‘We know how to defend our interests’: Putin’s emerging hard line

With an air of moral superiority, the Russian president seems intent on teaching President Biden and other Western leaders a lesson.

The world according to President Vladimir Putin looks like this: Russia is on the rise while the West is in chaos.

The West, spurred on by a new US president who is more anti-Russian than his predecessor, seeks Russia’s — and Putin’s — destruction.

And it is time for Russia, imbued with a moral authority and a thinning supply of patience, to hit back.

“They may think that we are like them, but we are different, with a different genetic, cultural and moral code,” Putin said last month, excoriating the United States. “We know how to defend our interests.”

As he masses troops near Ukraine, puts down domestic dissent and engages in a fast-intensifying conflict with President Joe Biden, Putin is on the verge of decisions that could define a new, even harder-line phase of his presidency. On Wednesday, Putin is scheduled to deliver his annual state of the nation address, a speech that could shed light on just how far he is prepared to escalate tensions with the West.

Now in his third decade in power, Putin, 68, appears more convinced than ever of his special, historic role as the father of a reborn Russian nation, fighting at home and abroad against a craven, hypocritical, morally decaying West.

“This sense of superiority mixed with arrogance gives him a feeling of power, and this is dangerous,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst who has studied Putin for years. “When you think you are more powerful and more wise than everyone else around you, you think you have a certain historical mandate for more wide-ranging action.”

Putin has made moves in recent weeks that, even by his standards, signal an escalation in his conflict with those he perceives as his enemies, foreign and domestic. Russian prosecutors last week filed suit to outlaw the organisation of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a step that could result in the most intense wave of political repression in post-Soviet Russia. In Russia’s southwest, Putin has massed some 100,000 troops — a force, the Kremlin has indicated, that could be prepared to move into neighbouring Ukraine.

Putin’s opponents have called for protests across the country Wednesday in support of Navalny, who his allies say is on a hunger strike and near death in a Russian prison. The protests are likely to be forcefully broken up by the police.

To his critics and much of the outside world, Putin’s recent actions look like paranoia. But to his supporters and to analysts who follow him closely, his moves have a certain internal logic — revolving around the conviction that the West seeks to weaken Russia and that Putin is integral to its strength.

The election of Biden, despite his promise to be tough on Russia, initially gave the Kremlin hope, analysts say. He was seen as more professional, reliable and pragmatic than President Donald Trump, with a worldview shaped by a Cold War era of diplomacy in which Washington and Moscow engaged as equal superpowers with a responsibility for global security. In their first phone call in January, Biden and Putin agreed to extend the New START arms-control treaty, a Russian foreign policy goal that the Kremlin had failed to achieve with Trump.

Then came the television interview in March in which Biden assented when asked whether Putin was a “killer.” A month later, that moment — to which Russian officials and commentators responded with a squall of prime-time-televised, anti-American fury — looks like a turning point. It was followed by last week’s raft of US sanctions against Russia, combined with Biden’s call for a summit meeting with Putin, which to many Russians looked like a crude U.S. attempt to negotiate from a position of strength.

“This is seen as an unacceptable situation — you won’t chase us into the stall with sanctions,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Russia built up troops near the Ukrainian border, claiming it was responding to heightened military activity by NATO and Kyiv. And it stepped up the pressure on Navalny, whom the Kremlin sees as an agent of U.S. influence, culminating in last Friday’s filing by prosecutors to declare his organisation “extremist” and illegal.

The extremism designation against Navalny’s organisation, which a Moscow court will consider in a secret trial starting next week, would effectively force Russia’s most potent opposition movement underground and could result in years long prison terms for pro-Navalny activists.

Navalny, meanwhile, remains on hunger strike in a Russian prison hospital, insisting he be allowed to be seen by doctors of his choosing. A lawyer who visited him, Vadim Kobzev, reported Tuesday that Navalny’s arms were punctured and bruised after three nurses tried and failed six times to hook him up to an intravenous drip.

“If you saw me now, you would laugh,” said a letter from Navalny his team posted to social media. “A skeleton walking, swaying, in its cell.”

The White House has warned the Russian government it “will be held accountable” if Navalny dies in prison. Western officials — and Navalny’s supporters and allies — reject the idea that the opposition leader is acting on another country’s behalf.

But in the Kremlin’s logic, Navalny is a threat to Russian statehood, doing the West’s bidding by undermining Putin. It is Putin, Trenin said, who is keeping Russia stable by maintaining a balance between competing factions in Russia’s ruling elite.

“If Putin leaves, a battle between different groups breaks out, and Russia withdraws into itself, has no time for the rest of the world and no longer gets in anyone’s way,” Trenin said. “The West is, of course, using Navalny, and will use him to create problems for Putin and, in the longer term, help Putin become history in one way or another.”

How far Putin goes in striking back against the West’s real or imagined hostility is still an open question. In the state news media, the mood music is dire. On the flagship weekly news show on the Rossiya 1 channel Sunday, host Dmitry Kiselyov closed a segment on Putin’s showdown with Biden by reminding viewers of Poseidon — a new weapon in Russia’s nuclear arsenal that Putin revealed three years ago.

“Russia’s armed forces are ready to test-fire a nuclear torpedo that would cause radioactive tsunamis capable of flooding enemy cities and making them uninhabitable for decades,” a translation of a Danish newspaper report intoned.

Still, there are signs that Putin does not want tensions with the West to spiral out of control.

As Europe and the United States scrambled to assess the Russian troop buildup in late March, Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, spoke on the phone with his US counterpart, Gen. Mark Milley. On Monday, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Putin’s Security Council, discussed the prospect of a presidential summit with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser. And the Kremlin said this week that Putin would speak at Biden’s online climate change meeting Thursday.

Stanovaya, the analyst, says she is convinced that Putin himself is more interested than his hawkish advisers in looking for ways to work with the United States. She explained her view by pointing to Putin’s determination to return Russia to the ranks of great powers.

“Putin very much believes in his mission as a great, historic figure with responsibility not only for Russia, but also for global security,” Stanovaya said. “He doesn’t understand how it is that the American president doesn’t feel the same way.”

Written by: Anton Troianovski
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Brendan Hoffman

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