At a glance.
- President Putin's view of his war.
- Belarus barks in lieu of biting.
President Putin's view of his war.
US President Biden concluded his visit to Kyiv with pledges of enduring US support for Ukraine. Russian state media speculated about the value of killing Mr. Biden, with many of the state hosts and pundits regarding the trip as a missed opportunity to do so. The Daily Beast offers a representative summary of the Russian talk shows.
Russian President Putin's annual state-of-the-nation speech today reiterated his familiar claims about Russia's war against Ukraine. It is, Mr. Putin maintained, a defensive military operation against Western-inspired Ukrainian aggression, which Russia had met, and would continue to meet, with justified force. “Western elites aren’t trying to conceal their goals, to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ to Russia. They intend to transform the local conflict into a global confrontation,” the AP quotes him as saying in the course of a speech that lastest well over an hour. "It’s they who have started the war. And we are using force to end it.” The New York Times, in its running commentary on the address as it was delivered, characterized the claims as "false," which of course they are. Mr. Putin also announced that Russia would "suspend" its participation in the longstanding START agreements aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear war.
The UK's Ministry of Defence devoted one of its morning situation report to a review of Russian President Putin's speech. It's an annual event, but he skipped it last year. "On 21 February 2023, President Putin made his first State of the Nation speech since 2021. He made it clear that he intends to continue with the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. He characterised Western elites as having “become a symbol of total unprincipled lies” and suspended Russia from the New START treaty. Putin continued the bellicose tone he has adopted in speeches over the last six months but did not reveal any practical measures which might relieve Russia’s current deadlock on the battlefield. Putin continues to present a contradictory narrative of existential struggle, while insisting everything in Russia is fine and going to plan. This renders both messages ineffective."
Mr. Putin's tone was intransigent, but also somber and elegiac. "The spitting with fury, cod-history spouting, blood-crazed nationalist who began the war a year ago was taking a day off," as the Telegraph put it. He offered a more upbeat performance the following day, when he whooped up a big, bussed-in crowd at a rally in Luzhniki stadium, part Super Bowl halftime show and part Triumph of the Will. The Financial Times' Moscow bureau chief, Max Seddon, calls it "Invasionpalooza," which isn't a bad way to describe it. It's effectively a pep rally on a grand scale, one that any American high school student with enough school spirit could imagine, complete with singers, dancers, gymnasts--a well-organized, thoroughly planned spontaneous demonstration.
Mr. Putin's suspension of Russian participation in the START treaty is being widely read as itself an influence operation. The Guardian polls expert opinion and reports a consensus that the move was intended to divide American public opinion over support for Ukraine. That may well be the intention, but it seems unlikely to be a particularly successful tactic, if only because American public opinion lacks the sort of granularity, historical awareness, and attention to detail that would conduce to strong views on START. Those interested in a refresher on START may consult the Telegraph's summary of the treaty.
Belarus barks in lieu of biting.
The war is, World Politics Review points out, a contest of narratives. Russia's narrative has found some amplification in Belarus, not the world's biggest megaphone, but one takes such support as one can get.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka delivered a bellicose speech in which he blamed Ukraine for Russia's war, denied that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and promised swift retaliation should Ukraine commit aggression against Belarus. “If they commit aggression against Belarus, the answer will be immediate,” the Washington Post quotes Mr. Lukashenka as saying. “The war will acquire a completely different scale.”
But the stern talk communicated a clear disinclination to become involved. “I am ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus only in one case: if at least one soldier sets foot in Belarus to kill my people.” No one (and it's safe to say that includes Mr. Lukashenka) thinks Ukraine has aggressive designs on Belarus.
The Belarusian president's talk offered an echo of Russia's utterly implausible account of Ukraine's war guilt: “It’s not an invasion; the Ukrainian authorities provoked this operation. Had they reached an agreement with Russia there would have been no war. There was no invasion. I believe this is the protection of the interests of Russia and those people, Russian people, who live there.” So Belarus can be expected to give public and diplomatic support to Russia, and probably to continue to allow its territory to be used as a staging area for Russian forces, but Mr. Lukashenka is showing a disinclination to back Moscow's losing hand without reservation.