As Putin's makes bland speech, Prigozhin steps up verbal attacks on Russian military leadership

19 January, 08:23 PM
Putin at the Obukhov Plant, part of the concern Almaz-Antey (develops anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense equipment), January 18, 2023 (Photo:Sputnik/Ilya Pitalyov/Pool via REUTERS)

Putin at the Obukhov Plant, part of the concern Almaz-Antey (develops anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense equipment), January 18, 2023 (Photo:Sputnik/Ilya Pitalyov/Pool via REUTERS)

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's speech on Jan. 18 did not contain any significant decisions regarding the war against Ukraine, reads the latest report on Ukraine by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, or ISW.

The only thing the dictator tried to do was to reinforce the Kremlin’s absurd narrative about the "Great Patriotic Special Military Operation,” ISW’s analysts wrote.

Despite expectations and a number of predictions, the Russian leader did not use his speech on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the breaking of the Leningrad blockade to make significant statements about the Russo-Ukrainian war.

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This demonstrates that he is not confident in his ability to significantly influence the Russian information space, ISW analysts believe.

They note that in his speech on Jan. 18, Putin merely parroted the standard Kremlin lie that Russia began its invasion of Ukraine to defend Donbas from "neo-Nazis" in the Ukrainian government.

At the same time, there were no statements about a new wave of mobilization or a formal declaration of war, as speculated by a number of Russian "milbloggers" or military blogger, ISW wrote.

ISW said that this is not the first time that Putin has refused to use major public appearances to declare war — including a confusing New Year's speech and a canceled annual address to the Federal Assembly.

The ISW believes that Putin remains committed to influencing the Russian information space, but seems unwilling or unable to attempt a "dramatic speech" that would represent a significant deviation from his usual rhetoric.

At the same time, Putin's speech is likely part of a larger and relatively new information attempt by the Kremlin to fit the war against Ukraine into Russian national mythos about the Second World War in order to bolster support for the protracted campaign and mobilization. 

The dictator traditionally tried to use a symbolically important date for a domestic audience. Speaking to mark the 80th anniversary of the breaking of the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1943, Putin drew a parallel between the genocide of Leningrad and how modern Russia is allegedly fighting Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the Donbas. These statements echo the narratives that were heard in the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion about "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" and "Russian genocide."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complemented Putin's efforts by explicitly stating that Ukraine and the West are allegedly committing genocide against the Russian people. He said that the United States "organized a coalition of European countries to use Ukraine as a proxy in a war" against Russia — allegedly with the aim of "finally resolving the 'Russian question'."

This in being done "in the same way that (Nazi dictator) Adolf Hitler sought a ‘final solution’ to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population," the ISW quotes Lavrov as saying.

Lavrov claimed that Western officials’ desire for the strategic defeat of Russia was tantamount to the genocide of the Russian people.

ISW sees this as Lavrov's attempt to present the war against Ukraine as being as vital for Russians as the fight against Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The ISW analysts also said Lavrov's comments were "far more noteworthy" than Putin's speech: The ISW believes that such statements may indicate that the Kremlin is trying to safeguard Putin from possible criticism, instead instructing other senior officials to make more strident statements in an attempt to prepare Russia for a protracted war.

However, Lavrov's drawing parallels between Ukraine and Nazi Germany are "ludicrous and almost certainly aimed at a domestic Russian audience," ISW believes. The analysts note that Ukraine has never threatened to invade or seize territory outside its internationally recognized 1991 borders. Neither has NATO or any of its member states threatened to invade Russia, let alone seek the destruction of the Russian people.

The purpose of Lavrov's "outrageous and absurd" comparison was likely to complement Putin's rhetoric and other Russian attempts to convince its people that Ukraine and its Western allies allegedly pose a real and imminent threat to Russia and Russians, experts say.

The demonstrative construction of trenches and the creation of "people's militias" in the border regions of Russia — allegedly to protect against the non-existent threat of a Ukrainian invasion — probably served the same purpose. ISW sarcastically characterized such steps as an attempt by Putin and Lavrov to conduct a "Great Patriotic Special Military Operation wrapped in the banners of the Red Army."

In fact, Putin and Lavrov continue to deny Ukraine's sovereignty and categorically refuse to hold direct talks with it. In his speech, the dictator reiterated that Russia is allegedly fighting to protect people living in its "historical territories," while Lavrov explicitly stated that "there can be no talk of negotiations with Zelenskyy."

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In addition, Putin continues his efforts to revitalize Russia's military-industrial complex in support of the ongoing war against Ukraine. On Jan. 18, he visited workers at the Obukhov Plant, part of the state defense concern Almaz-Antey. There, the dictator made a number of statements about increasing the production of the Russian defense industry, emphasizing that the plant's employees work in three shifts and are exempt from mobilization.

In addition, Putin also used the visit to call the war against Ukraine "absolutely justified" because of the alleged "fight against neo-Nazis."

Meanwhile, Wagner PMC head Yevgeny Prigozhin has become increasingly bold in his verbal attacks on the Russian Defense Ministry.

“Putin's chef” (as Prigozhin is nicknamed) criticized the new rules of the Ministry of Defense for Russian military personnel (restrictions on the use of personal vehicles, telephones, requirements for uniforms and appearance, including shaving).

Prigozhin stated that "war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven.” He also called for "developing (the military) along with the development of modern warfare, learning how to effectively kill the enemy and seize territories," rather than "combing everyone under your ridiculous rules, principles and whims." 

ISW said this was another statement by Prigozhin among others aimed at undermining the credibility of the Russian Defense Ministry and promoting Prigozhin himself as the face of Russia's campaign against Ukraine.

Prigozhin also made one of his most direct attacks on the Putin administration so far. Speaking about the ongoing debate on the ban of YouTube in Russia, Prigozhin called those who oppose the closure of the service "traitors to their people and their country, traitors to previous and future generations of Russians."

"We have a huge number of people today on Staraya Square in the Presidential Administration who think only of one thing — that Russia would rather lose the war, that the Americans would rather come and regulate us," Prigozhin said.

He also said that "in the near future YouTube will be closed" in Russia, "and those who actively use YouTube, in turn, will be identified and will be punished as they deserve."

The ISW believes that in this way, figures like Prigozhin and military blogger and convicted MH17 murderer Igor Girkin are creating a new space in Russia for criticizing Vladimir Putin "without fear of retribution."

Prigozhin, Girkin and other leading Russian nationalists "have been opening a new sector in the Russian information space where certain figures can criticize Putin and the highest echelons of the Russian government without any apparent retribution," ISW states.

At the same time, Putin has so far been hesitant to censor these voices.

Other takeaways of ISW analysts over the past day:

  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions near Kreminna;
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Soledar, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City;
  • The Russian MoD continues to attempt to downplay the role of the Wagner Group in claimed tactical advances in the Soledar area;
  • Ukrainian officials have indicated that Russian forces are concentrating in Zaporizhya Oblast, possibly for a large defensive or offensive effort;
  • Russian forces’ increasing use of incendiary munitions to conduct what appear to be otherwise routine strikes in southern Ukraine supports ISW’s recent assessment that Russian forces likely face a shortage of conventional artillery rounds;
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources continued to indicate that Russian authorities are likely preparing for a second wave of mobilization.

Battle map: battle for Bakhmut and Soledar, fighting in Donbas, southern and northeastern Ukraine

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