The evolution of the war in Putin’s speeches: From a regional conflict to a war of cultures

The “special military operation” of Russia against Ukraine has been going on for more than seven months. Has Putin’s narrative changed since February? Oh yes! In the beginning, the invasion was justified by the threat of NATO’s expansion and the suffering of ethnic Russians in Donbass. Months later, Putin presents the war more and more as a global conflict between Russia and the “so-called West”.

The figure below shows how the relative frequencies of the core “enemies” of Russia in Putin’s speeches changed over three periods: February-May, June-August and September 2022. The division into three periods reflects the similarities between different months both in Putin’s propaganda and in reality: Russia’s early advances, followed by a stalemate in the summer, and by Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in September. I aggregated the frequencies of different linguistic forms of the proper names (such as the EU and Europe, United States and USA, NATO and Alliance) in Putin’s speeches and addresses. A part of the corpus (up to August 16) is already available for download on Zenodo.

As you can see, the main anti-hero of the first period was Ukraine, followed by NATO. In the later periods, Ukraine and NATO are less prominent, especially NATO. In contrast, the frequency of the West, which was quite low in the first period, has increased substantially. The EU/Europe is also mentioned more frequently than it was in the beginning. The frequency of the USA has been fluctuating, with a small increase in the summer and a decrease in September.

So, from Russia’s interference in Ukraine with the purpose of preventing an “attack” and protecting ethnic Russians, Kremlin’s propaganda has transformed the war into a global conflict between Russia and the collective West. It is a civilizational war, where Russia defends the emergent “multipolar” world against the “unipolar” world of the West, which is trying to keep the status quo and preserve its postcolonial dominance. Of course, Putin’s real goals have nothing to do with real multipolarity. As I argued in a previous post, his narrative is perfectly bipolar, the traditional “us-against-them”.

Switching from the local to the global narrative, Putin achieves many different goals. For “internal consumption”, the framing of the war as a global conflict justifies the lack of significant progress and the retreat of Russian troops. A couple of days ago, the Russian ministry of defense reported that “due to a threat of encirclement, the allied troops were moved from the settlement of Krasny Liman to more advantageous lines”. Saying that Russia is at war with the entire West helps Putin to save face. The narrative also allows Putin to explain the isolation of Russia on the world stage, the unprecedented sanctions, the EU closing the borders for Russian tourists, and other embarrassing things. It also justifies the mobilization and, potentially, the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

But this narrative is also targeted at the public in the West. By bringing up some anti-colonialist ideas, Putin caters to the anti-Western, anti-American sentiments of the left-wing audience. Of course, this is utterly hypocritical, since Russia’s war in Ukraine is a perfect example of a colonial war. At the same time, Putin appeals to conservative public by expressing his support for “traditional values” and making fun of gender theory. He also condemns “cancel culture”, pretending to be a defender of free speech. Again, this is bitterly ironic. Putin has successfully “cancelled” all serious political opponents, and professional journalism is no longer possible in Russia.

Although Putin’s narrative sounds crazy and preposterous, it is in fact perfectly rational. Like in a supermarket, it offers something useful to everyone who needs a justification of their self-interest. The fact that some Western intellectuals are still saying “it’s complicated” even after the atrocities of the Russian troops in Bucha and Izium, shows that Putin’s advisors and speech writers are doing a good job. As a true KGB-ist, Putin is way more successful in creating simulacra than achieving something real. All this shows that the postmodern strategies of combining the uncombinable can serve backward revanchist purposes very well. The main trick is to take the reality and consistency out of the equation, and never look back.

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