Putin Tries To Distract From Failures in Ukraine With Appeal to Patriotism

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers an address on Tuesday in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to distract the Russian public Tuesday from the status of the war in Ukraine, calling the conflict a battle to “defend the homeland” against the United States and Europe.

“Russia will respond to any challenges, because we are all one country, one big and united people,” Putin said Tuesday at the end of his speech in Moscow, the first state of the nation address he has delivered since the invasion began.

The speech went on for about an hour and 50 minutes in a large exhibition hall. In addition to parliamentary representatives and senior administration officials, attendees included Russian soldiers participating in what Putin has called a “special military operation,” and the president expressed his gratitude to them.

Unlike state of the nation addresses in recent years, which were largely devoted to domestic issues, this year’s speech was full of references to the invasion, including related economic matters.

Putin repeatedly denounced the regime led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as “neo-Nazi,” and was particularly hostile toward the United States and Europe. He claimed that U.S. and Europe “plan to grow a local conflict into a global confrontation” by supporting Ukraine, which “represents an existential threat to our country.”

Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), a nuclear arms reduction framework with the United States, and claimed that Washington was aiming for “Russia’s strategic defeat.”

Homeland defense

Putin’s positioning of the United States and Europe as his “main enemies” was meant to divert public attention from the bitter realities of the war, which is not progressing as Russia envisioned.

Moscow initially planned to take Kiev in a short time. That plan failed, and last summer Ukraine took the upper hand in the fighting. The Ukrainian military, supported by the United States and Europe, launched a counteroffensive, recapturing about 40% of the areas occupied by Russia after the invasion.

Russia has lost about half of the tanks it can deploy, and senior U.S. officials estimate Russian casualties at more than 200,000.

Conscious of the one-year anniversary of the war’s start, the Russian military has from this month been expanding its offensive in the Donbass area, which comprises the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However, the rate of advance is reportedly measured in meters.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Monday that it had overrun two hamlets near Bakhmut, a key Donetsk stronghold that has been the site of the biggest battle, but there is no prospect of Russia overrunning the entire Donbass area.

To distract attention from this, Putin has focused on stirring up patriotic feelings to “defend the homeland.” Feb. 23 is Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Russia, which honors the Soviet soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II. In his speech, Putin invoked patriotism and called for cooperation in the invasion of Ukraine.

According to a survey by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, Putin’s approval rating was 82% in January of this year. That was an increase of 1 percentage point from the previous month. He began in January to specifically emphasize the threat from the United States and Europe in connection with the invasion of Ukraine.

Presidential election

Prior to his speech, there was speculation that Putin would announce the mobilization of an additional 200,000 reserve troops and the expansion of martial law throughout the country, but this did not happen. Martial law has been imposed on four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine that Russia unilaterally annexed.

Putin has not formally declared, in writing, the partial mobilization ordered last fall that resulted in 300,000 reservists being called up, and mobilization is believed to be quietly continuing. He is expected to run for a fifth term in the presidential election next March, and is thought to be intent on avoiding any action that could cause a public outcry.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader who is in prison, said on Twitter Monday that Russia has “hit rock bottom” due to Putin’s personal ambitions.