Putin's rhetoric: "Taken to the extreme on an emotional level"

21 Mar 2022

Literary scholar Riccardo Nicolosi analyzes the speeches on the war against Ukraine and recognizes an escalation that began years ago.

Professor Riccardo Nicolosi is Chair of Slavic Philology at the LMU Faculty of Linguistics and Literature.

Prof. Dr. Riccardo Nicolosi | © Privat

Gifted speakers know how to captivate their listeners. Do you see Putin on the same level as Martin Luther King and Barack Obama?

Riccardo Nicolosi: Putin is certainly not a gifted orator. He is not someone who can enthrall the masses. But that was never his job – not even in his everyday routine, incidentally. He has never really fought an electoral campaign, so he has never been in a situation where he had to inspire people’s enthusiasm. He has always cultivated the role of president super partes, remaining aloof from political controversies.

What distinguishes him as a speaker, then?

Over time, Putin has acquired a complex, multilayered rhetoric that is very interesting, and he does work a lot with rational arguments. For example, he compares the current situation in Ukraine with that of Kosovo. He argues that the Russian population is threatened by genocide. He asks the question: Why was it legitimate under international law to intervene in 1999 but not to annex the Crimea in 2014 and not to engage in the current military intervention?

He frequently mixes these rational arguments with the historical narrative of reuniting the Russian-speaking world. That is a very old idea: It is less about re-establishing the Soviet Union and is rather rooted in Russia’s Tsarist Empire in the late 19th century. In his speech about the recognition of the People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, this point accounted for about half of what he said.

Right now, Putin is making tremendous use of the emotional level as a third element of his rhetoric, although pundits say comparatively little about this. Russia, he claims, is the victim of a global political stance that has constantly insulted, lied to and deceived it since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Weaving these three layers together in a monologue style of address that tolerates no contradiction is what drives the force of his rhetoric.

The Kremlin's reflection in the Moskva River.

© IMAGO / agefotostock

Is it really Putin saying all this? Or is it the people who write his speeches?

Putin has a whole department full of speechwriters. Dozens of people, each responsible for different areas. That said, we are fairly certain that he himself gets involved in writing his own speeches. The question is therefore: What does Putin himself believe? I think he is convinced that Russia is indeed in a decisive struggle against the West. That has been a common theme of his presidency.

Fishing or riding a horse with his top off: Like so many dictators, Putin cultivates the image of a strongman. Is that, too, reflected in his rhetoric?

Definitely. After Yeltsin, whose last years were spent as a sick and almost erratic president, Putin stepped up as the strong man: a man from the secret service – a very resolute, purposeful and masculine man. We also see that in his language, which ranges from historical and statesmanlike to vulgar and abusive.

Especially now as he ages, as pictures exude less masculinity, his language will become even more important. We saw this in Putin’s recent speeches from his office, when he gripped the desk in a threatening manner. These very direct addresses were intended to convey anger and deliberately cause fear.

After these speeches, the West got the impression that the Russian president had lost his mind. How did you read the situation?

I don’t think he has lost his mind. If you look back over Putin’s speeches and appearances in recent years, you see that the topics are not new, and that a gradual emotional escalation is all that has taken place, almost to the point of delirium. Especially when the Crimea was annexed in 2014, we heard the same talking points as we now encounter again during the current invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, speeches are not spontaneous, so we can assume that they are stage-managed. Their message is: We are unpredictable, so don’t meddle with us!

In his speeches, Putin speaks of special military operations, not of war. Why is this distinction so important to his rhetoric?

Because in his eyes it is an operation to liberate people. Accordingly, he sees himself not as an aggressor but as a savior. Russian population at large would undoubtedly refuse its backing for a war of aggression against a country that is geographically, culturally and linguistically so close to Russia.

It would be difficult to explain such a war. But everything looks different if you talk about a special operation in which you are protecting the Russian people in Ukraine from genocide. Hence all the censorship on the Russian side to keep information about the war away from the people. On the other hand, we are currently seeing that, although the pictures of war are still getting through to the Russians, many still do not want to believe them. That is a fruit of the Russian propaganda over the past two decades, whose aim was to inculcate skepticism about any form of truth.

Genocide and denazification are further catchphrases he uses again and again. What is he trying to achieve by doing so?

In part, the purpose is to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine on the rational level of international law – even in the eyes of his own population, many of whom have family ties with Ukrainians. Yet he is also establishing a link between the current situation and the Second World War, a time when the Soviet Union fought heroically against Nazi Germany, a Western aggressor, and its collaborators from Ukraine.

This kind of reference to Western misdemeanors – effectively holding up a mirror to governments – is a rhetorical device that Putin often uses. One example was when the Russian government recently claimed that Ukraine was preparing to use chemical weapons. That vividly brings to mind the reason why the USA invaded Iraq. What he is saying is that ‘we are no worse than the West’.

To whom does Putin address his speeches?

Putin is addressing not only Russia, but also the Russian people outside Russia, for whom the Kremlin feels responsible – the people in many of the former Soviet republics, in other words.

At the same time, he is talking to the peoples of the West. Outlets such as Russia Today make sure that the content of Putin’s speeches – such as the eastward expansion of NATO and the allegedly unfair treatment of Russia – is spread abroad in German, English and other languages. The objective here is to disseminate disinformation and sow discord. The Stasi, the former East German secret police, would have spoken of zersetzung, of ‘wearing people down’.

You said that Putin has for years been escalating his rhetoric. Do you see any way back to de-escalation?

That is the big problem, because on the emotional level Putin has really taken this to the extreme. From a rhetorical perspective, this, tragically, is the last fuse he could light. He has taken a big gamble both personally and as a head of state in recent weeks. And for this reason, it is hard to imagine that he will accept or announce compromises. As long as he personally represents the war, I cannot envisage any verbal or rhetorical disarmament.

More on the topic:

Also watch the Graduate School of Eastern and Southeastern European Studies panel discussion with Professor Riccardo Nicolosi and Professor Martin Schulze-Wessel and Professor Petra Stykov, "Russia's War on Ukraine. Rhetorical, Historical and Political Background" on YouTube [German].

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