European Union Trade Daily

Russia is a militarized threat to Europe and the West

Robyn Dixon, May 6, 2024,, Under Putin, a militarized new Russia rises to challenge U.S. and the West

MOSCOW — As Vladimir Putin persists in his bloody campaign to conquer Ukraine, the Russian leader is directing an equally momentous transformation at home — re-engineering his country into a regressive, militarized society that views the West as its mortal enemy.

Putin’s inauguration on Tuesday for a fifth term will not only mark his 25-year-long grip on power but also showcase Russia’s shift into what pro-Kremlin commentators call a “revolutionary power,” set on upending the global order, making its own rules, and demanding that totalitarian autocracy be respected as a legitimate alternative to democracy in a world redivided by big powers into spheres of influence. 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus ($22459) 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus ($22459) Ad “Russians live in a wholly new reality,” Dmitri Trenin, a pro-Kremlin analyst, wrote in reply to questions about an essay in which he argued that Russia’s anti-Western shift was “more radical and far-reaching” than anything anticipated when Putin invaded Ukraine but also “a relatively minor element of the wider transformation which is going on in Russia’s economy, polity, society, culture, values, and spiritual and intellectual life.” In “Russia, Remastered,” The Washington Post documents the historic scale of the changes Putin is carrying out and has accelerated with breathtaking speed during two years of brutal war even as tens of thousands of Russians have fled abroad. It is a crusade that gives Putin common cause with China’s Xi Jinping as well as some supporters of former president Donald Trump. And it raises the prospect of an enduring civilizational conflict to subvert Western democracy and — Putin has warned — even threatens a new world war. Forging an ultraconservative, puritanical society mobilized against liberal freedoms and especially hostile to gay and transgender people, in which family policy and social welfare spending boost traditional Orthodox values. Reshaping education at all levels to indoctrinate a new generation of turbo-patriot youth, with textbooks rewritten to reflect Kremlin propaganda, patriotic curriculums set by the state and, from September, compulsory military lessons taught by soldiers called “Basics of Security and Protection of the Motherland,” which will include training on handling Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades and drones. Sterilizing cultural life with blacklists of liberal or antiwar performers, directors, writers and artists, and with new nationalistic mandates for museums and filmmakers. Mobilizing zealous pro-war activism under the brutal Z symbol, which was initially painted on the side of Russian tanks invading Ukraine but has since spread to government buildings, posters, schools and orchestrated demonstrations. Rolling back women’s rights with a torrent of propaganda about the need to give birth — young and often — and by curbing ease of access to abortions, and charging feminist activists and liberal female journalists with terrorism, extremism, discrediting the military and other offenses. Rewriting history to celebrate Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who sent millions to the gulag, through at least 95 of the 110 monuments in Russia erected during Putin’s time as leader. Meanwhile, Memorial, a human rights group that exposed Stalin’s crimes and shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, was shut down and its pacificist co-chairman Oleg Orlov, 71, jailed. Accusing scientists of treason; equating criticism of the war or of Putin with terrorism or extremism; and building a new, militarized elite of “warriors and workers” willing to take up arms, redraw international boundaries and violate global norms on orders of Russia’s strongman ruler. “They’re trying to develop this scientific Putinism as a basis of propaganda, as a basis of ideology, as a basis of historical education,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “They need an obedient new generation — indoctrinated robots in an ideological sense — supporting Putin, supporting his ideas, supporting this militarization of consciousness.” Just before ordering what he believed would be a short, shock war on Ukraine, Putin published a little-noticed decree billed as vital to Russia’s national security. It called for urgent measures to protect “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” and named the United States as a direct threat. “Threats to traditional values come from extremist and terrorist organizations, some news media and communication platforms, the actions of the United States and other unfriendly foreign states,” the order stated. A key goal, it said, was “to position the Russian state on the international stage as a custodian and defender of traditional universal spiritual and moral values.” Putin’s descriptions of the West as “satanic” and the war as “sacred” are increasingly echoed by officials and the Russian Orthodox Church. As he fractures global ties and girds his nation for a forever war with the West, riot police in Russia are raiding nightclubs and private parties, beating up guests and prosecuting gay bar owners. Russians have been jailed or fined for wearing rainbow earrings or displaying rainbow flags. Dissidents who were imprisoned in Soviet times are once again behind bars — this time for denouncing the war. The Kremlin has defended the crackdown as responding to popular demand. “If it is not accepted by the society then police have to take measures to bring it into balance with the demands of the society,” Peskov wrote in his reply. “Society is now less tolerant to those parties and nightclubs.” Long obsessed with Russia’s population decline, Putin is urging Russian women to have eight or more babies, while also seizing chunks of Ukraine’s population by force. Russia has issued more than 3 million passports in eastern Ukraine since 2019, according to the Russian Interior Ministry. In occupied Ukraine, it is virtually impossible to work, drive, or obtain health care, humanitarian aid, benefits or other services without having a Russian passport — a potential violation of the Geneva Conventions, which state that “it is forbidden to compel the inhabitants of occupied territory to swear allegiance to the hostile power.” In Crimea, Russia issued more than 1.5 million passports after invading and illegally annexing the peninsula in 2014. In ambition and scale, Putin’s effort to mold a new national identity is “as profound as the Russian October Revolution,” a member of the Moscow elite with contacts in the Kremlin said, referring to 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power. “He overturns all the values,” this person said. “He cuts all the usual ties.” Like many people in this article, this person spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the Russian government, which has jailed and even killed its critics. Some of those interviewed for this article have received overt warnings, including bank account and asset freezes, and two have been jailed. “They are trying to create some new form of ideology for the masses,” said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and writer now living in New York. “It’s not a war with Ukraine. It’s a war with America, a war with the West or with Satan, with all those forces of moral decay.” Putinism bears hallmarks of fascism, Zygar said. “He’s using the war and hatred as the instrument to brainwash the Russian people,” he said. “That’s everything we know about fascism.” Charges and an arrest warrant for disseminating “fake news” were launched against Zygar after The Post interviewed him. Putin’s quest is not new, but Russia’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine has allowed him to accelerate his plan. The Russian leader, who inherited his post on Dec. 31, 1999, immediately began whittling back democratic institutions and approved a raid on NTV, the main independent television station, just weeks after winning his first election in March 2000. During his first two decades of rule, Putin rode a crest of oil and gas prices, but he never had a mobilizing ideology to convince citizens that his path was better than the West’s democratic freedoms and greater economic wealth. His re-engineering of Russia is designed to provide that unifying philosophy. Its symbol — the letter Z painted roughly on invading tanks in 2022 — now adorns public buildings and banners. Invading Ukraine was the most destructive step in Putin’s longer, grander plan to restore Russia’s greatness as the superpower it was during Soviet times and as an empire for 200 years before that. But his transformation of Russia started well before the invasion of Ukraine, using homophobia and so-called traditional values to disrupt Western societies and court support in the Global South. He also projected military power by invading Georgia in 2008 and sending Russian troops to Syria and Africa. In Russia, the death in February of Putin’s strongest rival, Alexei Navalny, was a clear signpost on this new path. Putin shrugged off Navalny’s death, showing no sympathy, let alone remorse. “It happens,” he said, endorsing the official finding that Navalny died of natural causes. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has accused Putin of having him killed. Putin “decides everything,” the member of the Russian elite said, and while his new term runs until 2030, he is widely expected to stay in power as long as he chooses. In a State of the Nation speech in February, Putin described his push for women to have more children and to create a new elite of workers and soldiers. “We can see what is taking place in some countries where moral standards and the family are being deliberately destroyed and entire nations are pushed to extinction and decadence,” he said. “We have chosen life. Russia has been and remains a stronghold of the traditional values on which human civilization stands.” Proclaiming a new “time of heroes,” Putin said the old oligarchic elite was “discredited.” “Those who have done nothing for society and consider themselves a caste endowed with special rights and privileges — especially those who took advantage of all kinds of economic processes in the 1990s to line their pockets — are definitely not the elite,” he said. “Those who serve Russia, hard workers and military, reliable, trustworthy people who have proven their loyalty,” he added, “are the genuine elite.” Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, in written replies to questions from The Post, said the aim was to “encourage our people to give birth to as many children as they can,” to increase Russia’s population. “And in this context, spreading of traditional values is extremely important for us and in this context we have nothing in common with this extremist liberalism in terms of abandoning traditional human and religious values that we’re witnessing right now in European countries. This does not correspond with our understanding of what is right,” he added. Peskov said the Kremlin would “continue to make propaganda out of this, in the good sense of this word,” adding: “Especially now when we have an extreme consolidation of our society around this idea of traditional values and around the president so it’s easier for us to do that.” At a meeting in January, Putin stood stiffly with a group of families clad in bright national costumes. It was latest iteration of his image, long shaped by staged activities like riding bare-chested on horseback. Now, extolling traditional values, he is the grandfatherly patriarch, recalling portraits of Stalin with folk from across the Soviet Union. “In Russian families, many of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had seven or eight children, and even more. Let’s preserve and revive these wonderful traditions,” Putin said in a November speech dedicated to “a thousand-year, eternal Russia.” The emphasis is on a special and powerful state dominated by Putin, on centuries-old Russian self-reliance and stoicism, and the sacrifice of individual rights to the regime. Men give their lives in war or work. Women should give their bodies by birthing children. Putin’s worldview draws from 9th-century Vikings, ancient princes and expansionist czars, but its lodestone is World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, in which Russia helped defeat Nazi Germany. Russian pride in that victory, central to its national identity, is woven into Putin’s mythology about the Soviet Union. Stalin, who oversaw the deaths of millions in famines, purges and the gulag, has been promoted as a strong wartime leader, with 63 percent of Russians expressing a positive view of him in a 2023 survey by the Levada Center polling agency, and 47 percent expressing respect for him. Putin’s admiration for him goes back decades. In 2002, when Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski met the Russian leader for nearly five hours one-on-one, Putin professed strong admiration for three leaders — Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin — and a desire to rebuild “Great Russia.” “My impression was I see a man who was formed by the KGB: KGB education, KGB school books and the books about history, absolutely falsified,” Kwasniewski told Zygar, the Russian journalist, in 2022, “but very much in favor of this understanding of Great Russia and Russian pride.” Putin has long obsessed over the idea of a civilizational battle against the West, distorting history to claim that Russia is merely retaking its “historical lands” in Ukraine. Putin’s first prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, said he and other 1990s reformers assumed that, like them, Putin had embraced democracy and market reform. “But he didn’t,” Kasyanov said. “He pretended.” Kasyanov said he was horrified by Putin’s approach to two hostage crises in 2002 and 2004 — ordering forces to storm in, causing hundreds of deaths. “That was already a demonstration of his real nature, his KGB nature: no negotiations, no compromise, because they can’t come to a compromise because of the belief they will be seen as weak people,” he said. By 2004, Kasyanov was in opposition. “I understood that he’s completely the wrong person,” he said. Putin’s first attempt to dominate Ukraine in 2004 — visiting Kyiv to back pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych — backfired and set the scene for the Orange Revolution and a rematch election, which Putin’s man lost. Putin saw it as a “coup” and Western support for the winner, Viktor Yushchenko, as interference. It was the start of Putin’s fixation on the “Ukrainian problem” and his belief that an independent, democratic neighbor was an unacceptable threat to his own regime. Abbas Gallyamov, a Putin speechwriter from 2008 to 2010 and Kremlin political consultant until 2018, said Putin invaded Crimea in 2014 and conducted a full-scale military attack on Ukraine in 2022 partly to reverse declines in his approval rating. After voicing frank criticisms of Putin’s decisions, Gallyamov said, Kremlin managers threatened to cut him off. “After this I received threats,” he said. “You’ll starve. You’ll get no contracts.” He moved to Israel with his family. Last year, he was put on Russia’s wanted list, according to an Interior Ministry database, and the Russian Justice Ministry declared him a “foreign agent.” An arrest warrant was issued March 4. In Russia, schoolteachers are used to indoctrinate children and even to police their parents’ views. Spending on patriotic education and state-run militarized organizations for children and teens increased to more than $500 million in 2024 from about $34 million in 2021, according to federal budget statistics reported by RBC, a Russian business daily. Starting in September, all schoolchildren will get military training from soldiers who fought in Ukraine; since last year, university students take a compulsory course in patriotism that conveys distorted history and the idea that Russia has no bordears when it comes to Russian-speaking “compatriots.” Students of all ages are inundated with pro-war activities, including talks from war veterans clad in camouflage and black balaclavas. In Novosibirsk, children made drones for the front and in Mamadysh in Tatarstan, they produced drone tail fins. Others have made crutches for wounded soldiers or knitted stockings for the stumps of military amputees.