How Vladimir Putin sells his war against ‘the West’
Unable to explain setbacks in Ukraine, the Kremlin appeals to past victories.
MOSCOW — Every year, during the anniversary of the battle that turned back the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union, the city of Volgograd is briefly renamed Stalingrad, its Soviet-era name.
During this year’s commemoration, however, authorities went further. They unveiled a bust of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and paraded soldiers dressed as secret police in a bid to emphasize the parallels between Russia’s past and its present.
“It’s unbelievable but true: we are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin, who traveled to Volgograd to deliver a speech on February 2. “Again and again, we have to repel the aggression of the collective West.”
Putin’s statement was full of factual inaccuracies: Russia is fighting not the West but Ukraine, because it invaded the country; the German Leopards being delivered to Kyiv date back only to the 1960s; there’s no plan for them to enter Russian territory.
But the Russian president’s evocation of former victories was telling — it was a distillation of his approach to justifying an invasion that hasn’t gone to plan. These days in Russia, if the present is hard to explain, appeal to the past.
“The language of history has replaced the language of politics,” said Ivan Kurilla, a historian at the European University at St. Petersburg. “It is used to explain what is happening in a simple way that Russians understand.”
Putin has long harkened back to World War II — known in the country as The Great Patriotic War, in which more than 20 million Soviet citizens are estimated to have died.
Invoking the fight against Adolf Hitler simultaneously taps into Russian trauma and frames the country as being on the right side of history. “It has been turned into a master narrative through which [Putin] communicates the basic ideas of what is good and bad; who is friend and who foe,” said Kurilla.
Putin’s announcement of his full-scale assault on Ukraine was no exception. On February 24, 2022, Russians awoke to a televised speech announcing the start of “a special military operation” to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine.
“The official narrative was: ‘there are fascists in Ukraine, and we want to help people there. We are fighting for the sake of a great cause,’” said Tamara Eidelman, an expert in Russian propaganda.
On the streets, however, Russians seemed confused.
Asked in the early days of the war what “denazification” meant by the Russian website 7×7, one man suggested: “Respect for people of different ethnicities, respect for different languages, equality before the law and freedom of the press.”
Another interviewee ventured a different definition: “Destroy everyone who is not for a normal, peaceful life.”
The term “special military operation” at least was somewhat clearer. It suggested a speedy, professional, targeted offensive.
“There is a certain mundaneness to it — ‘yes, this is going to be unpleasant, but we’ll take care of it quickly,’” said Eidelman, the propaganda expert.
А week after the invasion, Russia’s laws were amended to punish those seen as discrediting the Russian armed forces or spreading fake news, including by using the word “war.”
As the special military operation turned into a protracted conflict, and the facts on the ground refused to bend to Putin’s narrative, the Kremlin has gradually been forced to change its story.
Images of a bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol or corpses littering the streets of Bucha were dismissed by state propaganda as fake or a provocation — and yet by spring the terms “demilitarization” and “denazification” had practically disappeared from the public sphere.
New justifications for the invasion were inserted into speeches and broadcasts, such as a claim that the United States had been developing biological weapons in Ukraine. In October, Putin declared that one of the main goals of the war had been to provide Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, with a stable water supply.
But the appeal to history has remained central to Putin’s communication effort.
While World War II remains his favorite leitmotif, the Russian president has been expansive in his historical comparisons. In June, he referenced Peter the Great’s campaign to “return what was Russia’s.” And during an October ceremony to lay claim to four regions in Ukraine, it was Catherine the Great who got a mention.
“Every so many months, another story is put forward as if they’re studying the reaction, looking to see what resonates,” said Kurilla.
The search for historical parallels has also bubbled up from below, as even supporters of the war search for justification. “Especially in spring and early summer, there was an attempt to Sovietize the war, with people waving red flags, trying to make sense of it through that lens.”
In the city of Syzran, students were filmed late last year pushing dummy tanks around in a sports hall in a re-enactment of the World War II Battle of Kursk. More recently, law students in St. Petersburg took part in a supposed restaging of the Nuremberg trials, which the region’s governor praised as “timely” in light of Russia’s current struggle against Nazism.
Throughout, the Kremlin has sought to depict the conflict as a battle against powerful Western interests bent on using Ukraine to undermine Russia — a narrative that has become increasingly important as the Kremlin demands bigger sacrifices from the Russian population, most notably with a mobilization campaign in September.
“Long before February last year, people were already telling us: We are being dragged into a war by the West which we don’t want but there is no retreating from,” said Denis Volkov, director of the independent pollster Levada Center.
The sentiment, he added, has been widespread since the nineties, fed by disappointment over Russia’s diminished standing after the Cold War. “What we observe today is the culmination of that feeling of resentment, of unrealized illusions, especially among those over 50,” he said.
With the war approaching the one-year mark, the narrative is once again having to adapt.
Even as hundreds in Russia are being prosecuted under wartime censorship laws, slips of the tongue by top officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and even Putin himself in December have made the idea of “war” less taboo.
“We are moving away from a special military operation towards a holy war … against 50 countries united by Satanism,” the veteran propagandist Vladimir Solovyov said on his program in January.
According to Levada, Russians are now expecting the war to last another six months or longer. “The majority keep to the sidelines, and passively support the war, as long as it doesn’t affect them directly,” said Volkov, the pollster.
Meanwhile, reports of Western weapons deliveries have been used to reinforce the argument that Russia is battling the West under the umbrella of NATO — no longer in an ideological sense, but in a literal one.
“A year of war has changed not the words that are said themselves but what they stand for in real life,” said Kurilla, the historian. “What started out as a historic metaphor is being fueled by actual spilled blood.”
In newspaper stands, Russians will find magazines such as “The Historian,” full of detailed spreads arguing that the Soviet Union’s Western allies in World War II were, in fact, Nazi sympathizers all along — another recycled trope from Russian history.
“During the Cold War, you would find caricatures depicting Western leaders such as President Eisenhower in fascist dress and a NATO helmet,” said Eidelman, the expert in Russian propaganda.
“This level of hatred and aggressive nationalism has not been seen since the late Stalin period,” she added.
On Tuesday, three days before the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Putin is scheduled to give another speech. He is expected to distract from Russia’s failure to capture any new large settlements in Ukraine by rehearsing old themes such as his gripes with the West and Russia’s past and present heroism.
There may be a limit, however, to how much the Russian president can infuse his subjects with enthusiasm for his country’s past glories.
In Volgograd, proposals to have the city permanently renamed to Stalingrad have been unsuccessful, with polls showing a large majority of the population is against such an initiative.
When it comes to embracing the past, Russians are still one step behind their leaders.