Rescue workers are still searching for survivors from a Russian air strike on a theatre where hundreds of people had taken refuge in the besieged southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Aerial photographs showed they had painted the word “children” in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside.
Despite hopes earlier this week of progress in peace talks, on 17 March the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Russia had not engaged in “any meaningful effort” to end the war through diplomacy. He warned that Moscow was recruiting foreign mercenaries and could be preparing a chemical or biological weapons attack, which it would attempt to blame on Ukraine to justify escalating the conflict.
Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, delivered a menacing speech during a televised meeting with his officials on 16 March. As usual, he railed against the West, which he compared to Nazi Germany and insisted was plotting to destroy Russia, but he also threatened his own citizens, lashing out against those he accused of harbouring pro-Western sympathies. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a fly in their mouth,” Putin said. He called for a “necessary self-purification of society” and claimed to be fighting for “the future of our country and our children”.
The Russian president is hardly the first autocrat – or democrat, for that matter – to claim to be defending his nation against foreign enemies and to smear those who oppose him at home as traitors. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, once explained the process of mobilising public support for a military campaign: “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.”
[See also: Mapping Putin’s war on civilians]
Putin has been cultivating this idea and positioning himself as the great defender of the Russian nation for at least a decade, since his return to the Kremlin for his third term in power in 2012. During his election campaign that spring, which followed a winter of mass anti-government protests across Russia, he held an enormous rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on 23 February 2012, Defender of the Fatherland Day (an annual holiday to honour Russia’s armed forces). He told his supporters they were fighting to defend their country just as their ancestors had done during the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in Russia. To resounding cheers, he declared, “The battle for Russia goes on!”
Over the years since, Putin has ramped up repression, shut down independent media outlets, and dismembered Russian civil society. His speech this week was a clear sign that he intends to crack down further on dissent and a warning that criticism of his war on Ukraine will be considered treasonous. Already, there are reports that state investigators have been told to prepare for a new wave of cases against “traitors” in Russia, and a new law means those convicted of spreading “fake” information about the military could face up to 15 years in prison. The longer Putin’s war on Ukraine goes on, and the greater the danger he perceives to his regime, the more he will double down on his twisted fantasy that it is Russia that is under attack.
Both in Ukraine and Russia, the future looks dark.
[See also: Russia’s war with the West]