30th Jan 2023


Putin's twin aim: to break Ukraine and West's consensus

  • A destroyed car displayed in Donetsk in 2015, now annexed by Russia (Photo: Irina Gorbasyova)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's swift announcement of the so-called "referenda" in the second half of September was just one element of the Kremlin's two-pronged response to international and domestic developments.

Ukraine's counteroffensive, and especially the almost complete liberation of the Kharkiv Oblast, not only laid the groundwork for further liberation of Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories but also angered the right-wing extremist Russian circles.

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They had long argued for more aggressive forms of invasion of Ukraine — entirely denying the right of the Ukrainian nation to exist — and actively pressured Putin to declare a general mobilisation for the war against Ukraine.

While Putin apparently understood the destabilising effect of mobilisation, he did yield to the extremist pressure and declared "partial" mobilisation on 21 September. That became the second element of the Kremlin's two-pronged response to the events in and around Ukraine.

Putin seems to believe that the two-pronged response gives an opportunity to escalate in Ukraine, but, more importantly, to put pressure on the West that assists Ukraine in its defence against the brutal Russian invasion that has already become the deadliest war in Europe since World War Two.

The focus on the Western direction of Russian threats is easy to understand.

Russia has been unable to break the resolve of Ukrainians fighting for their physical survival. Abundant evidence of the inhuman savagery perpetrated by the Russian forces on occupied Ukrainian territories gives Ukrainians no other option than to fight back — for them, surrender means rape, torture and murder.

But the Kremlin believes — and not without reason — that even if it cannot break Ukraine, it can try and break the West.

To this end, the Kremlin resorts to energy blackmail and, even more maliciously, to the nuclear blackmail, of which Elon Musk, whose sources of information most likely include Russian state-controlled media such as RT, became the most recent victim.

However, the Kremlin aims not only to undermine Western support for Ukraine, but also to weaken the West itself by subverting its ideological foundation, the liberal-democratic consensus.

The 2008 global financial crisis and the 2015 European migrant crisis gave Putin an idea that the capitalist West was extremely vulnerable, and that Russia — while being economically and militarily weaker than the collective West — could still leverage with it through political manipulations, propaganda and disinformation.

And it has been a long tradition for Putin's regime to give political, media and sometimes financial support to anti-establishment and anti-liberal forces in the West, as well as anti-Western political forces in the rest of the world.

Considering the international context, these forces constitute the main audiences of Putin's annexation speech.

One audience is the combination of anti-system radicals of leftwing and rightwing persuasion who praise the idea of sovereignty, which in practice means rejection of Euro-Atlantic solidarity and liberalism.

Putin seemed to talk directly to the electorates of European 'sovereigntists' when he argued that "the American elite" wanted "to destroy nation states" and "identities of France, Italy, Spain and other countries with centuries-long histories".

And he surely played up to conspiracy theorists when he insisted that alleged attempts of "the dictatorship of the Western elites" to overthrow "faith and traditional values", as well as "suppress freedom", resembled "pure Satanism".

The other international audience of Putin's annexation speech is the so-called "Global South". For this audience, Putin put on the shining armour of anti-colonialism. He presented Russia — ironically, the largest colonial empire still in existence today — as the leader of the "emancipatory, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony" that he believes takes shape across the world and "will determine our future geopolitical reality".

It was hardly the first time that Putin adopted radically anti-Western positions, but his annexation speech also had a new element — an implicit revolutionary aspect of his anti-Westernism: "The ongoing collapse of Western hegemony is irreversible. And I repeat: things will never be the same."

UN? What UN?

Putin is blatantly open about his ambitions to dismantle the post-WW2 international order, and while he still refers to the UN Charter in his endeavour to justify the annexation of Ukrainian regions, he does not hide his rejection of the UN principles: "The West is insisting on a rules-based order. Where did that come from anyway? Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them?"

The leader of the country that holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council should naturally know that the rules he questions are enshrined in the UN Charter that is absolutely clear on annexations: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state".

But for Putin the time is ripe for a revolution against the UN principles and the rules-based international order, and Ukraine is just one of the stages in his quest.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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