Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
President Biden’s trip to Ukraine – bringing words of support and aid – is in stark contrast to the soviet-esque display of Putin’s address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, with tales of grain harvests and nuclear missile rattling. And while Putin had a day to upstage his US counterpart, his chosen narrative demonstrates desperation more than he would dare imagine.
Planned months in advance, the secretive trip of President Biden to Kyiv was aptly timed to precede the speech of Russia’s President Putin. Walking through Kyiv, with air-raid sirens hailing, the American exuded leadership far beyond Putin’s Brezhnev-like static speech from a podium. And while Biden and Zelenski spoke at a joint press conference on the means to end the war, with Biden bringing half a billion dollars more aid to Ukraine with him, Putin completely avoided the topic – testament to his lack of grip on the situation. Left only with the prospect of an endless war, surrounded by enemies and with friends who refuse to support nuclear escalation, the Russian President had to appeal to the elites, attempting to reconcile any prior animosity they may have held for him after asset freezes in the west.
There is no better way to publicly demonstrate contempt than through television and Putin’s attitude to the west, and especially to Ukraine, was aptly demonstrated by those seated in the audience for his speech. Directly after the first rows of Russia’s top politicians were the men in uniform – many of whom were captured in Ukraine and transferred to Russia in prisoner exchanges. One of the men, Alexader Krasnoyartsev, was shot down over Chernihiv in March 2022 after conducted bombing raids over the Ukrainian city and admitted to consciously murdering at least one civilian. The pilot previously bombed targets in Syria.
The inclusion of known war criminals in a globally televised speech is no less a statement on Putin’s disregard for any western actions than his constant references to nuclear weapons. Be they the comments on moving “threats further from our borders” or the final statement on freezing participation in the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms treaty, the Kremlin’s occupant made it clear that he did not care for western laws on war crimes or common sense rules on the use of nuclear weapons. However, while the former makes him look like a blood thirsty tyrant, the latter is making him look weak to the point of impotency.
The state of the Russian nuclear arsenal remains an unanswered question. Although the Russian President announced that 91% have been modernised, it is not clear what the meaning of this is. Certainly, considering the flailing state of the Russian army, as witnessed in Ukraine, and the considerable upkeep costs for nuclear missiles, together with the added secrecy and lack of transparency – Russia’s strategic missile forces are a hotbed of corruption. As Putin went on to comment on the old and decrepit state of US nuclear arms, this may ring too close to home for his own forces.
Still, as sabre rattling goes, the 21st February speech was a tour de force, promising to bring the threat further from Russian borders in light of the ever longer reaching weapons given to Ukraine. With Russian missile stocks slowly dwindling, and being ever more prone to Ukrainian counterattack, he could only have referred to nuclear arms.
Going nuclear has been a trick up Russia’s sleeve ever since the Cuban missile crisis, but with the country no longer a global superpower – arguably, economically almost entirely a Chinese pawn – there remains the question of whether we should care about Putin’s rhetoric?
On the same day as Putin’s speech, explosions were heard, and building went ablaze in the Russian city of Belgorod. Close to Ukraine, it is a common launch site for S-300 rockets used to hit, more often than not, civilian targets. Indeed, it was these very rockets, apparently shot down by Ukrainian air defence, that came crushing down. Would nuclear missiles be any different?
As we consider the messages delivered by the two Presidents, it is also worth remembering the silent majority – China. As China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, came to Moscow on the same day as Putin’s speech, marking an end to an eight-day trip to western capitals, in preparation for a Chinese ceasefire plan, can the largest economy in the world hold back Russia’s potential suicidal moves?
With the Chinese standing close by, and even aiding Russia through increased trade and the sale of non-lethal military equipment, there is a larger question of whether Russia’s neighbour to the east will allow an escalation? We have already witnessed Russia’s reported deference to China in the dates of Russian invasion and the Beijing 2022 Olympics, which ended 2 days before the Russian attack. Considering the existential crisis that will be brought on by the use of nuclear weapons, China is unlikely to stand idly by. Nuclear holocaust is not “a peaceful and sustainable framework to Europe” that Mr Wang announced ahead of the trip to Moscow.