rivals stemwinders from the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the questions are generally understood to be prescreened and vetted by the Kremlin.
But ever since Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine eight months ago, the world has paid particularly close attention to even snippets of PutinSpeak — and so when the time came for the 2022 edition of the Valdai address, it wasn’t just Russians and traditional Russia-watchers who were tuning in.
For those expecting a long and classic Putinist rant against Ukraine and its supporters, it didn’t disappoint. Thursday’s session ran for nearly four hours, and it featured those old and new assaults on the West. But it also included at least one headline that could be called “good news” (more on that below), and one exchange during the Q & A session that seemed almost unscripted.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the event’s moderator, asked Putin about the invasion and the view inside Russia that the Kremlin may have “underestimated the enemy.”
“Honestly, society doesn’t understand,” Lukyanov said. “What’s the plan?”
To which the Russian leader replied with a piece of misinformation — perhaps more charitably, extreme “spin” — that he had not used before. Ukraine’s strong resistance, Putin said, was proof that the Russian invasion had been necessary in the first place. Had he waited longer to give the orders, Putin said, “the worse it would have been for us, the more difficult and more dangerous.”
“No need” for nuclear weapons
Putin gave the world what seemed like a welcome headline Thursday: He insisted he had no intentions of using nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
Russia had “never said anything proactively about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia,” Putin said, adding that, “We see no need. There is no point in that, neither political nor military.”
The remark followed several days of unfounded claims from senior Russian officials that Ukraine plans to detonate a so-called “dirty bomb” — a conventional explosive laced with radioactive, biological or chemical materials — inside its borders, and then blame Moscow for doing so. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly denied the report and expressed fears that the Kremlin intends to use the disinformation as a pretext to use a nuclear weapon on their territory.
Putin repeated the dirty bombs claim Thursday, but then said that his own earlier remarks about using “all means available to protect Russia” had never been intended as a response to the West. In fact, he said, it was the West that had heightened nuclear tensions.
“We are being blackmailed,” he said, claiming that former British Prime Minister Liz Truss and other Western leaders had threatened Russia with a nuclear attack.
The world may be jaded when it comes to Putin’s rhetoric and truth-stretching; here it’s worth noting that Putin has, since the very first weekend of the war, made repeated thinly-veiled threats to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He hasn’t so much rattled the saber as brandished and swung it publicly. And while Putin reminded the world Thursday that Russia’s military doctrine mandates that nuclear weapons must only be deployed defensively “to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people,” Putin has used very similar justifications for his war on Ukraine.
And while it was good to hear Putin tell the world that there was no reason for Russia to use its nuclear weapons, he said almost exactly the same thing in January about the idea of invading Ukraine. Soon after, he ordered his forces in.
A war against “the West”
When the history of the war in Ukraine is written, there will be a chapter worth including (if not an entire volume) about the way the Kremlin has moved the goal posts in making its case for war.
Putin hasn’t just shifted in terms of tactics and strategy; he’s changed his definition of the enemy as well.
At the outset, this “special military operation” was launched to protect Russians from a “Nazi” regime, leaders who were carrying out a “genocide” against Russians in Ukraine. It wasn’t a “war” because it didn’t need to be; the job could be accomplished in short order. No special callup of forces would be necessary.
As Grid has reported, Putin’s description of the enemy has evolved in tandem with the troubles his Army has faced. Today, almost no speech about the war — whether delivered by Putin or the rabid “patriots” who appear on Russian television — comes without a diatribe against the real enemy: “the West.” It was the West which moved NATO closer to the frontiers of Russia; it is the West that is sending weapons to Ukraine. So far, so true.
But now, in the Putin worldview, the West is the enemy because of its global hegemonic aims; on Thursday Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to dictate their terms to other nations in “dangerous, bloody and dirty” ways.
The world has reached a crossroads, Putin told the Valdai group, a moment when “the West is no longer able to dictate its will to the humankind but still tries to do it, and the majority of nations no longer want to tolerate it. … The historical period of undivided dominance of the West in world affairs is coming to an end.”
When war in Ukraine meets the culture wars
If the charge of Western global domination was meant to gain favor in other parts of the world, Putin’s next argument took aim at a different constituency: the culture warriors in the United States.
His Valdai address veered from talk of an actual military conflict to a conflict involving homosexuality and other “western values” which Putin suggested are worth fighting. Here the Russian leader sought to distinguish between a good “West,” and another which he sees as anything but.
“There are at least two Wests,” Putin said. The one he admires is the West of “traditional, mainly Christian values.”
The other West? Here the Russian leader unleashed a torrent of adjectives. “Aggressive.” “Cosmopolitan.” “Neocolonial.” The “cosmopolitan” Western elites, Putin said, are the ones who seek global domination, the ones with their “pretty strange” values that bring “gay parades” and “dozens of genders” to communities who don’t want them.
It got worse. In a riff on what he called “Western cancel culture,” Putin compared the West to Nazi Germany. Some Western communities and individuals (not many, and no governments) have argued against buying the work of any Russian artists or authors. Putin said this reminded him of what Hitler had done.
“Back in their days, Nazis went as far as to burn books,” Putin said. “Right now, the Western champions of liberalism and progress have slipped into banning [Fyodor] Dostoevsky and [Pyotr Ilyich] Tchaikovsky.”
Somehow a dialogue about “special military operation” against “Nazis” in Ukraine had morphed into a call to protect traditional Christian values and a malicious equivalence between “the West” and Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, inside Ukraine …
Given all the above-mentioned detours, there wasn’t that much room — even though the event went as long as it did — for detail about the circumstances inside the war zone.
Putin insisted that he had no regrets about sending troops into Ukraine, and he repeated one claim that predates the war itself — that Ukraine is an “artificial state.”
He said he thinks constantly of the casualties Russia has suffered in Ukraine, but gave no updated figures (Russia hasn’t provided a casualty account since September) and again blamed the West for leaving him no choice but to send his troops to fight.
And he touched on that other nuclear issue — the charges that Russian forces have not only occupied but also fired on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine. These, he said, were “ravings.”
“They say the International Atomic Energy Agency wants to come and check Ukraine’s nuclear facilities,” Putin said. “We are in favor.”
Just the facts
Nothing Putin said today will improve attitudes toward the Russian leader in that den of evil he calls “the West.” Certainly it won’t win a single heart and mind inside Ukraine.
Not surprisingly, Putin’s speech drew derisive responses in Ukraine, where officials referred reporters to the facts. Russia invaded a sovereign nation and started a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers on the two sides. It’s the biggest war in Europe since World War II. Credible allegations of Russian war crimes have been made in multiple Ukrainian towns and villages.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Putin was accusing the West of violating another country’s sovereignty — when that was precisely what he himself had done.
“Any speech by Putin can be described in two words: ‘for Freud,’” Mr. Podolyak posted on Twitter.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.