Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly calling the war in Ukraine an epic struggle for Russian survival, accusing the West of “using Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia and a testing ground.”
The West started the war, he said, and Russia has something to lose, even though all available evidence points to Putin launching an unprovoked invasion in an effort to overthrow the Ukrainian government.
As Russia’s losses mount, some analysts say Putin is using a psychological tool to draw his people into a conflict with no end in sight.
“It’s nice to think that Russia is opposing a hegemon rather than invading a smaller neighbor,” said Kadri Liik, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
She said that Putin “tied his political and potential physical fate to the war” and is trying to frame the violent conflict in a way that bolsters his support.
In numerous speeches, the Russian leader relied on a verbal strategy to deal with losses. Given the Kremlin’s extensive media control, Russians are “increasingly interpreting this as a confrontation between Russia and the West, making it more psychologically acceptable,” Liik added.
Putin highlighted the threat from the United States and NATO’s Western security alliance before his troops entered Ukraine in February 2022. Last fall, the Russian president delved into the do-or-die call by announcing a partial mobilization that sent hundreds of thousands of people. military reserves to the front line.
In his address to the Federal Assembly last month after a year of war, Putin more directly opposed the Russian people to NATO.
He lamented that before the war, Russia was only looking for guarantees of peace and security, and these attempts were rejected by Western elites. He resented the West’s “enslavement” of Ukraine, which he considers historically part of Russia, and yelled that the US was demanding Moscow’s defeat and seeking to plunder Russian resources.
“Over the long centuries of colonialism, diktat and hegemony, they got used to the fact that they can do everything, they got used to spitting on the whole world,” Putin said. “The threat grew every day.
“Let me reiterate that they were the ones who started this war, and we used force and are using it to stop the war,” he added. “We protect human lives and our common home, and the West seeks unlimited power.”
It remains difficult to gauge broader public opinion about the war after Russia passed a tough law last year that forbids anyone from speaking out about “discrediting” the military, and authorities sniffing out signs of protest. But Putin’s setup seems effective.
Sergei Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the February speech was “quite liked” by Russian audiences, presenting the war in Ukraine as a defensive mission.
“Stories about the decline of the West are the stuff sold in Russia,” he said. “After months and months of hostilities in Ukraine, people have problems [seeing] how it all started.”
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is increasing focus on “American hegemony.”
“Russia must stand against this wayward country trying to dominate the world,” Kupchan said of Putin’s allegations. “This is a narrative that has received some support in expressing broader discomfort with Western colonialism.”
“There are grains of factually accurate statements,” he continued, “but he uses them as launching pads for distorted nationalist narratives that have nothing to do with reality.”
James Nixey, program director for Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House, called the February speech “a surreal experience.”
“It’s like living in an alternate reality,” he said. “This is an absolutely concocted fantasy so that the correctness of Russia is understood by everyone and no one has any hesitation.”
Several of Putin’s speeches last year also focused on cultural messages.
The depiction of the neo-Nazi government holding Ukraine hostage has been the focus of his public appearances. Last month, he compared the West to the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 20th century and said the Western allies “paved the way” for Nazi Germany.
Putin has also promoted false reports of rampant pedophilia in Western countries – mostly targeting LGBTQ groups – presenting it as yet another pending attack on Russian culture if the West gets its way.
“Look what they are doing to their people,” Putin said in his February speech. “It’s all about the destruction of the family, cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including pedophilia, all this is declared a normal phenomenon in their lives.”
Some of the messages are directed to those outside of Russia, analysts say, and they may nod in response to cultural questions. This may increase his support from an international audience that does not support him in Ukraine but agrees with his cultural critique of liberals and Western power.
Moreover, Putin, who is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for supporting the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, is trying to maintain enough domestic Russian support to ensure his own survival.
The Russian elites are increasingly disenfranchised by the war after the setbacks in Ukraine, according to Leik of the European Council on Foreign Relations, although they acknowledge the difficulty of retreating at this late stage in the conflict.
Henk Gumans, director of the Peter D. Watson Center for Conflict and Cooperation at the University of Rochester, said Putin has consolidated a lot of power but could ultimately be threatened by rival power factions.
“This is a dangerous game,” Goemans said. “I’m not sure yet [Putin’s power] it is enough that he is really safe after a serious setback in Ukraine.”
Despite his rhetoric, there are signs that Putin is refraining from total isolation with the West.
In a speech last month, he announced the suspension of New START, the US-Russia nuclear deal that limited the number of weapons of mass destruction for both countries and allowed for inspections of key facilities.
It is noteworthy that Putin chose to suspend the treaty rather than withdraw from it entirely.
Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, said Putin showed “a certain amount of prudence and professionalism” in suspending the treaty rather than canceling it.
“Hopefully this means that Putin already sees how we can get back to business,” he said, adding that the Russian leader “is starting to realize that he is not going to [achieve his original goals] and may have to settle for less.”
But it is not clear what Putin will do to end the war. The start of the invasion last year made it clear that he hoped to capture Kyiv within a few weeks and possibly set up a puppet government.
After Russian forces have been pushed out of western Ukraine, troops continue to fight deadly battles of attrition in the eastern region of the country.
Last fall, Putin illegally annexed four regions in the south and east: Kherson, Zaporozhye, Donetsk and Luhansk, all of which he is now unlikely to give up and for which Ukraine has said it will continue to fight.
With a hard-to-understand compromise, Putin’s “lose formation” helps ensure support even as his troops continue to flounder in Ukraine.
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Unless Russia expands its fighting into NATO countries, the threat of an attack from the West is absurd, according to analysts interviewed by The Hill for this article. But Goemans of the University of Rochester said a defeat in Ukraine would be “a real challenge to Russian identity.”
“The social identity is very much mixed with Ukraine,” he said. “It will be incredibly difficult for Russians to accept these things. That these are two different states and two different peoples.”
“The defeat in Ukraine will be a fundamental challenge to the fundamental principles of Russian identity.”
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