NEW YORK (AP) — In the face of strong resistance in Ukraine and crippling economic sanctions at home, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using language reminiscent of the rhetoric of Josef Stalin’s 1930s show trials.
Putin’s ominous speech on Wednesday likened opponents to ‘mosquitoes’ trying to weaken the country at the behest of the West – crude remarks that have paved the way for sweeping crackdowns on those who dare to speak out against the war in Ukraine.
His rant seemed to reflect his frustration with the slowness of the Russian offensive, which was bogged down in the outskirts of kyiv and around other towns in northeastern Ukraine. Russian forces made relatively greater gains in the south, but they were unable to capture the strategic port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, and their advance along the Black Sea coast is also stalled.
Meanwhile, Russia has been battered by devastating Western sanctions that have cut off government access to around half of the country’s hard currency reserves and dealt crippling blows to many sectors of the economy.
With his hopes of a blitz in Ukraine shattered and the economic costs mounting rapidly, Putin launched a venomous rant against those who oppose his course.
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths – spit them out on the sidewalk,” Putin said on Wednesday’s call with senior officials. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, our cohesion and our ability to respond to all challenges.”
The foul language bore ominous parallels for those familiar with Soviet history. During Stalin’s Great Terror show trials, authorities denigrated declared “enemies of the people” as “reptiles” or “rabid dogs”.
Voice strained with anger, Putin accused Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine of being a “fifth column” obsequiously serving Western interests and ready to “sell out their own mother”.
“I don’t condemn those who have villas in Miami or on the French Riviera, those who cannot live without foie gras, without oysters or without so-called gender freedoms,” Putin said. “It’s not a problem. The problem is that a lot of these people are mentally there (in the West) and not here with our people, with Russia. They don’t remember or just don’t understand that they are just… consumables used for the purpose of inflicting maximum damage on our people.
As he spoke, the Russian State Investigative Committee announced the opening of criminal investigations against several people accused of spreading “false information” about military action in Ukraine.
The first person singled out by the country’s leading investigative agency was Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a popular blogger and socialite who has written books on French and Italian cuisine and splits her time between Russia and the south of France. She seemed like a target conveniently fitting Putin’s scathing description of cosmopolitan Russians who love fine dining and are seemingly at odds with the broad masses.
The investigative committee said it would issue an international arrest warrant for Belotserkovskaya, alleging that her Instagram posts “discredited” state authorities and the military.
Belotserkovskaya responded by writing, “I have been officially declared to be a decent person!”
She is being investigated under fast-track new legislation on March 4 by the Kremlin-controlled parliament, a week after Putin launched the invasion. He is considering prison terms of up to 15 years for publishing “false” information about the military that differs from the official narrative.
Putin and his lieutenants describe the war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” designed to root out suspected “neo-Nazi nationalists” and eliminate a potential military threat to Russia – goals that most of the world has dismissed as bogus.
Russian officials attributed the slow pace of the offensive to their desire to spare civilians, even as the army pounded Mariupol, kyiv, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities with barrages and indiscriminate airstrikes, killing scores countless civilians.
With the action in Ukraine in stark contrast to official statements, authorities moved quickly to control the message, shutting down access to foreign media websites, as well as Facebook and Instagram and banning their parent company Meta as an organization ” extremist”.
Tight lids on information have helped the Kremlin support broad sections of the population who rely on state-controlled television as their main source of information. State television programs carried an increasingly aggressive message against those who oppose the war.
Asked about the incidents in which the doors of war critics’ apartments were spray-painted with the letter “Z” – a sign used to mark Russian military vehicles in Ukraine that has been heavily promoted by the state – the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as an “emotional move” by Putin supporters.
The Support for War campaign saw Russian cities flooded with ‘Z’ posters and vehicles emblazoned with this symbol. School children were depicted standing in letter-shaped groups or wearing clothing marked with a “Z”.
Despite draconian new laws, tight information controls and increasingly aggressive propaganda, thousands of Russians showed up at anti-war demonstrations across the country to face immediate arrest.
In a potent symbol of defiance, a state television employee interrupted a live news program, holding a handmade sign protesting the war. Marina Ovsyannikova was fined the equivalent of $270, but still faces a criminal investigation that could land her in jail.
A strong voice of dissent was that of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s fiercest political enemy who is serving 2½ years in prison and now faces a trial that could earn him a 13-year sentence.
In a speech at his trial on Tuesday, Navalny warned that war would lead to the breakup of Russia, saying “everyone’s duty now is to oppose war.”