In his State of the Nation address Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin went back to where it all began: 2014. Just three sentences in, he reminded his audience that he had launched the invasion of Ukraine—or as he called it, the special military operation—to “eliminate the threat coming from the neo-Nazi regime that had taken hold in Ukraine after the 2014 coup.” Since then, he continued, “Donbass has been fighting for the right to live in their land and to speak their native tongue […] It hoped and waited that Russia would come to help.”
The speech was like a “greatest hits” collection of all Putin’s favorite themes, from protecting Russian children from Western cultural “degradation and degeneration” to refighting World War II against “neo-Nazis” in Kyiv. Despite its broad remit, however, the Russian president’s characteristically plaintive speech was oddly coherent, pulling together familiar narrative threads on Ukraine, the West, the war and Russia itself.
The Putin-era project to shape a workable post-Soviet Russian identity has become inseparable from the Kremlin’s preoccupation with Ukraine. Ever since the mass protests known as the Maidan Revolution erupted in 2013 against Ukraine’s Russian-backed president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, the narrative has changed very little. Pro-Kremlin media and politicians alike described the Maidan demonstrators as banderovtsy—a term they use to denote Nazi collaborators—as well as fascists and Western puppets.