President Vladimir Putin has not only doubled down on his war of aggression in Ukraine but mapped a course for domestic politics, the economy and culture that reaffirms his goal of achieving a decisive break between Russia and the west.
Putin’s state of the nation speech on Tuesday offered no hope that he would wind down the war, now entering its second year, or retreat from his ambition of carving up the Ukrainian state.
But his speech also highlighted the way his war is closely linked to a parallel effort to stamp out domestic dissent and seal off Russia from what he condemns as hostile or degenerate western influences.
In other words, Putin’s objectives are not only permanent territorial conquest in Ukraine but the reconstruction of Russian society on a permanent, non-western basis, reversing a trend that has proceeded in fits and starts since Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
Putin’s first aim is reason enough for the Ukrainian people to continue their war of self-defence. But his second objective underlines how wide a gulf has emerged between his vision of Russia and a Ukrainian society that has identified ever more closely with the west since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of secession in south-eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Putin was speaking only hours before US president Joe Biden was due to give an address in Warsaw that was expected to portray the west’s support for Ukraine as a collective effort to defend that country’s democracy, national independence and territorial integrity.
Confirmation that the deterioration of US-Russian relations extends beyond the Ukraine war appeared in Putin’s statement that Moscow is to suspend its participation in the New Start treaty on intercontinental nuclear weapons, the last surviving major nuclear arms control agreement between the two countries.
Yet the broad thrust of Putin’s speech was contained in his assertions that Russia is under military, political, economic and cultural assault from the west and that Ukraine’s pro-western leadership is a pawn in this strategy.
In an apparent reference to the arguments of some commentators — mainly in the US and parts of central and eastern Europe — that the Russian state itself might disintegrate under the pressures of the Ukraine war, Putin attacked the west for “making a bet on national traitors” to “break up Russia from within”.
He asserted that the Russian economy was becoming more self-reliant thanks to western sanctions, and he reinforced his commitment to inculcating his country’s education system with non-western, patriotic values.
It was significant that, at different moments in his speech, Putin poured disdain on Russian business oligarchs for seeking to maintain privileged lives in the west, and praised the distinctive historical tradition of Russian identity rooted in the Orthodox Christian religion.
In effect, Putin was warning business elites that the reconfigured state and society of his imagination would have no place for the western-leaning tendencies that began to shape much of Russia’s economy during the 1990s rule of Boris Yeltsin, the nation’s first post-communist president.
Putin even quoted with approval Pyotr Stolypin, Nicholas II’s chief minister after the 1905 revolution: “In the cause of defending Russia, we must all unify and co-ordinate our efforts, rights and responsibilities to support Russia’s one historical, higher right — the right to be strong.”
In this way, the president sought to cloak his rule in the legitimacy of what he sees as the pre-communist tradition of a powerful, centralised state that organises Russian society behind a common purpose.
For Putin, one element of that common purpose is an unrelenting and still incomplete military campaign in Ukraine. No end to the war seems probable in the near future.