What does Putin's New Year's conspiracy rhetoric mean for 2023? - analysis

Russian President Putin gave a New Year's address filled with conspiracy theories about how the West is out to get Russia.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates security services officers and veterans on Security Agency Worker's Day, via video link at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this picture released on December 20, 2022. (photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL METZEL/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates security services officers and veterans on Security Agency Worker's Day, via video link at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this picture released on December 20, 2022.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL METZEL/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a New Year's address on Saturday that reflects the conspiratorial view Moscow holds toward the world.

Russia invaded Ukraine this year which has changed the trajectory of international relations. Moscow doesn’t see it that way, instead, Putin portrays Russia as a victim of western aggression and sanctions. This stark difference in worldview versus reality underpins the messaging that Moscow has for Russians today. 

Putin claimed that 2022 was a year of difficulty and the country had to take major steps. He argues that Russia is fighting for its future and that it is sort of declaring independence from its previous policies. In short, Russia has decided to leave behind the old international system and stop the pretense of caring about international law and the West. It believes the West is in decline and now is the time to accelerate that decline and create a Manichean world order where the West is on one side and Russia and authoritarians on the other. The West has accepted this challenge.  

This is a wartime president Putin. He made his address “standing next to the military, not against the backdrop of the Kremlin as usual. As Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained to reporters, the address was recorded at the headquarters of the Southern Military District,” Russia’s Tass News said. "It was a year of difficult, necessary decisions, major steps towards gaining the full sovereignty of Russia and the powerful consolidation of our society,” said Putin. 

The Russian president sees 2022 as a pivotal year. He praised the “courage” of Russians sent to fight for the “Fatherland” as well as accused the West of aggression.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Yerevan, Armenia, November 23, 2022 (credit: SPUTNIK/VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/POOL VIA REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Yerevan, Armenia, November 23, 2022 (credit: SPUTNIK/VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/POOL VIA REUTERS)

“The West has been lying about peace for years, but in fact, it was preparing for aggression: And today it is openly admitting this, no longer embarrassed. They are cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and split Russia,” Tass News reported.

Putin also accused the West of supporting “neo-Nazis,” which is the usual Moscow rhetoric about the war in Ukraine. He also accused the West of pushing sanctions against Russia. Putin portrays this as a war that is linked to Russian history and preserving Russia. Russia's struggle for its interests and its future will become "an inspiring example for other states in their striving for a fair multipolar world order,” he said. This “multi-polar” world order is designed to remove the US-led world order that emerged in 1990 in the wake of the Cold War.  

What does this rhetoric mean for 2023?

Russian state media has been pushing a number of articles portraying the West as being at war with Russia. It is preparing the ground apparently for even more extreme policies in the new year 2023. This kind of rhetoric is also trying to portray the West as having betrayed Russia and somehow conspired against Moscow. Even though it is Russia that invaded Ukraine and it is Moscow that has committed numerous crimes, the Russian state media portrays the West as not abiding by the Minsk agreements that underpinned the ceasefires in Ukraine from 2014-2021. It wants to paint the West as having been preparing Ukraine for a war. Thus Russia was involved in some kind of pre-emptive strike. Moscow wants to justify its aggression via these conspiracies.  

Putin’s New year’s speech sets the program for increasing rhetoric against the West in the New Year. This is laying down another gauntlet in which Moscow wants to bifurcate the world and draw a line between 2022 and the years before and after. Before 2022 there was a US-led world order and Russia sought to upend that in 2022. Now in 2023, this is the first year of a new world order, in Putin’s view.

This is “year zero” in a sense of this new experiment that is driven by Moscow pushing this paranoid conspiratorial narrative. Russia has created the crisis and the sanctions that it now blames the West for, essentially creating the crisis in order to pretend the crisis was forced upon it. The only question now is whether Putin can manage this crisis and whether Putin’s gamble will have benefits for Moscow or bring it to ruin.