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President Putin’s anti-Western narratives that justify the invasion of Ukraine

Author: Eleni Anagnostopoulou

Editor: Ruth Lucas

The Russo-Ukraine conflict has been addressed from a multitude of angles: from battlefield developments, European security and NATO, and the energy and food crises to sanctions. What isn’t adequately examined is the use of Russian state narratives that justify the invasion. Scholars like Khaldarova, Pupcenoks and Seltzer and Livingston and Nassetta have already conducted narrative studies on the post-2014 escalation. However, regarding the February 2022 development, official rhetoric is generally overlooked.

Narratives are defined as “means used by powerful political actors seeking to construct a shared meaning of past, present and future of international politics to shape the behaviour of domestic and international actors”. By cultivating what is considered ‘true’ and ‘right’, narratives can mobilise a consensual understanding of “how things are, what must be done, and by whom”. In other words, the Kremlin shaped meaning around the “Special Military Operation” to persuade the Russian people that the invasion of Ukraine is justifiable.

This article sheds light on Moscow’s rhetoric, whose anti-Western nature is owing to the consistent demonisation of Ukrainian authorities as agents of the West. The ultimate purpose is to frame Western geopolitical ambitions as responsible for the crises in Europe’s eastern borders. Even though one can argue that the West contributed to the escalation spiral, such framing entirely dismisses that the Russian army committed an act of aggression on Ukrainian land, regardless if the concerned territory is a disputed one.

Defending sovereignty and independence

The Russian President has systematically invoked the sovereignty and independence principles. Three days leading to the invasion, Russia recognised the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist oblasts. In response to international condemnation, Putin said that Russia signed the independence treaties because the Ukrainians had failed to implement the Minsk Agreement on the status of the Donbas region. So, like in Crimea, the Russian leadership allegedly acted to defend the right to self-determination of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics denied to them by the central Kyiv government.

Putin projected this narrative again to legitimise the signing of the annexation referendums in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine in September 2022. This “Pro-Russia victory” was staged by Moscow-installed officials and was widely treated as a sham by Kyiv and Western countries. By referring to the UN Charter and the historical affinity between Russia and Ukraine, Putin remarked that “there is nothing stronger than the determination of millions of people…to return to their true historical homeland”. The basis of this is the rejection of the rules-based system governed by Western liberal values. This supposed US-led hegemonic and unipolar order disregards “the inviolability of borders”. During the accession ceremony, Putin asked: “Where did that come from anyway? Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them?”.

De-Nazifying Ukraine

Putin’s commitment to the so-called “Special Military Operation” is motivated by Soviet perseverance and sacrifices during the Great Patriotic war. He repeatedly accused the Ukrainian authorities of the “genocide of the almost four million people who live in these territories”, referring to physical attacks and the purported repression of national self-determination perpetrated against the local ethnic Russian population by “neo-Nazis”. He essentially compared Kyiv’s “numerous bloody crimes” in eastern Ukraine with Hitler’s atrocities towards the Russian population.

To wield Russia’s historical animosity towards the Nazi regime and increase popular support for the war, Putin announced the mobilisation of 300,000 army reservists against the Ukrainians as the first one since WWII against the Nazis. The image of Ukraine as an enemy, constructed based on the memory of victory in WWII, is intrinsically tied to Russian patriotism and national unity. But Russia was not the only country to have courageously fought against Nazism. Groups motivated by extremist or far-right ideologies to use violence exist in Ukraine like in any other country in this world. This misuse of the history of the Second World War and the term genocide does not justify Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterisation of Ukraine.

Russia vs NATO

Having entered the mainstream of Russian decision-making, the perceived pressure deriving from NATO further reinforces ethno-nationalist ideas. The Russian leadership’s assertive foreign policy, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, underscores a story presenting NATO’s military infrastructure in eastern Europe as an existential threat to Russia’s national security. Right before the invasion, Putin highlighted that “we are categorically opposed to Ukraine joining NATO because this poses a threat to us”. Under this premise, NATO’s eastward expansion has prescribed Russia to defend its Near Abroad.

On the day of the invasion, Putin kept repeating that Russia’s attempts to reach an agreement with Western countries concerning NATO’s non-expansion have been in vain. He asserted that a “hostile anti-Russia” has been established that challenges “the very existence of our state and its sovereignty”. Analysts have argued that by invading Ukraine, Putin “managed the trick of pulling NATO closer than ever before, with larger exercises and reinforcement strategies”. Still, NATO’s Deputy Secretary Mircea Geoană noted that albeit the increased provision of military assistance towards Ukraine, the Alliance wishes to avoid the risk of escalation with Russia.

If Ukraine, aided by the West, continues reclaiming occupied land in the southeast, Putin will keep narrating that Russia’s territorial integrity is under direct attack to legitimate any “defensive” military actions against enemies of the Motherland and deny Moscow’s responsibility for the war in Ukraine.

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