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  • Asher Stein

Reflecting on Putin's February


Vladimir Putin has been having a great month, beginning with a tête-à-tête organised by Tucker Carlson, the USA’s most famous talking head. Deriding American involvement in the war became a favourite activity this year, and in this interview Carlson finally proved himself as a Russian lapdog: Putin’s ideology streamed out unabated for all the world to see. That is precisely what makes this spectacle important: it is no different from what you’d find on Russian TV, but it marks the most significant instance Putin’s irredentist and revisionist ideology directly reached the ears of a broad Western audience.


Then on 16 February, one week after uploading, Alexei Navalny died on the FKU IK-3 maximum security Gulag in Siberia after two years of imprisonment. As of 19 February, at least 300 citizens have been put in jail for mourning him, and his mother is forbidden from holding a public funeral. Navalny was the best-known opposition figure in Russian politics, a reliable counter to every word spewed from the Kremlin’s walls; to Putin, news of his death must have felt like the last nail in a coffin.


Now, on 18 February, Russian forces captured the now-leveled city of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast, its largest victory since May’s siege of Bakhmut. The frontline remains far behind Putin’s dream of rebuilding the Rus, but it makes up almost all lost territory in Donetsk since 2022.


His enemy does not look as fit as it did six months ago: President Zelensky’s counteroffensive has puttered, culminating in the 8 February dismissal of his popular right-hand man, commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi. We may be tempted to ask again whether a new phase of war is approaching: with the Ukrainian army struggling to tread water and Putin’s image as formidable as ever, what can we infer about the ‘special operation’ if we follow these threads?

 

Navalny dies


Alexei Navalny grew from a classic ethnonationalist to an anti-imperial civic nationalist in his last years, becoming a Western media darling and the Kremlin’s most vocal detractor. His death by exhaustion was an anticlimactic end to a dramatic story: in August 2020, German doctors had kept him from the brink of death after a dramatic airborne assassination attempt with a Soviet-era nerve agent. 


Apprehended upon his return to Moscow, on 2 February 2021 Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in corrective colonies for violating parole by travelling to Germany. Rare mass protest followed the verdict widely considered a death sentence, a clear sign that Putin’s hegemony was incomplete. The European Court of Human Rights and Amnesty International demanded his release, foreshadowing the international pressure to come: he began consolidating troops on the border just one month later. 


In choosing the path of full-scale war, the Kremlin would have to add a new dimension to the securitized Ukraine: its government is a NATO-aspirant “neo-Nazi” threat to the Russian people (no matter if they call themselves ‘Ukrainians’), and the nation must be liberated from their rule. This has evolved into an elaborate effort to rewrite the last eight hundred years of Eurasian geopolitics.

 

The Interview


The Carlson interview is interesting for showing exactly this, the current state of Putin’s idea of Russia: though ‘incoherent’ (to borrow Navalny’s words) as ever, and echoing a 2021 essay written anticipating the invasion, we can certainly see some themes in Putin’s logic: he will never admit to a firm goal under which he would be satisfied, while ‘the West’ is painted both as a quasi-fascist empire and an irrational international actor.


In this way, incoherence actually works to his benefit: the limits of who should be considered ‘Russian’ are never delimited, while a story of salvation for the Russian people from Western oppression is taken as the rational, inherent right of his national mission.


This narrative is not entirely new, but it also has not always been his primary logic; Putin insists on spending the first quarter of the interview with this historical imagination (in response to the inane ‘why’d you do it?’ opening query), indicating an attempt at retroactive justification rather than dwell on the still absurd ‘neo-Nazi’ excuse.


Critically, without Navalny there is now no competing idea of Russian nationalism. Unless Yulia Navalnaya manages to take Alexei’s mantle, for now Putin has laid the opposition to rest. Now if we want to understand Putin’s ambitions, we must understand his rhetoric.

 

Avdiivka falls


That’s what makes the 18 February defeat so pressing: the submission of Avdiivka proves that the current approach will not lead to Ukrainian victory. Following the UK’s lead in January, France, Germany,  Canada, and Italy took the hint with ambitious bilateral funding agreements, understanding that the material balance is still greatly in Russia’s favor.


But can the United States follow suit? Poll after poll indicates public weariness towards the conflict. Joe Biden for his part tries to display unwavering support, but congressional backing is waning and Donald Trump has proven himself just as avid a bootlicker as his friend Tucker.


Regardless, keeping up such ardent material support may prove impossible in the future: Germany and Britain are officially in recession, and France seems poised to follow suit. Putin’s attrition tactic seems to be breaking far beyond the front line.


It is perhaps finally possible to judge the efficacy of this sanctions program, especially as the West prepares new ones to avenge Navalny: they have not prevented Putin from creating a successful war economy, and maintaining them is financially unsustainable for Europe; Putin expressed his satisfaction with both facts straight to Tucker’s face.


With an unstable status quo, the road now forks: will the West go all-in (as of 19 February, Biden is reportedly “considering supplying Ukraine with long-range missiles”) or will it consider formal negotiation, a prospect which Putin would apparently welcome? One way or the other, we might expect more big news in the coming weeks.

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