‘Smacks of desperation’: Why Vladimir Putin is referencing J. K. Rowling and cancel culture to defend his war

Vladimir Putin’s desperation as his invasion of Ukraine continues to be bogged down was on display Friday, say analysts, when the Russian president invoked cancel culture during a video conference.

In a short, translated clip from the conference with Russian cultural figures shared by numerous media outlets, Putin claimed the West is trying to cancel Russia and likened it to the J. K. Rowling saga.

“Not so long ago, the children’s writer Joanne Rowling was cancelled because she, the author of books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world, did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms,” Putin said, according to a translation of the video posted by the Guardian newspaper.

Rowling has come under fire in recent years for her stance on transgender issues. Putin’s statement Friday essentially said the West is trying to cancel Russia, just like he says it did to Rowling.

The British author of the Harry Potter series wasn’t impressed. Rowling rebuked Putin’s remarks in a statement on Twitter.

“Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” she wrote using the hashtag #IStandWithUkraine.

During the conference, Putin also accused the United States of erasing Russian contributions to defeating Nazi Germany during the Second World War in films. He alleged the West is cancelling the country through “progressing discrimination of everything connected with Russia.”

The statements wade into the culture wars in the West where issues such as transgender rights, race and free speech have polarized the political spectrum.

Putin comments are in line with a Kremlin strategy of using disinformation and propaganda to divide and undermine western democracies, according to experts.

But the “bizarre” rant shows how “warped” Putin’s sense of reality is, said Mary Blankenship, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“The rhetoric that he uses is very similar to the rhetoric being used in the West, especially within the discourse between more liberal versus more conservative views,” Blankenship said. “In the U.S., we have Fox News; the rhetoric is very similar to some of the rhetoric that you’d see on there.”

It’s too soon to tell if the J. K. Rowling statement is getting traction, Blankenship said early Friday afternoon. But, in the past, similar statements have managed to spread around the world.

Once such a remark is made, Russian bot farms and trolls try to perpetuate it. “Anti-West” sentiments most often find momentum in Africa and the Middle East, where it’s seen as highlighting western hypocrisy, she said.

The comments usually come from Kremlin officials or other sources, she said, not from Putin himself. Considering how often Russia and its officials make such comments and spread disinformation Blankenship isn’t surprised by Putin’s J. K. Rowling remark, but finds other ones far more concerning.

“Calling all Ukrainians Nazis and fascists and saying that Ukraine as a culture and as a country don’t exist is crazier to me,” she said.

Marcus Kolga, a disinformation expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the remark shows the Russian leader “smacks of desperation” as the Kremlin continues to lose the battle for controlling the narrative of events in Ukraine.

Journalists and other western information sources have been able to stomp out the Kremlin’s attempts to distort what is actually happening there. Russia has targeted civilians among other allegations during its invasion.

“It’s completely consistent with Putin’s need to have enemies everywhere to make a victim out of Russia” Kolga said. “So now he’s using cancel culture to sort of achieve that narrative and that objective.”

Kolga said Russia has been using divisive issues to undermine democracy other nations for years now.

There are elements on both the far left and far right who support the invasion of Ukraine and invoking the J. K. Rowling issue is a way to appeal to the far right in western nations, he said.

Putin is experienced at polarizing westerners, Kolga said, previously using COVID-19 conspiracies or racial issues to divide the populace of western nations.

Though he has garnered some support from the political fringes, who continue to amplify Russian narratives, in the mainstream Putin is losing the information battle, Kolga said.

More needs to be done to combat disinformation tactics employed by Moscow, he said, such as placing sanctions on Russia media.

“They just pull and tug away and tear away at those issues in order to pull us further apart,” he said.

Blankenship said she finds the direct attacks on the West to be a cause for concern. There is speculation from security experts Putin would view a loss to Ukraine as a humiliating defeat for Russia and could be seeking to draw NATO into the conflict to lessen the ego blow of surrender, she said.

She worries statements increasingly targeting the West could signal Putin’s intentions in the future.

With files from The Associated Press

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