Faced with fierce opposition in Ukraine and devastating economic sanctions at home, Russian President Vladimir Putin is resorting to rhetoric reminiscent of Josef Stalin’s 1930s show trials.
Putin’s foreboding address on Wednesday compared opponents to “gnats” that seek to damage the country at the request of the West — ugly words that lay the ground for widespread repressions against anybody who dare to speak out against the conflict in Ukraine.
His diatribe appeared to reflect his dissatisfaction with the Russian offensive’s glacial pace, which has slowed on the outskirts of Kyiv and other places in northeastern Ukraine. Russian forces made further advances in the south, but they were unable to conquer the vital port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, and their progress down the Black Sea coast was also halted.
Meanwhile, Russia has been pounded by crushing Western sanctions that have blocked the government’s access to about half of the country’s hard currency reserves and hit many sectors of the economy.
Putin delivered a vicious rant at those who oppose his conduct, his dreams for a blitz in Ukraine shattered and economic consequences rapidly growing.
“The Russian people will always be able to discern real patriots from trash and traitors, and they will simply spit them out on the sidewalk like a gnat that unintentionally flew into their lips,” Putin stated during a teleconference with top officials on Wednesday. “I am confident that such a natural and essential cleaning of society would only enhance our country, our unity, togetherness, and preparedness to face any problems.”
For those familiar with Soviet history, the crude language had alarming similarities. During Stalin’s Great Terror, authorities referred to declared “enemies of the people” as “reptiles” or “mad dogs” during show trials.
Putin, his voice twisted by rage, accused Russians who oppose the conflict in Ukraine of being a “fifth column” who were willing to “sell their own mother” to serve Western interests.
“I don’t criticize individuals who own homes in Miami or on the French Riviera, or those who can’t live without foie gras, oysters, or so-called gender liberties,” Putin added. “It’s not an issue.” The issue is that many of those folks are mentally there (in the West), rather than here with our people, in Russia. They don’t recall or don’t realize that they are “merely… expendables deployed to inflict the greatest amount of harm on our people.”
The Russian State Investigative Committee announced the start of criminal investigations into various persons suspected of spreading “false information” about the military operation in Ukraine as he spoke.
Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a prominent blogger and socialite who has published books about French and Italian food and splits her time between Russia and southern France, was the first individual singled out by the country’s top investigative agency. She looked to be a natural target for Putin’s harsh portrayal of cosmopolitan Russians who enjoy fine dining and appear to be at odds with the general public.
The investigation committee said that it will seek an international arrest warrant for Belotserkovskaya, claiming that her Instagram posts “discredited” state officials and the military.
“I have been officially acknowledged to be a respectable person!” Belotserkovskaya wrote in response.
She is being probed under new law passed by the Kremlin-controlled parliament on March 4, less than a week after Putin authorized the invasion. It proposes prison penalties of up to 15 years for disseminating “fake” military material that contradicts the official narrative.
The conflict in Ukraine is described by Putin and his aides as a “special military operation” aimed at uprooting supposed “neo-Nazi nationalists” and removing a possible military danger to Russia—goals that have been dismissed by the majority of the world.
Even while the military pounded Mariupol, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities with indiscriminate barrages and airstrikes, killing untold thousands of people, Russian authorities have attributed the offensive’s sluggish pace to their intention to save civilians.
Because the actions in Ukraine contradicted official statements, the authorities moved fast to control the message, blocking access to foreign media websites, as well as Facebook and Instagram, and declaring its parent corporation Meta a “extremist” group.
The Kremlin has benefited from the tightening of information controls by rallying support from large segments of the populace who rely on state-controlled television as their primary source of news. State-run television programming have become more hostile to individuals who oppose the war.
When asked about incidents in which the letter “Z” — a sign used to identify Russian military vehicles in Ukraine that has been heavily promoted by the government — was spray-painted on the apartment doors of war critics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as a “emotional” move by Putin’s supporters.
Russian towns were swamped with “Z” posters and vehicles during the wartime propaganda effort. Schoolchildren were shown standing in groupings in the shape of the letter “Z” or dressed in “Z”-themed clothing.
Thousands of Russians came up to anti-war marches around the nation to risk instant detention, despite the harsh new laws, strong controls on information, and increasingly aggressive propaganda.
An employee of state television interrupted a live news program, displaying a homemade placard condemning the war, in a stunning show of resistance. Marina Ovsyannikova was fined $270, but she still faces a criminal investigation that might lead to her imprisonment.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most vehement political rival, was one of the loudest voices of discontent. He is currently serving 2 1/2 years in prison and faces a trial that may result in a 13-year term.
Navalny warned that the war will split up Russia in a speech before his trial on Tuesday, adding that “everyone’s job today is to resist the war.”