Strategically unimpressive: Putin’s speech on May 9

Putin speaks at Victory Day parade.

Hardly any speech had been so anticipated recently as Putin’s address at the military parade on May 9, and hardly any has been met with so much disappointment. The world expected some big gestures — from announcing general mobilization to committing suicide in public. Instead, we heard a rather toothless and boring text.

Of course, an attentive observer can find some useful cues. Putin’s speech is putting the current war in Ukraine at the same level with the great defensive wars of the past, from the Polish intervention of the early 17th century to the war with Napoleon and, most importantly, to the war with Hitler. This preposterous and cynical framing is meant to justify the current and future costs of the war and allows Putin to demand sacrifices from the Russian population. There are also some interesting details. Mentioning of “brave soldiers and partisans in China” alongside with the American, English and French allies who won WWII is a curtsy to Comrade Xi, whose support Putin desperately needs, and a little side blow to the West. It is also somehow amusing how Putin expresses his concerns for the US veterans, who were forbidden to attend the parade (of course, they terribly wanted to come!).

But overall, the speech is rather unimpressive. I believe this is a strategic choice. A KGB officer and a kleptocrat, Putin probably suspects that an ordinary Russian’s readiness for sacrifices in the name of Motherland is limited. After all, we judge others by ourselves. A Russian happily dreams of imperial greatness on a comfortable sofa in front of the TV, but is less enthusiastic about dying for it on a combat field. What he or she needs is to know that everything goes according to the plan. Stability, stability and stability – this has been the unwritten pact between Putin and Russia, and the main factor explaining his popularity.

The speech is also different linguistically from Putin’s previous addresses, such as his address to the Russian nation on February 24, the day of invasion. I counted the words in each of the speeches and computed a distinctiveness statistic (Dunnings’ log-likelihood ratio). It shows the words and punctuation marks occurring more frequently than expected in a text. The top 10 distinctive words for each speech are in the figure below.

Top ten most distinctive words in Putin’s speech on May 9 and in his speech on February 24.

The top distinctive words of the speech on May 9 include pamjat’ “memory”, soldat “soldier”, velikij “great”, otechestvennyi “patriotic” and Rodina “Motherland” because the parade commemorates the Soviet soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic war of 1941-45. The exclamatory mark is also used frequently because Putin addresses comrades, citizens, soldiers and officers and pronounces slogans. These properties are due to the fact that the speech is a part of an annual ritual. The continuity with the Soviet parades is extremely important for Putin, who has been very successful in re-creating the USSR 2.0.

A remarkable thing is that the preposition za “for, to” is the second most distinctive word. It appears in the slogans “For Russia! For Victory!” and begins with the infamous letter Z, which has become a symbol of Russian fascism.

Note that the 10th top distinctive word in the speech on May 9 is Donbass. Strikingly, Ukraine is not mentioned in this speech at all, although it is the second most distinctive word in the speech on February 24. After the attempts to take Kyiv failed, the ambitions are more modest. The aim is now to gain control over the Donbass region (plus the South). In fact, the loss of interest in the entire Ukraine was already clear from my linguistic analysis of Putin’s recent speeches. Putin doesn’t want to attract too much attention to his flop.

Putin’s parade speech is less polemic than his speech on February 24, as we can see from small but very informative function words. The most distinctive word for the address on February 24 is the particle zhe, which adds emphasis, as in the following example:

“Where ZHE is justice and truth here? Just hypocrisy and lies all around.”

The word sam “self, very” is also used for this purpose:

 “It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very (SAM) existence of our state and to its sovereignty.”

The particle ni “not, not any, not a single” strengthens negation:

“They did not leave us any (NI) other option for defending Russia and our people.”

Because the speech of May 9 does not contain many of such emphatic expressions, it can be perceived as toothless and grey. But it is easy to see that this is a strategic decision. The speech is a part of the old ritual, which must create the impression of continuity and stability, which is crucial in the moments of economic uncertainty, international rejection and military losses. The worse the situation develops for Putin, the more Politburo-like his appearances are likely to become.

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