January 18, 2023

Lavrov equates the West with Nazi Germany, claims it seeks genocide of the Russian people

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech commemorating the Soviet forces’ breaking of the siege of Leningrad illustrated that he remains uncertain about his ability to significantly shape the Russian information space. Putin used his January 18 speech to reiterate standard and longstanding Kremlin rhetoric that falsely maintains that Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine to protect residents in the Donbas from neo-Nazis who, the Kremlin claims, seized control of the Ukrainian government in 2014.[1] Putin did not use the publicity of the event to make any announcements concerning the war in Ukraine, such as a new mobilization wave or a formal declaration of war, which some Russian milbloggers had floated.[2] Putin has notably declined to use several high-profile public addresses, including his annual New Year’s Speech and his canceled annual address to the Russian Federation Assembly, to make any notable new announcements about the war.[3] Putin likely reiterated standard Kremlin rhetoric because it has resonated well with the Russian ultra-nationalist pro-war community, elements of which have been increasingly critical of his conduct of the war.[4] Putin may seek to shape the Russian information space over time, but he appears to be unwilling or unable to attempt a dramatic speech that represents a significant inflection in his rhetoric.

Putin’s speech is likely part of a larger and relatively new informational effort to wrap the “special military operation” inside the greater Russian national mythos of the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) to increase Russian support for a protracted war and increasing mobilization. Putin’s speech was symbolically significant for the Russian domestic audience. Putin is fond of using symbolic dates and historical analogies to address the Russian people and delivered this speech in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Soviet forces breaking the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Putin said that Soviet forces defeated Nazi Germany’s “genocide of Leningrad” and drew comparisons with how contemporary Russia is fighting “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” in Donbas—where Putin previously accused Ukraine of conducting a genocide to justify his 2022 invasion.[5] Putin likely seeks to shape the information space over time to regenerate support for the invasion and for maintaining a protracted war by reintroducing pre–February 24 narratives about “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” and “genocide of Russians” to regain control over war coverage after having largely ceded this space to a variety of quasi-independent actors.[6]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov augmented these efforts to increase Russian support for a protracted war by explicitly claiming that Ukraine and the West are pursuing the genocide of the Russian people. Lavrov accused the West of assembling a coalition of European countries to use Ukraine as a proxy in a war that aims to solve the “Russian question” in the same way that Adolf Hitler had sought a “final solution” to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population.[7] Lavrov argued that Western officials’ desire for the strategic defeat of Russia is tantamount to the genocide of the Russian people.[8] Lavrov likely made the comments to set more explicit information conditions for a protracted war by framing the war in Ukraine as just as existential for Russians as Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Lavrov’s comments are far more noteworthy than Putin’s speech, which may suggest that the Kremlin is instructing high-ranking officials to attempt to substantially shape the Russian information space for a protracted war, and open themselves to criticism, instead of having Putin do so himself.

Lavrov’s equations of the West with Nazi Germany and its support for Ukraine with an effort to exterminate the Russian people are ludicrous and almost certainly aimed at a domestic Russian audience. Ukraine has never threatened to invade or seize territory beyond the internationally recognized borders of 1991. Neither NATO as an alliance nor any individual member state has threatened to invade Russia, let alone to pursue the destruction of Russians as a people. The purpose of Lavrov’s outrageous and absurd comparison was very likely meant to complement Putin’s rhetoric and other Russian efforts to persuade the Russian people that Ukraine and its Western backers pose a real and imminent threat to Russian territory and to the Russian people in their homes. Russian governments, the Wagner Private Military Company, and the Russian military have dug trenches and established militias in areas bordering Ukraine for months, ostensibly to defend against the nonexistent threat of a Ukrainian invasion.[9] These efforts, together with Putin’s and Lavrov’s statements wrapping themselves in the banners of the Red Army waging the Great Patriotic Special Military Operation, are meant to galvanize support for protracted mobilization and suffering in pursuit of Putin’s unprovoked aggression and search for territorial conquest.

Putin and Lavrov continue to deny Ukrainian sovereignty and outright reject direct negotiations with Ukraine. Putin emphasized in his speech that Russia is fighting to protect people who live in its “historical territories” in Ukraine, a continuation of Kremlin rhetoric that rejects Ukrainian sovereignty and seeks to justify Putin’s maximalist goals of territorial acquisition in Ukraine.[10] Lavrov explicitly stated that “there can be no talk of negotiations with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky” and argued that Western insistence on Ukraine’s involvement in negotiations is “nonsense” as the West is in charge of making decisions in Ukraine.[11] Lavrov stated that the Kremlin would respond seriously to any noteworthy proposals from the United States.[12] Lavrov’s and Putin’s statements are indicative of ongoing Russian information operations that aim to reject Ukraine’s sovereignty and delegitimize Kyiv’s right to negotiate, shifting the onus for negotiations onto Western officials, whom the Kremlin believes to be more willing to offer concessions that Ukraine could not accept and could seek to compel Ukrainian officials to negotiate on terms more favorable to Russia.[13]

Putin continues efforts to reinvigorate Russia’s defense industrial base to support a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin visited workers at the Obukhov State Plant—part of the Almaz-Antey Russian state-owned defense industrial company—on January 18.[14] Putin stated that the Russian defense industry currently can produce more than it could previously in an unspecified past time frame and stated that Russia will achieve the defense industrial production level that Russia needs.[15] Putin acknowledged that workers at the Obukhov factory work three shifts a day and reiterated that defense industry workers were exempted from mobilization, likely because Putin needs to keep specialized workers in Russia’s defense industrial base.[16] Putin also used this visit to draw historical parallels between the Great Patriotic War and the current war in Ukraine. Putin and Obukhov workers discussed how over 6,500 workers at the Obukhov plant died during the Great Patriotic War and how Russia is “absolutely justified” in fighting against neo-Nazis in Ukraine today.[17]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming increasingly bold in his verbal attacks against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Prigozhin criticized the MoD’s new guidelines for Russian troops in Ukraine that restrict the use of certain personal electronic devices in combat zones and set stricter guidelines for men’s grooming standards on January 18.[18] Prigozhin defended Russian line soldiers who do not adhere to grooming standards (Prigozhin observed that beards are customary for many Muslim and Orthodox Christian fighters) and claimed that soldiers’ use of smartphones and tablets is necessary for modern warfare.[19] Prigozhin stated that “war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven who turned in phones to the warehouse.”[20] Prigozhin further criticized out-of-touch Russian MoD officials who must “develop along with the development of modern warfare, learn how to effectively kill the enemy and seize territories,” and not “comb everyone under your ridiculous rules, principles and whims.”[21] Prigozhin’s statement was the latest of several designed to undermine confidence in the MoD and promote Prigohzin as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine.[22] Prigozhin’s comments reflect a cowboy approach to war that is unsuited to the development and maintenance of an effective large-scale and disciplined modern military.

Prigozhin directly attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration and insinuated that some officials working there are traitors who want Russia to lose the war in Ukraine—one of Prigozhin’s boldest attacks against the Kremlin to date.[23] Prigozhin weighed in on an ongoing Russian policy debate about banning YouTube and stated that some officials in the Kremlin presidential administration oppose banning YouTube because it would undermine their effort to have the United States and Russia reestablish relations after Russia loses the war in Ukraine.[24] Prigozhin stated that such officials think that the United States will “forgive [Russia] its sins” of supporting “pro-Russian interests” and “supporting Putin” if Russia begs for Western forgiveness after losing the war.[25] Prigozhin called these officials “traitors of the people” who proclaim exalted pro-Russian values but nevertheless live and vacation abroad and “support the West in every possible way.”[26]

Prigozhin and other notable voices in Russia are carving out a new space to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin without fear of retribution. Prigozhin and other prominent Russian nationalists such as Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, have been opening a new sector in the Russian information space where certain figures can criticize Putin and the highest echelons of the Russian government without any apparent retribution. Igor Girkin heavily implied that he would support the removal of Russian President Vladimir Putin from office in his most direct criticism of Putin to date on January 10, for example.[27] Putin has decided to not censor these voices for far.

A helicopter transporting Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs officials crashed in a residential area in Brovary, Kyiv Oblast on January 18. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service announced that the crash killed 16, including Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky and three children, and injured 30, including 16 children.[28] The crash damaged a local kindergarten and a large residential building.[29] Ukrainian authorities have not yet specified the cause of the crash.[30]

Key Takeaways

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech commemorating the siege of Leningrad continued to illustrate that Putin remains uncertain about his ability to significantly shape the Russian information space.
  • Putin’s speech is likely part of a larger informational effort to wrap the “special military operation” inside the greater Russian national mythos of the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) to increase Russian support for a protracted war and mobilization.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov augmented these efforts to increase Russian support for a protracted war by explicitly and ludicrously claiming that Ukraine and the West are pursuing the genocide of the Russian people.
  • Putin continues efforts to reinvigorate Russia’s defense industrial base to support a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Putin and Lavrov continue to deny Ukrainian sovereignty and outright reject direct negotiations with Ukraine.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming increasingly bold in his verbal attacks against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin.
  • Prigozhin and other notable voices in Russia are carving out a new space to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin without fear of retribution.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions near Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Soledar, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • The Russian MoD continues to attempt to downplay the role of the Wagner Group in claimed tactical advances in the Soledar area.
  • Ukrainian officials have indicated that Russian forces are concentrating in Zaporizhia Oblast, possibly for a large defensive or offensive effort.
  • Russian forces’ increasing use of incendiary munitions to conduct what appear to be otherwise routine strikes in southern Ukraine supports ISW’s recent assessment that Russian forces likely face a shortage of conventional artillery rounds.
  • Ukrainian and Russian sources continued to indicate that Russian authorities are likely preparing for a second wave of mobilization.
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