Once Ukrainians trembled at Putin’s threats. Now they joke about playing bingo as they tick off his stock phrases

Published by The Daily Mail (22nd February, 2023)

Sinister black posters appeared at bus stops and parks across the country days before Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Russian parliament yesterday.  ‘The borders of Russia do not end anywhere,’ they stated, trailing the date of the president’s annual ‘state-of-the-nation’ address.

Seven years ago, during a televised awards ceremony, Putin directed that chilling phrase at a nine-year-old boy who had dared to suggest an outline for Russia’s real boundaries. 

The president later claimed he was joking — but the menacing slogan has since been adopted by Russian hard- liners to suggest that their nation’s power and reach are unstoppable.

Yesterday’s long and rambling speech came almost a year to the day since Putin tested his theory about Russia’s elastic borders by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Clearly, this war has been a catastrophe for Moscow, shattering the despot’s dream of joining the pantheon of mighty Russian leaders such as his hero Peter the Great, the 18th-century tsar who started the expansion of the Russian empire.

By contrast, Putin looks foolish, his own military machine has suffered humiliating defeats, his economy is badly wounded, his billionaire pals have been kicked out of Western playgrounds and, after a sickening litany of atrocities, his country has become a pariah state.

Despite all this, once again Putin spewed out a torrent of delusional lies before his audience of patsies and stooges, who dutifully clapped but often looked plain bored during his 105-minute speech. Some of them even appeared to doze off. 

However, he was at least truthful about a couple of things. For a start, he admitted that his ‘special military operation’ is really a war. He was also right to say this is ‘a difficult, watershed period’ for Russia. And right again that we are all living through an era of ‘irreversible change in the entire world, of crucial historical events’. 

Putin went on to claim that ‘every one of us bears a colossal responsibility’.

And while he bears more responsibility than anyone else for the events of the past year, we should never forget that he sits at the apex of a despotic system built on brutality, repression and theft on an industrial scale.

That system, of course, is embodied by the rows of cronies who applauded his absurd claims of Western aggression.

People such as Dmitry Medvedev, the former president once seen as a reforming moderniser and now a ranting demagogue who issues blood-curdling threats against Ukraine and its allies.

Or Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church — a monstrous character who claims it is ‘heroic’ to kill Ukrainians and provides a crucial veneer of religious cover for Putin’s barbarism.

The same system also peddles endless propaganda about restoring Russia to its historic glories, the supposed savagery of Ukrainians and the threat of fascism: weaving a deceptive web of lies that have seen a mass of deluded citizens send their sons to fight in this sordid war. 

But Putin mostly spun a narrative of pure fantasy: that the West is responsible for this conflict; that Russia is a victim of Nato aggression; that there were Nato bases and secret ‘biolabs’ in Ukraine; that Kyiv has been taken over by neo-Nazis; and that his invasion was defensive to thwart Nato’s planned attack on the Donbas.

He claimed Kyiv was trying to acquire nuclear weapons — when the reality is that Russia, along with Britain and the U.S., signed security guarantees to persuade Kyiv to abandon its nuclear arsenal in 1994. If Ukraine had retained its weapons, most likely Putin would never have invaded.

Yesterday, Putin even pulled out of the last surviving nuclear disarmament treaty with the U.S., presumably to stoke fears of a looming apocalypse and thus pile pressure on the West to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine.

As so often, the former KGB apparatchik threw in some bile and bigotry about gay marriage, portrayed Western societies as degenerate swamps where ‘paedophilia is recognised as the norm’ — and even made a dig at the Church of England over its recent discussions surrounding a ‘gender-neutral’ God.

Most offensively, this man who has murdered so many Ukrainians and unleashed his thugs to rape and pillage in their country still claims he is their true saviour. Ukrainians are held ‘hostage’, he insisted, by an elected government and ‘its Western overlords’.

This is all nonsense on stilts — even if the West’s recent behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq sadly ensures that while his stance fools only a few useful idiots on the fringes of Right and Left these days in Britain, it strikes a chord in some corners of the world.

Have no doubt: whatever he says, Putin’s war was born from fear at seeing democracy emerge on his doorstep. 

I have reported from Ukraine for almost a decade, since protests erupted there pushing for closer ties with the European Union (not Nato, as Putin insists). For all his bizarre claims of Western aggression, Putin’s war started with his own illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Far from being a ‘defensive operation’, this was, in fact, a naked land-grab straight out of the 1940s. 

The dictator’s assault then spread to the Donbas after the Kremlin stirred up ‘separatist’ revolts with his security agents in the eastern Ukrainian region. 

Of course, the conflict intensified horrifically last year with the full-scale invasion — all of which I have witnessed.

This was the true factual backdrop to Putin’s deranged claim yesterday that the West is seeking a ‘global confrontation’ with Russia. 

A year on, the cost for Ukraine has been huge in land and lives lost, families and buildings ripped apart, firms and communities destroyed — while my admiration for their fortitude and determination to share our values amid adversity has only grown.

Putin’s state-of-the-nation address served only to underscore the paranoid nature of his rotten regime and the illegitimacy of his war crimes. His plan to smash a country that he claims does not exist has backfired terribly.

And that is why he was right on one other point: Ukraine has indeed become fiercely ‘anti-Russia’, as he admits. Although this was achieved not by the West, but by his own aggression and terror. 

Putin’s great failure has been to forge defiance and unity in Ukraine by spilling so much of their blood. Now 95 per cent of Ukrainians believe they can defeat him, according to latest polling — a figure that has almost doubled over the past year.

Their unity and strength of purpose is only growing. Last February, in the run-up to the invasion, most Ukrainians listened in fear and foreboding to Putin’s ramblings. 

But yesterday’s shallow, defensive speech was met with bored dismissal, internet jibes and jokes about playing ‘bingo’ as they ticked off the dictator’s stock phrases.

Earlier this week, I asked one soldier on the freezing front line why he was fighting. He gave me a simple, one-word answer: ‘Freedom.’ 

It was a far more cogent and powerful statement than anything Putin delivered yesterday in his long and ugly rant.

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