27 February 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky, legal expert, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Last week began with the speech by the Russian head of state before the chambers of the Federal Assembly. According to Article 84 of the Constitution, this procedure is supposed to take place once a year. But Putin has already dispensed with this obligatory speech twice – he ignored this constitutional norm, which surprised no one in particular. Everybody knows by now for just about how long and by how much the guarantor of the Constitution and of human rights has been disgusted by both of these things. As a former member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, I can testify that it was quite a long time ago, though I admit I didn’t understand it right away.
As for those whom Putin was addressing – deputies and the, so-to-say, senators: in this context, they are nothing but servants, servants more or less well paid. There has been no real parliamentary life in the Russian Federation for a long time, just highly paid servants obliged to perform rituals. But are they capable of understanding the real situation? I think so. But in addition to the desire to keep their comfortable place at the feeding trough, they are guided by an instinct for self-preservation. They know that renegades will be killed. And they remember the fate of the former KPRF deputy who was shot dead in Kiev. Putin’s main addressee was, after all, not them, but a certain mass audience – both within the country and outside it. Those who wanted to get some idea of the Russian dictator’s plans from his speech.
In general, they got it. And hardly anyone found anything new here. Here is the essence: Putin told his compatriots that the war will be long-lasting, and he tried his best to frighten his enemies abroad.
Yes, again, a fair amount of Putin’s text was devoted to cursing the West, and, accordingly, another presentation of Putin’s version of the war. It included everything that everyone has already heard, but also some frills. Like: ‘It was not us, but they who started the war! And we have only used force to stop it…’ Or, ‘We are not at war with the people of Ukraine… They occupied it.’
One can, of course, be amazed at these key theses of Putin’s speech. In fact, they imply that some part of that same multimillion audience no longer remembers who attacked Ukraine a year ago, who tried to capture Kiev and Chernihiv, who shelled the ‘Russian city’ of Kharkov with all kinds of weapons… But still, some people do remember.
Putin also returned to his favourite topic: his opposition to same-sex marriage, paedophilia, gender diversity, and other evils. Some listeners sometimes wonder, well, why does he need all this, or is he really so preoccupied with all this? No, there is, after all, a political interest here. The ideologues in the Putin administration are addressing these invectives on gender issues to potential supporters in Europe on whom the Russian dictator is still counting. It is important for him to present himself not just as the aggressor, but as a bearer of certain…um…values. These are the decorations. I don’t think it works very well, though. No matter how you look at it, the main value of the Russian dictator is the attitude ‘to kill whoever I see fit.’ And even the right-wing radicals, whom the presidential administration has been funding for the last ten years, understand this. Well, it seems that the hopes placed on Marine Le Pen (who it seems has been paid more than anyone else) have long been fading. But Giorgi Melloni, the beautiful Italian prime minister, has been a great disappointment for the Russian leader and his propagandists when she came to Kyiv the other day. She was the one who should have appreciated the battle for traditional values waged by the lone knight…
For specific reasons. Putin announced that a fund will be created to help war veterans and bereaved families. The state budget won’t be enough here, and it is likely that big and medium-sized businesses will have to shell out money for this. And there is no doubt the sums will increase. As the number of war victims increases. This will definitely be the main gift to the business community.
Putin informed his foreign audience that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty with the US (START-3). No one is surprised to hear this, but it seems Putin’s advisers were told to look for something else to get out of. In fact, this treaty has not been implemented for a long time. There were no inspections of nuclear facilities in 2020-2021 because of the pandemic. And then the parties could never agree on specific inpections. And then the war started. The threshold levels of nuclear weapons on alert were set quite high – 1,800 to 2,000 for each side. It is not very clear to me, for example, whether each side has a strong interest in exceeding these limits, which already guarantee the destruction of all life on Earth – if all the weapons are detonated. But we should note that despite everything, in early 2021 Putin decided to extend this treaty until 2026 – the houses of the Federal Assembly rubber-stamped the necessary laws. And now the dictator has changed his mind… Well, yesterday this way, today that way. Let me repeat – no one was really surprised.
So: a war with no end in sight and with no definite purpose. It can, however, be guessed that the aim now is to retain the seized territories. Putin as if boasted in passing: there is now a reliable land corridor to the Crimea. Reliable, well… This war of attrition will continue, no matter what it costs the country, because the dictator hopes that Ukraine’s allies will get tired of supporting it. That is his main hope.
All this was clear before. The American president’s speeches in Kiev and Warsaw can be seen as a response to this clarity. Biden didn’t say anything new either, but he made it clear that Ukraine’s allies were also ready for a long fight. That is, he hinted that Putin was getting his hopes up for nothing. He reminded his listeners that the Ukrainian armed forces have already liberated half the territory originally seized by Russia. Biden also pointed out that the Kremlin’s plans initially included the capture of Moldova. The US president confirmed that the allies would supply Ukraine with all necessary weapons.
It should be noted that Biden also addressed Russian citizens during his speech. He said the West did not intend to, and will not, attack the Russian people: ‘The millions of Russian citizens are not our enemies.’ It’s a tragedy, Biden said, but it’s a choice Putin made.
All in all, these are the words Ukraine wanted to hear. But words are not enough by themselves now. Realistically not enough. Western governments, indeed, showed remarkable slowness and an outstanding tendency to philosophize about Putin’s resentful character when questions about supplies of the latest weapons to Ukraine were decided last spring. The weapons were supplied, but with great difficulty. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian army squeezed Putin’s army out of the Kharkov region and half of Kherson region. But next 200-300 of the latest tanks are definitely needed. And the same number of howitzers. That is what the outcome of the battle in the spring of 2023 depends on today.
Meanwhile, this week the Chinese leaders put up a 12-point plan aimed at resolving the conflict. As far as can be understood, what Beijing is most concerned about is not ending the war per se, but strengthening its role in the big international game. By the way, a Chinese diplomatic spokesman has already made it clear that the 12 points are not a peace plan at all. Why? They are a set of common positions. They include, for example: ‘Respect for the sovereignty of all countries on the basis of strict compliance with international law and the UN Charter.’ The document notes that ‘the independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively protected.’ Yes, territorial integrity is not exactly a convenient topic for Putin, who has proclaimed almost a fifth of a neighboring country’s territory as his booty. But it is not clear from the Chinese document whether Russian troops should be removed from the invaded territories. Or how that could be done. We can assume that China, in general, is not so much referring to the current war as to its relations with Taiwan and its own territorial integrity. Or another point about the need to resume peace talks as ‘the only viable solution to the Ukrainian crisis.’ Moreover, China is ready to ‘play a constructive role’ in these negotiations, that is, it offers itself as a mediator. So Putin is in favour of negotiations as well – but with recognition of the ‘realities,’ that is, the fact that the fate of the seized territories, in general, is already being taken out of the negotiating process.
So, what do these Chinese 12 points actually do?
Vladimir Zelenskiy, however, said that this was not a bad thing either, considering that China was finally interested in the situation in Ukraine. And furthermore he spoke out quite categorically against the use of nuclear weapons.
It seems that most of all, the Chinese leadership would like to find a new format of cooperation with the United States. Since Trump, relations between the world’s two largest economies have stagnated at a disadvantage for China, and perhaps the Chinese leader could try to take on a role that would bring him closer to the leader of the Western world. Which is unlikely. But China would not be too concerned. Here I have to say something that is not very pleasant for the Russian leadership: China now looks like a beneficiary of the current war. It buys Russian oil at a huge discount, it sends thousands of new types of goods to the Russian market, compensating for the withdrawal of producers from Europe. China’s leaders are quietly aware that Putin and his state are gradually becoming vassals of the Chinese state. Looks like the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin’s prediction is coming true… Reread The Day of the Oprichnik Day. It is not cheerful a cheerful read.
However, Chinese consumer goods are not the only thing. This week, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who has not left the penal colony’s punishment cells for the last six months, published his brief political program. If anyone thinks that writing manifestos in the penal colony is quite comfortable, they are very much mistaken. I had to visit these places. It’s impossible to even sit down comfortably there. And putting your head on your hands while sitting at the table is a violation of prison regulations. In the winter, it’s usually humid and cold – so cold that a prisoner must constantly try to keep warm. But, here, nevertheless. Navalny delivered, through his lawyers, a text in which he spoke both about the war and about the future of the Russian state. Given his credibility among Russians who do not accept Putin’s regime, the points of his programme may become the programme for all other opposition groups – wherever and however they may exist. Navalny considers the real causes of the war to be ‘the political and economic problems within Russia, Putin’s desire to hold on to power at any cost, and his obsession with his historical legacy.’
For the first time, Navalny advocates the return to Ukraine of all annexed territories, including Crimea. He is talking about returning both Russia and Ukraine to the internationally recognized borders of 1991. The leader of the Russian opposition notes that all borders in the world are to some extent accidental and cause discontent, but to fight for their change in the 21st century is a path to chaos.
Navalny calls for the dismantling of Putin’s dictatorship. In its place he wants to see a federal parliamentary republic. His programme also speaks of the need for real elections of those in power, local self-government, and an independent judiciary.
The two most important provisions of this programme are the recognition of the 1991 borders and the parliamentary republic, the form of which the Russian state should take. It’s not just a question of the Russian opposition accepting this programme, but rather whether Russian society will be capable of understanding that all seizures of territory of a neighbouring state are crimes and acts which fundamentally contradict Russia’s interests. This is the key question. You have to realise that today a significant part of the Russian electorate and a significant part of the Russian television audience have been taught by years of insistent propaganda that everything that has been seized is ours and that Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere.
But no matter what the pro-Putin electorate thinks, in my view everything will depend first of all on the situation at the front, and secondly on the state of the economy. In the meantime, we will study the points of the programmes – there has been plenty to study this past week.
Translated by Rights in Russia