Opinion by Irakli Gobronidze, media psychologist, fellow at Media Voice
As the one-year anniversary of war after Russia invaded Ukraine creeped closer, the international community’s attention was concentrated on the main culprit of the whole event, the president of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. It’s important to note that perception of Putin and the Russian state in general has shifted dramatically over the course of a year. It’s easy to forget now, but before the invasion, Russia was perceived as a formidable opponent on the world arena and Putin as a sinister autocrat who is better left not provoked. Russian propaganda has been using this image in their narrative, they liked to portray themselves as a sleeping giant who is ready to concur the world at any minute and doesn’t do it only because it’s relatively merciful.
As an opposing side, Putin’s propaganda painted the “rotten collective west” mainly represented by USA and NATO. The propaganda liked to draw a contrast between 2020 elected American president Joe Biden and Putin. Upon his election Biden didn’t have a particularly favorable public image. During peacetime, Russia loved to talk about the feeble American leader that would break against any pressure and tsar Putin can do whatever he wants on the world stage. All that was an empty talk, and it went on for years, some called it bluff, but Russia was still considered a nuclear superpower because of their vast arsenal.
On February 24th Putin decided to turn the talk into practice by starting the invasion into Ukraine. It was supposed to be a swift, decisive blow, a modern blitzkrieg, that would’ve destabilized the Ukrainian state in a matter of days if not hours, caused a fast regime change and serve Putin brand new territories on a plate. This would’ve proven the might of Putin’s Russia that was previously talked in theory, the Crimea annexation wouldn’t be seen as a fluke, this was supposed to establish Putin as a leader of the second army in the world.
However, what was supposed to happen in Putin’s dreams doesn’t matter now in reality. What happened is that Kyiv wasn’t taken, Ukrainian forces managed to withstand the attack and Russian offensive was at first halted, then pushed back. This was of course achieved through military aid from the EU and USA, with America supplying the HIMARS rocket launchers, that were instrumental in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. This really put things into perspective about Russia and its true capabilities as the war is still going on and with each passing day is weakening Russia both economically and socially.
A year has passed, and the world has a new outlook on both members of the conflict, NATO, the USA and the changing landscape. Presidents of both USA and Russia gave important speeches concerning this war, that were very close to its anniversary, Biden on 20thof February, Putin on 21st. The whole world was observing and the contrast between these two world leaders couldn’t be starker.
On 20th of February, US President Joe Biden made a historic visit to the capital of Ukraine Kyiv. As he was walking down, with Ukraine’s President Zelensky towards the war memorial, being seen as the face of support towards the underdog country, let’s remember how Biden was seen a year earlier. When being elected there was no love towards the character of Joesph Biden. Even among his own party he was seen just as an antidote against Donald Trump, just as the guy who is supposed to remove Trump from office, a means to an end. Many Americans didn’t want particularly a Biden victory, more of Trump’s defeat. It wasn’t like Biden hasn’t been aware of this, politicians usually present a certain character during their campaigns, a big part of Biden’s character was that he wasn’t incumbent Donald Trump.
There wasn’t much adoration towards him from the public, he was a rather unmemorable Vice President and a senator, even though he worked in American government from 1973. Outside his rivalry with Trump, Biden was mostly associated with gaffes and blunders during his public speaking. He was numerously caught on camera stuttering, messing up the order of words in even simple sentences, looking confused and sometimes devolving into complete gibberish. His age also played the role. All his typical blunders were explained as signs of the President’s senility. Biden was 77 when elected and even though close in age to Trump, in Biden’s case it was more evident.
Trump always talked fast, loud and didn’t have problems with mobility. Biden looked like a stereotypical elderly man who was too old to handle the difficult job. Even his colleague from the democratic party, Berny Sanders who is one year older, looked livelier. Since Biden would be 81 when he finishes his first term, there was a discussion if he runs for the second or even is able to finish the first. Embarrassing mishaps were caught on camera, like the leader of the free world falling on the airstairs of Air Force One. There were jokes made at his expense but also legitimate concerns that the President might suffer from some actual age-related disability like dementia. All of these put together plus his liberal campaign didn’t create a favorable image of a strong leader, especially on an international stage.
When the invasion began all eyes turned to America, what the country with the strongest military in the world would answer to a new war on the European continent. Especially now, when its Head of the State is this seemingly meek old man that sometimes struggles to stay awake. What happened is that Biden defined expectations in a way. His administration took a firm stance and promised material help to Ukraine, a promise that they held and that very help brought tangible results. Biden has supported the Ukrainian cause actively through the tumultuous year and his visit to the capital can be seen as a culmination of this.
This at first glance indecisive octogenarian managed to reaffirm the world that America and the West won't abandon Ukraine and that Putin can’t use the European landscape as his own personal playground. The USA President being physically present in war-damaged but still standing free Kyiv is a direct message to Putin, that Ukraine has the backing of the free world, it’s actual, tangible help not only moral support and that his authoritarian intimidation tactics won't work on the free people. In Biden’s own word: "Putin was dead wrong to think Russia could outlast Ukraine and its Western allies and that Putin’s war of conquest is failing.” Biden’s speech next to Zelensky was about unity and reaffirmation of friendly relations between Ukraine and the West. In that moment Joe Biden truly embraced the symbolic title “Leader of the free world.”
Putin gave his speech in Russia to federal assembly the very next day. There was no sign of an intimidating dictator from a year ago who was trying to scare the world with a nuclear apocalypse if they tried to intervene in his plans. What we got was incoherent, confused man who wasn’t able to formulate one concrete thought. Putin spurred one outlandish conspiracy theory after another. This was not a speech made by a victor or at least a man who has a plan or situation under control. The entire address consisted of a blame game where he tried to redistribute the responsibility of starting this costly conflict to anyone else. Year ago, he was framing this conflict as an everyday business for the Russian military, being peacekeepers, just looking after minor territorial problem, that is but a small nuisance for the mighty empire. It was called a special military operation. Now that inconvenience somehow evolved into a war with NATO, not only physical but ideological, an epic fight of good and evil where Russia is battling the satanic forces.
And this is the man who years prior spoke with German chancellor Angela Merkel as an equal. Years prior there was a common theme when it came to a public perception of Putin among both his fans and detractors. He was seen as a force that shouldn’t be underestimated. For his supporters he was a strong tsar, his critics saw him as something of a James Bond villain, sinister but conniving, a man that has a scheme planed out. After the failure of most military objectives in Ukraine, that perception is shattered.
There is no grand plan, no secret weapon that will show that Russia’s army can rival other world superpowers. All that Putin can do now is shell civilian targets blindly and not even threaten others but play a victim of a global conspiracy in his speeches. From 2022 to 2023 in Putin’s own words, Russia went from USA-like world police type of state to a country that is being perpetrated somehow. These are the words of a man that has no cards to play and who can’t even ask for assistance from others.
Before the war there was a discourse surrounding the comparison of recruitment videos for both countries' militaries. The USA one was mocked because it highlighted diversity and inclusivity, especially compared to Russia's’ video that emphasized strength and masculinity. In practice we can see that recruitment ads don’t really reflect the nature of the military. The year of war has shown that Putin’s bragging doesn’t bring in actual results. Putin’s speech didn’t carry any semblance of hope, instead it promised more years of conflict both real and imaginary that exists only in propaganda narratives. After a year of losing, it was no longer about reclaiming past glory, it became a game of survival for mighty mother Russia.
It’s fascinating to see how the public perception of these two world leaders has changed when it came to dealing with an actual conflict. It has been theorized for a long time how USA would answer future Russian aggression, maybe as a country they went to soft over the years. In practice it turned out that American military is as strong as ever and can support itself and other countries.
The leaders of these two countries are in different positions publicly, than they were before the start of the war. Biden is the Head of State that bet on the right horse, the one that protected the principles upon which the western civilization stands. Putin who for years was building the reputation of an alpha-male and ruthless conqueror, was exposed as a fraud in a matter of months. Putin started this war with a sole reason to prove that he can, that his worldview of the future empire and weakened West is correct one, what he got is that the mocked, senile old man promised even more weapons to his opponent on an eve of special operation’s anniversary, in an unconquered capital. By judging Biden and Putin we can truly say that you can’t judge the book by its cover.
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