Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have lost touch with reality. “Nero fiddles while Rome burns” has become his major behavior pattern. How will such an approach affect Russia’s military activities in Ukraine?
While the West supplies Kiev with tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and longer-range missile systems, Putin remains obsessed with Russia’s imaginary victories.
“Every new school, every new kindergarten we build is a victory. Scientific discoveries and new technologies – these are also victories”, Putin said on February 21, speaking to a joint session of the Russian parliament ahead of the Ukraine invasion anniversary.
Such a narrative undoubtedly encourages the West to continue sending Kiev even more weapons, including ballistic missiles that can reach Moscow. Since it became obvious that the Kremlin does not have any red lines, the United States and its allies do not fear any Russian response. Putin, for his part, claims that Russia “cannot be defeated on the battlefield”, even though it suffered several strategic defeats in Ukraine over the past 12 months. Those humiliations, however, did not force the Kremlin to change its military and political strategy, or at least to fire incompetent top military officials.
While Putin was delivering his state-of-the-union speech, the Wagner Group frontman Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of being traitors, since they refuse to supply his private military company with ammunition. As a result, the Wager Group’s advances in Bakhmut have stalled, and Ukraine is actively preparing to launch massive offensives in other sections of the front-line. But Putin does not seem worried about the fact that the Russian military remains bogged down in Ukraine.
“The more longer-range the weaponry the West supplies to Kiev, the further we will be forced to drive that weaponry away from our borders,” the Russian leader said.
Putin used his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words from early February, when the chief of the Russian diplomacy said that the Russian military would respond to the delivery of longer-range Western weapons to Kiev by “trying to push Ukrainian forces further away from its borders to create a safe buffer zone”. But neither Putin nor Lavrov have explained how they plan to achieve such an ambitious goal, given that the Russian army does not have capacity to seize small villages in the Donbass, let alone to launch large-scale offensives.
While Putin was talking about Russian schools and kindergartens, the Ukrainian military was firing missiles on Russia’s western region of Belgorod. At the same time, the European Union announced its plans to finance weapons for Ukraine via its own budget. Russia’s President, however, insists that the EU is “punishing itself”.
“They sent prices soaring in their own countries, destroyed jobs, forced companies to close, and caused an energy crisis, while telling their people that the Russians were to blame for all of this”, Putin emphasized.
But is his job to take care of the Russian people, or a “difficult economic situation” in the European Union? According to Putin’s rhetoric, the Kremlin’s priority is not to win the war, but to preserve stability in the Russian Federation. The problem, however, is that Russia’s defeat in Ukraine will have an enormous impact on the very existence of the Russian Federation. The standoff between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry is reaching a boiling point, which is only the beginning of the schism in the Russian elite. Thus, Putin’s unwillingness to face reality will have enormous consequences for his rule.
During his one hour-long speech, Putin accused the Western countries of seeking “unlimited power”, although he did not explain how Russia plans to oppose them. He once again stressed that the West has stolen Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, but he did not say why the Kremlin did not withdraw its assets from the West prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, what Putin deliberately avoids to mention in his clerk-style speeches is always more important than what he emphasizes.
For instance, quite aware that oligarchs remain extremely unpopular in Russia, Putin accused them of spending their money on foreign mansions, yachts and luxury real estate. However, he did not say what prevented him from confiscating their illegally acquired property. The very fact that Roman Abramovich – an oligarch who played the major role during the exchange of dozens of the Azov fighters for Ukrainian Kremlin-friendly tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk – was never punished after he openly announced that he plans to donate billions of pounds to “victims of the war in Ukraine”, clearly suggests that Putin either tacitly agrees with such a policy, or that the Russian oligarchy has a significant leverage over the Russian President.
The West also seems to have the upper hand over Putin. Following his speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador in Moscow and demanded withdrawal of all the US and NATO military equipment from Ukraine, as well as explanations about the explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines. Chances for Washington to withdraw its military equipment from the Eastern European country are close to zero. Also, the US is unlikely to ever provide any explanations to Moscow about the Nord Stream pipelines blasts, since such a move would represent a sign of weakness. Therefore, Russia will once again have to turn a blind eye to the American actions, and will continue creating an illusion that it is fighting against Washington’s global dominance.
Even though Putin said Russia will suspend its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New Start), the country’s Foreign Ministry said that Moscow will “continue to be committed to the restrictions on strategic offensive weapons under New START as long as it is in force”.
“The Russian side will continue to exchange notifications with the American side about launches of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) on the basis of the corresponding agreement between the former Soviet Union and the United States of 1998”, the Russian foreign ministry said.
The United States, for its part, is extremely unlikely to continue exchanging any notifications about launches of nuclear missiles with the Kremlin, since it does not see Russia as an equal partner. Putin may then accuse the American leadership of violating the deal, but that does not mean that Russia will stop unilaterally implementing all the agreements Moscow signed with the West.
One thing is for sure: Vladimir Putin, as long as he is in charge in the Kremlin, will remain the king of empty rhetoric.