19 June 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
It turns out that that the first thing to be done here is to review and somehow analyse the latest speeches by Vladimir Putin. Speeches by Russia’s dictator should be ranked among the major events of the week, but it is also important that we draw conclusions from what they contain about the main vectors of Russian politics – foreign and domestic.
In St Petersburg, speaking at the economic forum, Putin reported that the Russian economy is not in bad shape. And it seems some of his main theses can’t be disputed. Yes, there is a substantial deficit in the federal budget, but export revenues from the sale of energy resources have not fallen and remain high – $500 to $600 billion last year. The main buyers are now China and India. Inflation remains low – which means that the Central Bank is avoiding emissions. At least large ones. In other words, the country’s economy remains fairly market-based and quite flexible – more flexible than many experts had previously thought.
The outlook, however, in my view, is still grim. Huge military expenditures (the extent of which is unclear) along with the virtual absence of a positive climate for investment and any real development sooner or later will lead to a crisis.
And I think that for the vast majority of the audience all this cheerful presidential rhetoric about economic issues was not particularly important. Everyone was thinking about something else – about what really determines the current state of the country’s economy and its prospects. As soon as Putin finished his speech, the host of the show, Dmitri Simes, immediately started talking about that – the situation on the front. And then Putin, after uttering the well-known propaganda cliché that Russia did not start the war, suddenly turned to a relatively new topic for him: the topic of the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists (brought together under the name of Stepan Bandera) against the Jewish population of Ukraine. Putin had specially prepared for this subject: the guests of the forum were even shown a short film.
What was the idea here? I think Putin tried – after all the bloodshed and all the cities destroyed – to once again present some moral justification for the war he started. That justification is ‘fighting Nazism,’ that is, to a large extent, fighting anti-Semitism, targeted against the followers of those who shot the Jews of Ukraine 80 years ago. And I think this time Russian propaganda (in this case represented by Putin himself) had not only a domestic audience in mind, but a Western one as well. Putin argued that Ukrainian nationalist collaborators had taken part in mass killings during the Second World War. And that the leaders of the collaborators had spoken (80 years ago) about the Jewish population in the spirit of Hitler’s Nazis. Putin even quoted one of them – which sounded, to put it mildly, not very appropriate. He also called Zelensky ‘a disgrace to the Jewish people.’
Yes, of course, the fact that the head of the state, which Russian propaganda has declared to be Nazi, has Jewish roots is very inconvenient for this propaganda. That is a problem.
But what are the conclusions from all this? There is just one: all of Putin’s arguments are complete fabrications. The Russian dictator wanted to put his man in Kyiv and take away a significant part of Ukraine’s territories. Those were Putin’s real interests. There is no need to prove anything: these territories have already been annexed, and the planned operation to make Medvedchuk the future ‘president’ (someone Putin himself once described as a ‘Ukrainian nationalist’) is known to anyone who wants to know anything about this war.
Tales of fighting ‘Nazism’ in this context are propaganda justification for the invasion, an evasion. On the territory of Ukraine, as well as on the territory of Russia and other republics occupied during that war, there were indeed those who welcomed Hitler and were ready to kill their neighbours, burn synagogues, and volunteer to join the SS. They were everywhere 80 years ago. And, alas, everywhere today there are their followers. There are no fewer of them in the Russian Federation than in Ukraine. Indeed, perhaps even more in Russia, and some are already raising their voices.
In fact, everything is clear to anyone who wants to understand – including the population of the state of Israel (to which Putin also alluded). The vast majority of Israelis are sympathetic to Ukraine. Yes, the Israeli government is cautious on this matter – alas, for the reason that it knows how easily a very different propaganda campaign can be spun in Russia – an anti-Semitic one. In fact, everything is ready for such an anti-Semitic campaign. You can already hear the familiar cries from the radical right-wing sect of the war’s supporters.
I don’t think Putin convinced anyone on this point.
And somewhat earlier, on 13 June, he had met with war correspondents and bloggers who support the war against Ukraine and cover it for the Kremlin. A video of this meeting can be found on YouTube. This meeting appears to have been considered as having serious propaganda value by people in the presidential administration. It was widely covered in all Russian mass media.
In my opinion, the Kremlin boss looked lacking in confidence at this meeting and clearly did not satisfy the interests of his audience. In forums, when the audience is at a distance, it is easier for him. All in all, he expounded propaganda clichés that have already been retold many times. Only the amount of hypocrisy can be considered noteworthy.
What was remarkable, in my view, was how much attention Putin paid to Ukraine’s internal political life. He told the war correspondents both his version of the 2004 elections, when Yushchenko eventually won, and his version of the events of 2013-2014. He also talked about the attitude of Ukrainians to both Bandera and Lenin. The latter he continues to refer to as the ‘founder’, which sounds not just ridiculous but stupid – Lenin suppressed the independent Ukrainian state, replacing it with the sham of a ‘union republic’. The gist of his arguments were that he was not at all happy with the way political life was developing in Ukraine, a large and sovereign neighbouring country. Not at all happy. And this was the key point.
A few important details deserve mentioning. Putin blames the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on the Ukrainian side. This assertion did not prevent him from immediately declaring, not without some smugness, that the flooding of gigantic territories had prevented the Ukrainian offensive. And just in case, the dictator noted that at the time of the collapse of the dam ‘we did not register any explosions.’
Putin also outlined his main calculation concerning the current phase of the war: ‘Everything is being given to them (Ukraine)… But that can’t go on for long…’ This was literally the same phrase he uttered at the economic forum in St. Petersburg.
He also ventured to make public some figures which seemed to perplex those who were listening to him. It turns out that during these few days of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Ukrainian side ‘lost about 160 tanks and 300 armoured vehicles.’ Russian losses were also mentioned as constituting 54 tanks.
Let us try to summarize these considerations in a broader historical context. Putin, in fact, continued the cause of Soviet leaders who invaded the territories of neighbouring states that were considered in one way or another dependent on the Kremlin, and therefore not entitled to unwanted adjustments of their political regimes. The current behaviour of the Russian dictator evokes many analogies with the actions of the leaders of the Third Reich in the late 1930s, it is true. But the major historical parallels are to be found in the practice of the Soviet Union in intervening in Hungary in October 1956, in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and – let us remember – in the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In all these cases, the leaders of the Politburo were not happy with a change in the political regime of a neighbouring country – countries that were completely different in nature from one another. Putin himself and his essentially half-baked logic is from this previous era that had seemed to have perished along with the USSR. But no, it had not.
The flaw in his logic is that the Soviet leaders thought that some of the country’s interests were being harmed by the Prague Spring or by the change from Taraki to Amin (can nobody remember the names of the Afghan leaders?). But it was the aggression unleashed by the Kremlin against sovereign states that harmed the Soviet Union’s fundamental interests. It was these invasions and wars that eventually undermined the country’s standing in the international arena and exacerbated its economic problems.
Putin was not happy with what was happening in Ukraine ‘historically.’ He also, he claims, trying to protect the country’s interests. And he started a war, which has and will continue to cause the most severe damage to its economic, and foreign policy interests.
He is achieving and has already achieved the exact opposite of the objectives he so confidently proclaims (I put in brackets here only the most delusional ones like ‘denazification’).
For a start, the worst-hit parts of Ukraine were the very regions that Putin undertook to defend. Courtier war correspondents are courtiers for the reason they do not ask their master unpleasant questions. Although his talk about the aims of the operation, which may be changing or not changing, seems to have caused a degree of confusion among them too.
As for the figures Putin voiced, one can only guess which government department and what reports could have given him such figures for Ukrainian losses – 160 tanks. This is approximately one third of all Ukrainian tanks. In these few days? Did the dictator want to raise the morale of his journalist-infantry? I don’t think he did raise their morale.
And not much is clear about the Russian losses either – the 54 tanks. The Russian side is now on the defensive: why such a loss of tanks that are usually used for an offensive? In general, the Russian commander-in-chief doesn’t seem to be up to the job.
A little later, Mr Prigozhin, commenting on the numerous reports from the front, announced a completely different figure. He said two Ukrainian tanks had been hit. He did not mention Russian tanks at all. Well, he was not correcting his superior, of course, but simply sharing his thoughts. I think he will get shouted at soon…
The Ukrainian offensive, on the other hand, is progressing, but with great difficulty. It should be noted that we now face a completely new situation. The most successful operation of the Ukrainian army was carried out in Kharkiv region at the beginning of September last year, and was in the full sense of the word a counteroffensive, and unexpectedly for the Russian side. The latter had not prepared for a serious defence. And, in general, the Russian military commanders were not yet fully aware of the losses sustained by the army and how weakened it had become.
The Ukrainian army at that time was not overcoming any large defensive lines, and achieved success through quick manoeuvres to encircle the Russian forces.
Now the Russian General Staff sees the balance of forces more realistically. The main task since the beginning of this year has been declared strategic defence. In recent months Russian troops in the most dangerous parts of the front have been mostly engaged in fortification work. They dug in and surrounded themselves with minefields. Now Ukrainian equipment – of American, German and other manufacture – is trying to pass through these fields. And it seems that the Ukrainian army is in no hurry, no hurry at all. Because haste can be costly.
On 15 June, the Swiss Parliament approved the decision to return (sell) to Germany 25 Leopard-2 tanks out of 96 decommissioned combat vehicles. They will be upgraded in Germany and then sent to Ukraine. This seems to be the first case in Swiss history. The parliamentarians have, in fact, approved the sending of state-owned combat vehicles to the front. These 25 Leopards will definitely not be superfluous in Ukraine now. Now the big question is the F-16s.
A court in Ufa has sentenced Lilia Chanysheva, who was head of Navalny’s headquarters in Bashkortostan until mid-2021, to seven and a half years in prison. Chanysheva’s story is telling in many ways. In 2018 and 2019, I met with her specifically in Ufa, when the Presidential Human Rights Council (of which I was then a member) was still holding meetings in the regions with representatives of local civil society. In particular, in Bashkortostan. Liliya was invited to this meeting by the regional government and she asked questions and took part in discussions. She was, it has to be admitted, the most outstanding and charming politician there.
And all the cases in which she was involved, and with her Navalny’s regional headquarters, were visible and aroused interest and sympathy. And I stress – sympathy. For example, she was trying to get the Kushtau mountain protected as a national park, while the regional authorities had other plans – to give it over to limestone mining. However, the Kushtau mountain was indeed designated a national park. There was also a story about resettlement of people who had been living in dilapidated housing. I happened to deal with that topic in Ufa. And so on. True, Liliya once offended the head of the Republic, Khabirov, personally. She published a series of articles about the upkeep of Khabirov’s dachas and the expenses of his wife’s outfits. I think Liliya was reminded of this on purpose. Of course, all that talk of ‘extremism’ is the style of the current punitive government policy. All opponents of the regime now, or rather all those who criticize Putin, are extremists. In 2021, all the organisations set up by Aleksei Navalny were declared ‘extremist’ in a closed trial, paying no attention to the wording of the law. Of course, this is not law as such. This is retaliation. But an important detail is that Liliya, along with other activists from Navalny’s headquarters, worked in an organization that no one at the time – not until 2021 – had recognized as extremist. And in our country, according to the Constitution (Article 54), ‘no one may be held responsible for an act which was not recognized as an offence at the time it was committed.’
And now Liliya Chanysheva has been charged retrospectively…
There are some other sensitive details. Shortly before 39-year-old Liliya’s arrest, some online resources wrote about her failed pregnancy. And now she has asked the court to consider that a long sentence could close her door to motherhood.
All in all, one could have guessed the judge would not be moved.
But Liliya was still herself, and in her last speech she said exactly why she was being attacked by this whole horde. Here is a fragment: ‘Putin is corruption, low wages and low pensions, a crumbling economy and rising prices. Putin is war! And it has already affected everyone!’
And she was given seven and a half years.
And more news. In a special reception centre in Rostov-on-Don, 40-year-old Anatoly Berezikov died, i.e. he was apparently beaten to death. There is an as yet unconfirmed suggestion by OVD-Info that Berezikov’s death was connected to the fact that he was accused of posting flyers of the Ukrainian project ‘I want to live’ explaining to soldiers of the Russian army how they could surrender and be taken prisoner. In other words, this was something for which Berezikov could really have been beaten to death. It should be said that the actual circumstances of the case probably did not give the police or the FSB enough evidence to prosecute Berezikov. Berezikov’s home was searched, and during the search he was beaten up. He was then charged with disobeying police officers and jailed. At the end of his jail term he was charged with disorderly conduct, leaving him in a cell for another 10 days. Then the court sentenced him to another 10-day term, which Berezikov does not appear to have served. His lawyer, Irina Gak, says he was tortured with a stun gun and then most likely the injuries that resulted in his death were inflicted. His lawyer saw the ambulance outside the detention centre in which her client’s body was taken away.
Representatives of the detention centre had already declared Berezikov’s death a suicide, a statement which was to be expected.
So far, all that is known for sure is that Berezikov was distributing anti-war materials, and that is all. More details are likely to emerge. But we must give the guy his due. He showed there are fearless Russians who are willing to pay with their lives for the chance to say ‘no’ to war.
Translated by Rights in Russia