Voices: The real surprise of 2023? That Putin is still standing

Well, he hasn’t changed the script much. For Vladimir Putin, it was as if the past year of setbacks, debates, and humiliation for his own forces had never happened. For him, absurdly, it was the West that started the war, and is “culpable” – not Russia.

It is, apparently, the Ukrainians who are the aggressive neo-Nazis, and not the brutal nationalists in the Kremlin who sent the tanks into Ukraine a year ago and, unable to prevail on the battlefield, have spent the last 12 months terrorising civilians. Even now, with so many casualties that the Russian president has had to announce a new national agency to support the bereaved, the biggest war in Europe since 1945 is still referred to using the euphemism “special military operation”.

Putin still claims that Ukraine is not a legitimate independent nation but the invention of a Polish and Austro-Hungarian empire plot dating back to the 19th century. The United States, as ever, is the villain that destroyed Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, and now wants, presumably, to destroy Ukraine – though it is Kremlin forces that are bombing blocks of flats and power stations, and committing war crimes across the occupied territories. Ukraine, in this grotesque narrative, is being used by the West as “a ram against Russia”, and in response Russia is “using force to stop the war”.

The old propaganda tropes about Western chemical weapons factories and Ukraine acquiring nuclear weapons were repeated again. For the benefit of those in the West who favour Putin’s reactionary values, and are inclined to be apologists, he accuses Western governments of declaring paedophilia “normal” and “forcing priests” to conduct equal-marriage ceremonies. The serried ranks of suited bureaucrats, soldiers in dress uniforms, and clergy nodded and applauded on cue.

As if to prove the effectiveness of Western sanctions, Putin spent a good deal of time making up statistics about Russia’s fabulous economic performance. Listening to his grindingly tedious farrago of lies, one would never have thought it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, its smaller neighbour, entirely unprovoked on 24 February 2022. Even if everything Putin said about Nato provocation and the treatment of Russian speakers were true, it wouldn’t justify, morally or legally, the attempted annexation of another nation.

Having said all that, though, the guy is still standing. That is the real surprise of 2023. Despite the failure of his “special military operation”, the degradation of living standards in Russia, and international isolation, Putin hasn’t been overthrown by way of either popular revolt, military intervention or palace coup. There have been some demonstrations, and the occasional story about misgivings within the small cliques that run the country, but as far as can be judged, Putin’s position remains secure.

Despite his slightly bizarre appearance (the puffy face), the deluded, paranoid view of the world, and rumours about treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s, neither has Putin conveniently succumbed to illness.

It isn’t difficult to see how he holds the fort. He controls the media in a way that ensures the Russian people are only ever exposed to one ubiquitous narrative, of Nato’s hostility, wolfish aggression and moral degeneration. It was hoped by many that the internet would help break this hold on the flow of news and information, but most Russians still rely on television, and the broadcasts are full of stooges who’d make Putin blush: people whose only vague criticism of the government is that it has been too soft on the neo-Nazis of Kyiv.

The casualties, and even the military defeats, can’t be entirely camouflaged, but they’ve been turned into chapters in a nationalistic narrative of heroic defiance. The Russian people are as brainwashed as at any time in their history, with the exception of the height of the Stalin era. It is hard to believe from a Western perspective, with the Wild West free-for-all that is our media and social media landscape, but it is a reality we have to confront.

The departure of McDonald’s, Renault and Shell has been noticed, obviously, but it has not destroyed morale. The Russians have been through worse, and they are being convinced that this is the kind of patriotic sacrifice they must make. The one front on which the Kremlin has been successful is the propaganda war.

But there is more to it than that. Putin’s repetition of confused myths and legends feeds into a century of paranoia, admittedly sometimes justified, about malign “Western” intentions, dating back to the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, then Operation Barbarossa, and only briefly punctuated by intermittent attempts at detente. The Russians, for strong historic reasons, find it impossible to see themselves as fascists or neo-Nazis, even as their leader follows a Hitlerite playbook.

The uncomfortable truth is that Putin’s preoccupation with his country’s diminished status in the world, his nostalgia for the order and respect the old USSR commanded, and a deference towards even older Orthodox Christian traditional beliefs, is shared by many of his own citizens.

They’ve grown up on a historical mash-up of Tsarist and Soviet heroic iconography, from Peter the Great to Yuri Gagarin. Red stars and double-headed eagles coexist in the regalia of modern Russia, and they know who the historic enemy is. It is a deeply entrenched culture of persecution, which the West did far too little to assuage in the short window of opportunity that opened up, broadly speaking, between the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the arrival of Putin and his revanchist agenda in 2000.

The opportunity for a real partnership envisaged by Mikhail Gorbachev was hardly explored in the chaotic Yeltsin years, and to that extent, the West let Russia down – and damaged its own long-term interests and those of world peace.

When this war is over, and Ukraine has regained its independence, the West should not be vindictive towards the people of Russia. To take the path of demanding reparations and the like would feed yet another generation of resentments and myths of betrayal. Dealing with war crimes and the position of Putin, if he survives in place, will be a big enough challenge, and will force some difficult decisions.

Assuming that “unconditional surrender” isn’t Ukrainian or Western policy, we need now to start thinking about a new security framework to secure long-term peace in Europe. In other words, the West has to do what it failed to do after the Second World War and the Cold War were won, and make a plan for a stable, enduring peace with Russia.