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Donnacha Ó Beacháin: 'Fake Russia Great Again' is surely Putin's new motto

The politics professor examines the Russian leader’s attempt this week to annex parts of Ukraine in a sham referendum.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin

WHEN THE SOVIET Union imploded 30 years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the end of History.

History has not stopped, however; if anything, it is on steroids.

This week the Kremlin organised several theatrical spectacles. First, we had the fake referenda in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions. The Russian state media provided carefully choreographed footage of grateful “voters” casting ballots to join Russia.

Called at three days’ notice, the electoral farce took place in a conflict zone from which millions have fled since the beginning of the war.

russia-ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square with the Spasskaya Tower on the right, in Moscow, Russia, Friday. Source: AP/PA Images

The Kremlin manufactured fantastical statistics with near-unanimous affirmative votes and turnout. In Donetsk, for example, 99 per cent of the population were deemed to have voted “yes” with 97.5-percent turning out to vote. This was despite the fact that Russia only controls roughly 60 per cent of the region.

The implausibly high votes demonstrate how little Putin cares about the legal credibility of this imperialist land grab. Despite promoting a personality cult for two decades Putin doesn’t take any chances with elections or referenda. As the legendary grandmaster, Garry Kasparov put it: “In chess, the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable, whereas in Putin’s Russia the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed”.

Annexation ceremony

Yesterday’s annexation ceremony in Moscow was another charade. It does not change the map of Ukraine nor does it alter realities on the ground. But it does tell us something about Putin’s mindset and how he would like to present his case to potential supporters.

Given the lack of good news from the front, Putin did not dwell on the progress of the war in his speech. Similarly, there was no update about the recently announced military mobilisation, which has already prompted 300,000 men to flee Russia.

Instead, Putin used the occasion to air a long list of historical grievances, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he claimed had been dissolved without asking the citizenry. This version of events omitted that in 1991 the people of Ukraine in every region had opted decisively for independence in a free, fair, and internationally recognised referendum.

russia-ukraine People watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address as they gather during celebrations marking the incorporation of the Luhansk region into Russia in Luhansk, Ukraine, Friday. Source: AP/PA Images

In Donetsk and Luhansk independence was the choice of 83 per cent of the people while in Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson the figure exceeded 90 per cent. Like the referenda, the annexation ceremony was a carefully choreographed theatrical exercise designed to project a message of unity. Putin’s summoned audience was largely confined to clients and sycophants on the Kremlin payroll, all nodding with occasional applause.

Imperialism

Putin excoriated centuries-old imperialism but somehow placed Russia above it. How were not it from imperialism, did Russia expand from being a small duchy around Moscow in the 14th century to the world’s biggest land empire in the 19th century, stretching from the Baltic Sea, across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic to Central Asia?

russia-ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to poetess from Donetsk region Bogdana Neshcheret before celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square with the Spasskaya Tower on the right, in Moscow, Russia, Friday. Source: AP/PA Images

Imperial attitudes persist in Russia today, not only evidenced by the invasion of Ukraine but also by the less advertised internal colonialism within Russia.

Putin’s cannon fodder troops have been disproportionately drawn from Russia’s national minorities. It is estimated, for example, that for every serviceman from Moscow killed in Ukraine, there have been 88 Dagestanis, 275 Buryats and 350 Tuvans.

‘The Satanic West’

What was most remarkable about Putin’s rambling speech on Friday was the paucity of references to Ukraine. Instead, Putin aimed his sights at the collective West.

Invoking the words of Jesus Christ, Putin described Western values as ‘outright Satanism’, which involved ‘a complete denial of man, the overthrow of faith and traditional values’. They imposed on children “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction”.

Instead of having mothers and fathers, Putin fumed, children would be forced to have “parent number one”, “number two”, and “number three”. One had to remember that this wasn’t a fiery religious sermon but a presidential address announcing the expansion of Russia’s territory.

There was a lot of ultra-nationalist chest-thumping. Russia was described as ‘a great thousand-year-old power, a whole civilisation’ which under Putin had ‘occupied its rightful place in the world’. The West, however, ‘needs to break Russia’ and any other state that will not agree to servitude.

Putin made a general pitch to those dissatisfied with the global order or simply unhappy with their lot in life. The speech targeted a broad audience: the exploited in the developing world, family value conservatives, and populists on the far-left or far-right of the political spectrum.

A global struggle

The sham votes and annexation ceremony are a response to the Ukrainian counteroffensive which has pulled off spectacular successes in recent weeks. Putin is trying to take control of the narrative, and signal to his own people that he is making Russia great again.

russia-ukraine 'Putin’s summoned audience was largely confined to clients and sycophants on the Kremlin payroll, all nodding with occasional applause' Source: AP/PA Images

However, the Russian president is on the back foot and in an effort to break free from international isolation and broaden the potential support base he has reframed the conflict from one of eliminating Nazism in Ukraine to pushing back against Western hegemony.

That they are fighting Anglo-Saxon Satanists forcing children to accept pronouns and involuntary gender reassignments underscores for Putin the nobility of Russia’s cause and justifies the casualties.

Putin has railed against colonialism at the very moment he tried to formalise one of the most flagrant acts of imperial aggression in modern European history. Once again, the Russian President has rolled the dice, risking the lives of millions.

There is also a message for Ukraine and the West. The Kremlin will now consider these four regions as Russian territories and therefore any attempt by Kyiv to liberate them will be interpreted as an attack on Russia.

Putin’s speech underlined that his war is not only with Ukraine but with the West. For him, at least in his rhetoric, Ukraine is the frontline in a much larger struggle.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has published widely on the subject. 

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