With risks rising at home, Putin takes anti-Western rhetoric to new heights | Mint

With risks rising at home, Putin takes anti-Western rhetoric to new heights

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: AP)

Summary

Groping for support, Putin also embraces new right-wing allies that he once shunned

MOSCOW : While celebrating the seizure of more Ukrainian lands Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a diatribe against the West, saying that its elites are undermining faith, family, Russia and promoting “outright satanism."

But his most important audience was closer to home—millions of Russians, some of them uneasy about the riskiness of his venture in Ukraine.

Public opinion in Russia doesn’t have the same importance as it does in the West, but the Kremlin monitors Mr. Putin’s popularity ratings closely, especially now after he issued the unpopular order to mobilize 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine.

In his 22 years of rule, Mr. Putin has often upped his anti-Western rhetoric when he feels threatened. That appears to be why alleged evils of the U.S. and its allies took up a large chunk of speeches delivered at a pomp-filled ceremony at the Kremlin and at a choreographed concert in Red Square on Friday.

Facing losses on the battlefield as well as dissent over a mobilization at home, Mr. Putin also reached for some new ultranationalist comrades and messaging in an effort to appeal to Russian pride and rally the country for what is likely to be a protracted war effort.

The festivities recalled the 2014 celebration around Russia’s seizure of Crimea, a nearly bloodless affair that vaulted Mr. Putin’s popularity to new heights and made him a hero to Russian irredentists, political analysts say. Like in 2014, Mr. Putin signed treaties with the four heads of the newly-acquired territories in the Kremlin’s St. George hall, once used by the czars.

On Friday, an unsmiling Mr. Putin signed each of the treaties and then handed them to guards in czarist-era uniform, who each goose-stepped the document over to the regional heads, who added their signatures.

At the signing ceremony, Mr. Putin devoted a large chunk of his 40-minute speech to what has become a familiar litany of complaints against the West, accusing the U.S. of neocolonialism and decadeslong efforts at sabotage to dismember the Russian state.

But in a fresh turn, he said U.S.-led Western elites are promoting “outright Satanism." He also made several references to “Anglo Saxon" misdeeds, implying an alliance between the U.S. and U.K. to undermine Russia.

Sergey Radchenko, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, called the speech “full of bile and hatred towards the West" that was more hostile to the U.S. than any diatribe by even Soviet-era leaders.

Mr. Radchenko said the hostility is likely a signal of just how deeply worried the Russian leader is about his own standing. Though Mr. Putin wants to scare the West out of Ukraine, the president is more concerned about his domestic audience, he said.

“The point is to deflect and distract from domestic difficulties, the military failures, the mounting economic problems," said Mr. Radchenko.

Mr. Putin appeared on Red Square briefly, delivering a rousing speech that welcomed the new provinces of Ukraine as part of Russia. In a rare engagement with the crowd, he ended by shouting instructions into a microphone for the audience to fill their lungs with air and raise three cheers for the annexation.

On stage, Mr. Putin stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the heads of the Russian-backed republics that the Kremlin now calls part of Russia—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

Mr. Radchenko noted that the Kremlin used to keep heads of far-flung Russian regions at arm’s length, but now embraces them with his radical nationalist agenda.

The concert on Red Square featured pop singers still friendly with the government who sang paens to Russia and songs about the seized territories and defending Russia from western hegemony.

Preceding Mr. Putin was a poetry reading from Bogdana Neshcheret, a 16 year-old from Donbas who, an announcer said, had served with pro-Russian militias since she was 9 years old.

The star of a recent Russian teen-drama film, Ivan Okhlobystin, appeared on stage with wire-rimmed sunglasses and black leather gloves, and issued an apocalyptic warning said that Russia’s special operation in Ukraine would morph into a counterterror operation to full-scale war. “Name it correctly—a sacred war!" he shouted into a microphone.

Also on stage and at Mr. Putin’s signing ceremony were some right-wing military bloggers formerly shunned by the Kremlin, some for criticizing the lackluster performance of the Russian military in Ukraine.

One of them, Semyon Pegov, once detained by Moscow police, was invited to speak on stage and allowed to record a message to his almost 1.2 million subscribers on Telegram, telling Russian troops surrounded in the Ukrainian city of Lyman that the country was worried for them.

Another military blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky, recorded his own video from the Kremlin with a different message.

“We’ll conquer everyone, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll loot whoever we need to, and everything will be as we like it," he said.

With public opposition criminalized in Russia, it isn’t clear how the throngs attending the Kremlin ceremony or concert felt about the evening’s messages. Live television from the event caught some officials napping, and quickly panned away.

The concert at Red Square bore some telltale signs of Kremlin planning, as thousands of Russians arrived in buses and left in groups.

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