A tank speeding along a dusty road

Putin’s special military operation in Ukraine continues to surprise all those involved. One surprise, for some, was that on 1 April 2023, the Russian Federation took over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council for a month. For many, Russia’s presidency was considered to be an April Fool’s joke. It is worth remembering that Moscow last presided over the Security Council in February 2022, the month it invaded Ukraine.

Russia has been defined as a terrorist state, but it should also be considered as a hypocritical state. There are two dimensions to Russia’s hypocrisy.

On the one hand, the Kremlin derides American hegemony with President Vladimir Putin declaring that the US has nothing to offer the world but its hegemony or the preservation of US domination. The reality is much more complex as Putin’s primary concern is with ensuring and advancing Russian hegemony or the continuation and enhancement of Russian domination.

On the other hand, Russia as president of the Security Council is meant to support and defend the UN charter and yet Russia is one of the few countries whose actions are counter to this charter. Central to this charter is that a country has no inherent right to instigate a war but there is an inherent right for individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs.

Putin believes that he is the leader of a great superpower, but Russia no longer holds this position. The outcome is that Russia’s actions no longer reflect the country’s true capabilities or even capacity.

Professor John Bryson - University of Birmingham

For Putin, there is a tension here between Russia’s past and present and this results in a strange form of cognitive dissonance. For Putin this reflects mental conflict between beliefs that are not aligned with actions. Putin believes that he is the leader of a great superpower, but Russia no longer holds this position. The outcome is that Russia’s actions no longer reflect the country’s true capabilities or even capacity.

There is a dangerous consequence that comes from a government whose leader suffers from cognitive dissonance. An individual suffering from cognitive dissonance experiences stress and unhappiness but there is no way of resolving these tensions and the outcome is a sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, for Putin this sense of powerlessness is overcome by articulating nuclear weapons as a potentially offensive weapon rather than treating them as the ultimate defensive weapon. Only Russia and North Korea are crafting an offensive weapon narrative around nuclear warheads and this narrative is a form of attention-seeking behaviour. Russia’s nuclear narrative is also another form of hegemony as it is an attempt to deter countries from supporting Ukraine.

Putin’s plan was that his special Ukrainian military operation would conclude in days and perhaps weeks and not years. But Russia continues to experience major problems both on the battlefield and increasingly inside Russia. President Putin’s position inside Russia is gradually being eroded as failure builds on failure. On April 2, Vladlen Tatarsky, a Russian military blogger, was killed by a bomb blast whilst attending an event held at a cafe in St Petersburg. It is extremely easy to describe what happened, but not why this event occurred.

The Kremlin claims that this was a ‘terrorist attack’, but the terrorists might be Russian citizens or there might have been some involvement of agents of the Russian state. Alternatively, Tatarsky had a very troubled past and this bomb might have been nothing to do with Ukraine. The Russian response to this explosion is predictable. This is to claim that they have evidence that the attack was organised from Ukraine. This raises some interesting questions.

The key point here is that this bomb blast has highlighted that all Russian citizens are increasingly exposed to the potential threat, including death and injury.

Professor John Bryson - University of Birmingham

First, this bomb blast in a café located in St Petersburg highlights considerable failure on the part of Russia’s internal security services. The context here is important; Russia is one of the most policed states with high levels of citizen surveillance. The key point here is that this bomb blast has highlighted that all Russian citizens are increasingly exposed to potential threat, including death and injury. The café incident should be seen as one example of the ways in which the impacts of Putin’s special military operation are ricocheting throughout Russia.

Second, the current Russian narrative is based around the Investigative Committee claiming that they have evidence that the blast was organised by Ukrainian security services with the assistance of the jailed Russian opposition leader’s Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. However, all is perhaps not what it seems. The next Russian presidential election is scheduled for March 2024.

This link between Navalny, and the café bomb is part of an on-going Kremlin controlled narrative to discredit the opposition party and this is an excellent example of hegemony in practice. There is another explanation for the café bomb. A little-known group, the National Republican Army, has claimed responsibility. This is an underground partisan group of Russians working inside Russia to overthrow the Putin government.

There will always be great uncertainty regarding who was responsible for Tatarsky’s death. Nevertheless, this event can be placed within the context of an overarching narrative of Russian hegemony. The concept of hegemony describes the dominance of a particular ideology or way of thinking, and this projection of domination can occur within a nation state or between nation states.

Inside Russia, propaganda, surveillance, and threat are used to ensure the continuation of Putin’s form of authoritarianism. A dominant hegemonic discourse pervades everyday living in Russia and an excellent example is the on-going Russian narrative regarding the recent café bomb. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be redefined as another attempt to impose Russian hegemony on another nation. Putin’s nuclear narrative is also an exercise in hegemony.

Fundamentally, Russia is a hypocritical state, and this is reflected in the tensions that exist between the country’s actions and statements made by Putin and other Russian governmental representatives. We can paraphrase Putin’s account of US hegemony by arguing that Russia has nothing to offer the world, but its hegemony based on an attempt to extend Russian domination. The concept of hegemony has become too closely aligned to the US, but it is time to appreciate that Russia’s hypocrisy is a central element in the attempted projection of Russian hegemony.