What did Putin mean by 'fifth column'? Ominous speech explained

Eve Edwards March 17, 2022
What did Putin mean by 'fifth column'? Ominous speech explained
Photo by Kremlin Press Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s latest message to the people of Russia has left some people confused over his meaning of “fifth column”.

The Russian president issued a warning against pro-Western Russians, branding them “traitors” and “scum”. The ominous message has resulted in concern for Russians who harbour anti-Kremlin views or are against the invasion of Ukraine.


Putin claims the West is using Russians as a ‘fifth column’

On Wednesday, 16 March 2022, Putin issued a warning to those Russian people he branded “traitors”, who he said were being used by the West as a “fifth column” to destroy his country.

“Of course they (the West) will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on traitors – on those who earn their money here but live over there. Live, not in the geographical sense, but in the sense of their thoughts, their slavish thinking,” Putin said, as reported by CTV.

Putin’s use of the expression “fifth column” has some people confused.

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What is a ‘fifth column’?

A fifth column is an expression used to describe factional groups within a country that is at war. Merriam-Webster’s definition is: “A group of secret sympathisers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defence lines or national borders.”

In this context, what Putin is alleging in his speech is the West is banking on pro-Western and anti-war sympathisers in Russia to turn against him and the invasion of Ukraine. Hence Putin’s depiction of them as “traitors”.

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Where does the expression originate?

The term “fifth column” has its roots in the Spanish Civil War. As a translation of the Spanish ‘quinta columna’, the term was inspired by a reported boast by rebel general Emilio Mola Vidal.

As four columns of Mola’s rebel troops approached Madrid in a bid to seize the capital, the general referred to a secret “fifth column” of supporters within Madrid who intended to undermine the loyalist government from the inside.

New York Times journalist William Carney popularised the term in October 1936. Carney’s article for the newspaper about Madrid’s “fifth column” made the term renowned around the English-speaking world.

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Eve spends her days writing about everything culture-related. From celebrity news to music, film and television, Eve covers all bases. When she’s not writing you can find her making music or mastering the art of homemade pasta.