On May 9 Russia celebrated Victory Day. As in 2022, there were no glorious victories to report. In contrast to the usual grand shows advertising the country’s military power, this year’s parade seemed to have the motto “less is more”. The flypast was cancelled. The number of troops was modest. A lone Soviet T-34 tank rolled through Red Square. This surprisingly low-key event, definitely not worthy of Russia’s ambitions as a military superpower, revealed to the stunned world how depleted the Russian forces are by the catastrophic losses in Ukraine.
Even the traditional speech by Vladimir Putin contained only 776 words, which was about 19% less than last year’s speech with 957 words. This marks the end of the continuous increase in the speeches’ lengths over past years, as one can see in the figure below. A sign of fatigue?
Most importantly, although the content of the speeches is highly ritualised, there were some important differences in comparison with last year. In 2022, Putin spoke about the Special Military Operation as the only way to protect Russia’s security from NATO:
Another punitive operation in Donbass, an invasion of our historic lands, including Crimea, was openly in the making. Kiev declared that it could attain nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us.
Thus, an absolutely unacceptable threat to us was steadily being created right on our borders. There was every indication that a clash with neo-Nazis and Banderites backed by the United States and their minions was unavoidable.Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/68366
This year, Putin does not speak about a specific military threat, even an imaginary one. NATO is not mentioned anymore. The main enemy is now the mysterious “Western globalist elites”, who “keep speaking about their exceptionalism, pit nations against each other and split societies, provoke bloody conflicts and coups, sow hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism, destroy family and traditional values which make us human.” The threat is now more global, but also much more abstract:
Their goal – and there is nothing new about it – is to break apart and destroy our country, to make null and void the outcomes of World War II, to completely break down the system of global security and international law, to choke off any sovereign centres of development.Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71104
This narrative is not new. It emerged last year and has survived because it is useful. Like any conspiracy theory, it cannot be falsified. Like paranoia, one does not need evidence to believe it. Probably, it’s the best strategy for protecting Russians from uncomfortable reality.
It is also remarkable that Ukraine is now represented as a victim of its “Western masters”, in line with the paternalistic attitude to “naïve” and “helpless” Ukrainians, which is firmly anchored in the Russian colonial past:
This is the reason for the catastrophe the Ukrainian people are going through. They have become hostage to the coup d’état and the resulting criminal regime of its Western masters, collateral damage in the implementation of their cruel and self-serving plans.Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/71104
This portrayal of the events protects the Russian delicate psyche from the traumatic facts that they are losing a war with a much smaller ex-colony they always looked down upon, and that Ukrainians want to get rid of their “elder brothers”.
The non-factualness of the new narrative is supported by a remarkably high proportion of adjectives in the 2023 speech (more than 14%). Many of them express negative evaluation, rather than add information: unfriendly, hostile, abhorrent, criminal, deadly, bloody, aggressive, cruel and self-serving. Needless to say, these adjectives describe the actions and plans of the “Russophobic” West.
On the one hand, this loss of connection with reality is scary, especially in combination with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it can also serve as an exit strategy for Putin. The thing is, a metaphysical war is much easier to “win” than a real military conflict. One can simply declare, “We have saved Russia from the West, now we can go home”, and nobody will mind.