top of page

Persuasion in the news: Putin's speech on Ukraine

His latest speech recalls themes presented in 2014 and, despite Western criticism, delivers a clear message to his intended audience

On Sunday, Russian leader Vladimir Putin gave an important, one-hour-long address to the Russian people via television in which he laid out an extensive case for why Ukraine is really a part of Russia and why any action to reunite the two nations is justified by history, law, and culture. The address has been in headlines all over the world ever since it was delivered.

In reading the text from Monday’s speech, I am drawn back to another speech Putin gave back on March 18, 2014. Much as he did on Monday, he listed why a Russian annexation of Crimea would be justified by reasons of history, logic, and culture. As I have noted in the past, at the highest level, there are only three modes of persuasion: character, argument, and emotion. We find attempts to use all three modes in the transcript of Putin’s 2014 speech, and below I have tried to reconstruct his basic persuasion structure:

  1. Start with an argument based on a “shared history” and an appeal to a common “glory” and “valor:”

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
  1. Use selective facts about population and language to support your case:

Incidentally, the total population of the Crimean Peninsula today is 2.2 million people, of whom almost 1.5 million are Russians, 350,000 are Ukrainians who predominantly consider Russian their native language, and about 290,000–300,000 are Crimean Tatars, who, as the referendum has shown, also lean towards Russia.
  1. Claim that in the past it was the Russians themselves who were often the “primary” victims of injustice:

True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.
  1. Appeal to norms and standards claiming that the rights and wishes of the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol were violated when they were separated from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine. But on the whole – and we must state this clearly, we all know it – this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened.
  1. Pull back and state the source of all the troubles: the dissolution of the U.S.S.R and the behavior of its leaders at the time:

Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart. Things developed so swiftly that few people realized how truly dramatic those events and their consequences would be. Many people both in Russia and in Ukraine, as well as in other republics hoped that the Commonwealth of Independent States that was created at the time would become the new common form of statehood. They were told that there would be a single currency, a single economic space, joint armed forces; however, all this remained empty promises, while the big country was gone. It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.
  1. Explain that Russia should have acted to keep itself together in the 1990s but was ruled by men too weak to do so:

Now, many years later, I heard residents of Crimea say that back in 1991 they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests. However, the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice. All these years, citizens and many public figures came back to this issue, saying that Crimea is historically Russian land and Sevastopol is a Russian city.
  1. Attack the character of Ukraine’s then-leaders:

It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to. Many government agencies have been taken over by the impostors, but they do not have any control in the country, while they themselves – and I would like to stress this – are often controlled by radicals. In some cases, you need a special permit from the militants on Maidan to meet with certain ministers of the current government. This is not a joke – this is reality.
  1. Using the United States’ own words to justify any part of Ukraine asking to rejoin Russia:

I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo. Again, I quote: “Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” End of quote. They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were. For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why.

9. Support your position with the (remarkable) claim that many Europeans, and especially those in Germany, understand his position and will support Russian “reunification:”

I believe that the Europeans, first and foremost, the Germans, will also understand me…Our nation, however, unequivocally supported the sincere, unstoppable desire of the Germans for national unity. I am confident that you have not forgotten this, and I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.

10. Conclude with the realization that because of all of these factors Russia now faces a “difficult decision” and that the people are behind you:

Russia will also have to make a difficult decision now, taking into account the various domestic and external considerations. What do people here in Russia think? Here, like in any democratic country, people have different points of view, but I want to make the point that the absolute majority of our people clearly do support what is happening.

At the end of his 2014 speech, Putin announced that Russia would recognize the “Republic of Crimea” and the city of Sevastopol as two new parts of Russia. Fast forward to Monday, when Mr. Putin brought back man of the same rhetorical elements, e.g.:

Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space… These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties… We are being blackmailed, they are threatening us with sanctions. But I think they will impose those sanctions… A new pretext will always be found or fabricated… The purpose is single: to keep Russia behind, to prevent it from developing. And they will do it before even without any formal pretext. Just because we exist.

After saying these words, Putin announced he was sending troops into the newly recognized, so-called, “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine.”

With respect to the historical accuracy of Mr. Putin’s claims, we can note what the New York Times had to say: “As a misreading of history, it was extreme even by the standards of Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer who has declared the Soviet Union’s collapse the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” As for Putin’s take on Ukraine, Paul Adams, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, notes that “much of Vladimir Putin's speech about Ukraine sounded like a fever dream.” It was, says Adams, “a nightmarish vision of a country economically crippled, utterly corrupt, bent on developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and ungrateful for all the generous attention lavished on it by Russia since independence”.

As we can see above, the ideas in Putin’s speech on Monday are not really new. They are a rehash of a 5,300-word essay Putin published last summer that was itself a rehash of his speech in 2014. A technical analysis concludes that these persuasion efforts are mediocre and lack a sophisticated structure or organizing principle. They are collections of grievances and claims that Putin presents in no clear order and arrays to no clear effect.

Many a competent speechwriter could have done a much better job organizing Putin’s ideas and claims, which makes me wonder who the audience of these speeches really is? Certainly, it is not anyone who will read them critically or with an eye to truth or logic. Indeed, both speeches are a kind of “montage” of geopolitical claims intercut with Putin’s long-known grievances against the West. As such, it can only be aimed for his internal consistency within Russia, most of whom won’t read the speech very carefully but will be pleased by its elements that seem real enough to make them feel OK with Russia’s actions.

In short, all of the words delivered six years ago and two days ago have the same aim: reassuring his supporters that he is their strong leader and tipping anyone on the fence to his side in the debate with the West. This interpretation makes even more sense when we consider that Putin may also be preparing his people for the impact that a harsh sanction regimen may soon have on them. 1

Given Putin’s success over decades in maintaining his position as the last great defender of Russia on the world stage, it is very possible that with these specific internal constituencies, he will indeed persuade. If the war does not proceed as planned, or if some unplanned news suddenly makes its way virally through Russia, then this effect may prove to be short-lived.

1As Bloomberg reported today: “The fortunes of Russia’s super-rich have tumbled $32 billion this year, with the escalating conflict in Ukraine poised to make that wealth destruction much larger.”
bottom of page