Why Putin is casting the Ukraine war as a fight for Russia’s survival

Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly cast the Ukraine war as an epic fight for Russia’s survival, accusing the West of “using Ukraine as a battering ram against Russia and as a testing range.”

In his telling, the West started the war, and Russia has everything to lose — even when all available evidence points to Putin launching an unprovoked invasion seeking to topple Ukraine’s government. 

As Russia’s losses mount, Putin is employing a psychological tool to get his people behind a conflict with no end in sight, according to several analysts.

“It’s nice to think of Russia as confronting the hegemon as opposed to having invaded a smaller neighbor,” said Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

She said Putin has “intertwined his own political and potential physical fate with the war,” and is trying to frame the violent conflict in ways to bolster his support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Ramil Sitdikov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In multiple speeches, the Russian leader has leaned into a verbal strategy of anti-loss. Given the Kremlin’s broad control of the media, the Russian people are “increasingly likely to interpret this as a standoff between Russia and the West, which makes it more palatable psychologically,” Liik added. 

Putin emphasized a threat from the U.S. and the western security alliance NATO before his troops rolled into Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian president dug deeper into the do-or-die message last fall as he announced a partial mobilization that has sent hundreds of thousands of military reservists to the front lines. 

When he addressed the Federal Assembly last month after a year of war, Putin more directly pitting the Russian people against NATO. 

He lamented Russia was only seeking peace and safety guarantees before the war and those attempts were rejected by the western elites. He raged that the West had “enslaved” Ukraine, which he considers to be historically part of Russia, and cried that the U.S. was clamoring for Moscow’s defeat, and seeking to plunder Russian resources. 

“Over the long centuries of colonialism, diktat and hegemony, they got used to being allowed everything, got used to spitting on the whole world,” Putin said. “The threat was growing by the day.

“Let me reiterate that they were the ones who started this war, while we used force and are using it to stop the war,” he added. “We are defending human lives and our common home, while the West seeks unlimited power.”

It remains difficult to gauge broader public opinion on the war after Russia passed a tough law last year restricting anyone from voicing “discreditation” of the armed forces, and with authorities sniffing out signs of protest. But Putin’s framing seems effective. 

Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the February speech did “fairly well” for the Russian audience in presenting the war in Ukraine as a defensive mission.

“Stories about the West being decadent — this stuff sells in Russia,” he said. “After months and months of fighting in Ukraine, people were having trouble [seeing] how it all started.”

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the focus on “American hegemony” has sway.

“Russia has to stand its ground against this wayward country that is trying to dominate the world,” Kupchan said on Putin’s framing. “That’s a narrative that has gotten some traction in pitching broader discomfort with western colonialism.”

“There are kernels of factually accurate statements,” he continued, “but what he does is he uses those as launch pads for twisted, nationalistic narratives that bear no resemblance to reality.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to cast the war in Ukraine as a fight for his country’s survival. (Libkos/Associated Press)

James Nixey, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, said the February speech was a “surreal experience.”

“Like living in an alternate reality,” he said. “It is an absolute concocted fantasy in order to ensure that Russia’s rightness is understood by all and there’s no going wobbly on the part of anybody.”

Several of Putin’s speeches in the past year have also centered on cultural messages.

The depiction of a neo-Nazi government holding Ukraine hostage has been a focal point in his public remarks. Last month, he compared the West to the 20th Century empire of Austria-Hungary and said the western allies “paved the way” for Nazi Germany.  

Putin has also pushed the false message of rampant pedophilia in western nations — mostly in reference to LGBTQ groups — casting it as another incoming attack on Russian culture should the West have their way.

“Look what they are doing to their own people,” Putin said in his February speech. “It is all about the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including pedophilia, all of which are declared normal in their life.”

Some of the messaging caters to those outside of Russia, who may nod their heads to the cultural issues, analysts said. That could boost his support with an international audience that is not aligned with him in Ukraine but agrees with his cultural criticism of liberals and western power.

More so, Putin, who is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for supporting the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, is trying to maintain enough internal Russian support to ensure his own survival.

Russian elites are becoming more disenfranchised with the war after setbacks in Ukraine, according to Liik from the European Council on Foreign Relations, although they recognize the difficulties of pulling back this late in the conflict.

Henk Goemans, the director of the Peter D. Watson Center for Conflict and Cooperation at the University of Rochester, said Putin has consolidated a lot of power but could end up threatened by rival power factions.

“It’s a dangerous game to play,” Goemans said. “I am not yet convinced [Putin’s power] is enough that he is really secure after a significant setback in Ukraine.”

Despite his rhetoric, there are signs Putin is holding back from complete isolation with the West.

In the speech last month, he announced the suspension of the New START Treaty, a nuclear pact between the U.S. and Russia that limited the number of weapons of mass destruction for both nations while also allowing for inspections of key facilities.

Notably, Putin chose to suspend the treaty — not withdraw from it entirely.

Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said there was a “certain amount of prudence and professionalism” in Putin suspending the treaty rather than annulling it.

“Hopefully that means Putin is already seeing the way in which we may get back to business,” he said, adding the Russian leader is “starting to realize he’s not going to [achieve his original goals] and may have to settle for less.”

But it’s unclear what Putin would accept to end his war. The beginning of the invasion last year made clear he was hoping to seize Kyiv within a matter of weeks and potentially set up a puppet government.

After Russian forces were pushed out of the western part of Ukraine, troops remain fighting deadly battles of attrition in the eastern region of the country.

Last fall, Putin illegally annexed four regions in the south and east: Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk and Luhansk, all of which he is now unlikely to give up and which Ukraine said it will continue to fight for.

With a compromise hard to fathom, Putin’s “loss framing” helps ensure support even if his troops continue to flounder in Ukraine.

Unless Russia expands its fight into NATO countries, the threat of an attack from the West is absurd, according to the analysts The Hill spoke to for this story. But Goemans, from the University of Rochester, said a loss in Ukraine would be a “real challenge to Russian identity.”

“Social identity is very much mixed up with Ukraine,” he said.”Those things will be incredibly hard to accept for Russians. That they are two different states and two different nations.”

“Defeat in the Ukraine would be a fundamental challenge to fundamental tenets of Russian identity.”

Tags NATO Russia-Ukraine war Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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