The most important takeaways from Putin’s Ukraine speech - analysis

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long and important speech on Monday.

 Russian President Putin meets with members of the Delovaya Rossiya All-Russian Public Organization in Moscow (photo credit: VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Putin meets with members of the Delovaya Rossiya All-Russian Public Organization in Moscow
(photo credit: VIA REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long and important speech on February 21 as tensions with the US over Ukraine reached new heights. While the media focused on certain aspects of the speech, particularly Russia recognizing two separatist areas in Ukraine as sovereign independent states, there is much more there to unpack.

Let’s begin at the end. “I consider it necessary to make a long-overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic [DPR] and the Luhansk People's Republic [LPR],” he said. These are two areas in eastern Ukraine that declared independence in April of 2014. Their decision was clearly motivated by a sense they had Moscow’s backing. They are in one of several small areas similar to this that have sought to become their own states with Russian backing.

Moscow usually does this as a way to keep its hands on the scales inside a former Soviet country. In Georgia, there is South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which sought independence in the 1990s – and there are other areas, such as Transnistria near Moldova.  

Putin’s decision was made after years of trying to manage a conflict in Ukraine. He claims the necessity of recognition now, apparently to do away with the pretense that these are just separatist areas. Russia cares about international laws and norms; even if it exploits them for its own needs, it cares to have an appearance of doing things by the book.

That is why Russia’s Tass reported today that “Putin later ordered the Russian Foreign Ministry to establish diplomatic relations with the DPR and LPR and the Defense Ministry to maintain peace in the republics. According to one of the presidential decrees, the Defense Ministry was ordered to make sure that ‘the Russian Armed Forces maintain peace in the Donetsk People’s Republic’ until a treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance is concluded. The Russian Defense Ministry received similar instructions in a decree recognizing the LPR.”

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin arrives at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this month. (credit: CARL COURT/REUTERS) RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin arrives at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this month. (credit: CARL COURT/REUTERS)

The point here is that Russia is exploiting the situation that it helped create in 2014 by now creating a legal fiction for sending troops into these areas. This will lead to the “peacekeeping” troops being on the line of potential contact with a Ukrainian army that Moscow says has sent 120,000 troops to the borders of these breakaway regions. Ukraine has called the operations against the separatists an “anti-terror” campaign.  

LET'S LOOK at how Putin has presented this to understand why it might matter far beyond Ukraine.

He began his 8,000-word speech by saying “the topic of my speech is the events in Ukraine and why it is so important for us, for Russia. Of course, my appeal is also addressed to our compatriots in Ukraine.” He says that the situation in the Donbas, where the breakaway areas are, has reached a critical stage.

For Russia, the area of Ukraine is what was once called the “near abroad,” a kind of buffer between Russia and the West. “Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space. These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties,” the Russian president said.

Putin looked to history to justify this. He says that the “inhabitants of the southwestern historical Old Russian lands called themselves Russian and Orthodox. So it was until the 17th century, when part of these territories was reunited with the Russian state, and after.”

He notes that “in the 18th century, the lands of the Black Sea region, annexed to Russia as a result of wars with the Ottoman Empire, were called Novorossiya. Now they are trying to obliviate these milestones of history, as well as the names of state military figures of the Russian Empire, without whose work modern Ukraine would not have many large cities and even the very exit to the Black Sea.”

Putin claims that “modern Ukraine was entirely and completely created by Russia: more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia.” He accuses the Soviets of actually reducing Russia’s control of Ukraine by separating parts of this area and creating the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic. Indeed, Crimea was eventually given to Ukraine under this process. At the same time, Ukraine was brutally treated by Stalin, and millions starved. Later, after the Second World War and the Holocaust, Ukrainian resistance against the Soviets continued for years.  

Ukraine did indeed change during this period. Areas that were once more Polish and more Jewish, such as Lvov, became more Ukrainian. Other areas are Russian-speaking. That is the nature of history and of war and tragedy: countries and places change.

Putin lays out this history by noting that “Stalin already annexed to the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary. At the same time, as a kind of compensation, Stalin endowed Poland with part of the original German territories, and in 1954 Khrushchev for some reason took away Crimea from Russia and also presented it to Ukraine.”

The president wants to redress some of this history. In his analysis, he is correct in noting that much of the world’s borders today resemble things done in 1945 or in the period up to 1960s. That was an era when European powers redrew the world’s borders. After doing so, many of them have said “international law” prevents any borders from being changed. This is largely a colonial-era illusion.

The same colonial era has created conflicts all over Africa and Asia and is responsible for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It was the British who created partition and it was the UN that created the impossible borders presented to Israel in 1948. It is a colonial-era design that placed the Golan in Syria and conjured up an “international” Jerusalem, which has led countries not to move their embassies to the Israeli capital.

BE THAT as it may, Putin’s argument about Ukraine is that Russia is reaching back to what was done in 1917 and 1922 for its “rights” to do things there. He mentions Stalin and that the “People's Commissar for Nationalities, proposed building the country on the principles of autonomization, that is, giving the republics – future administrative-territorial units – broad powers when they join a single state.”

What he is presenting is a blueprint for breakaway or autonomous regions to do as they please. “Why was it necessary to satisfy any, unlimitedly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire?” he asks, noting attempts regarding arbitrarily formed areas and administrative units, “huge territories that often had nothing to do with them at all…to convey [them] together with the population of historical Russia [to Ukraine].” He’s arguing that what was done arbitrarily in the 1920s, can now be undone.  

Of course, this opens up a big question about why other things that were done in the 1920s cannot be undone. Why should the Golan be part of Syria, a decision made at that time, which put the Golan under French and thus Syrian control? Why is Mosul part of Iraq and not Turkey? Why isn’t there an independent Kurdish state? Why is Hatay province part of Turkey and not Syria? We could go on and on and see how many areas in the Middle East were arbitrarily given to one country and not the other by colonial administrators, much as was done in Russia in the 1920s.  

What Putin argues is that the Soviets made a mistake in the 1920s. “At first glance, this is generally incomprehensible; some kind of madness. But this is only at first glance. There is an explanation,” he argues. He points out that the Soviets sought to remain in power by giving in to demands of various nationalities within the Soviet empire: Give them something for the great Soviet Union. Putin argues that the early Soviet decision was a mistake and this became obvious after 1991 with the wars and breakup of the USSR. 

The events of the past cannot be changed

RUSSIA'S PRESIDENT suggests we speak about the events of the past with honesty. “This is a historical fact. Actually, as I have already said, as a result of the Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose.” He accuses Ukraine of being an entity created by Lenin. “This is fully confirmed by archival documents, including Lenin's harsh directives on the Donbas, which was literally squeezed into Ukraine.”

He says it is ironic that modern-day Ukraine has taken down Lenin’s statue, hinting with typical Putin humor that they might have kept Lenin since in his view he created modern Ukraine. “We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”  

Putin next takes listeners through a tour of Soviet history and discusses how the Soviet Republics had no real power. “In practice, a strictly centralized, absolutely unitary state was created... under the conditions of a totalitarian regime, everything worked anyway, and outwardly it looked beautiful, attractive and even super-democratic.”

Now Putin claims that the “bacillus of nationalist ambitions has not disappeared.” This term, bacillus, is likely borrowed on purpose from Winston Churchill, who said that regarding the sealed train that took Lenin and his Bolsheviks back to Russia from Switzerland in 1917 was sent like a “plague bacillus.” Putin’s point apparently is that Lenin helped appease this nationalism, creating the problems Russia now faces in Ukraine.  

Nationalism became like a mine waiting to explode, he claims. “In the mid-1980s, against the backdrop of growing socio-economic problems, the obvious crisis of the planned economy, the national question – the essence of which was not some expectations and unfulfilled aspirations of the peoples of the Union, but primarily the growing appetites of local elites – became more and more aggravated.” This led to 1989 and the decision by the party elites that "the Union Republics have all the rights corresponding to their status as sovereign socialist states."

Let’s recall where Putin was in 1989. He was in East Germany in Dresden, watching Communism collapse. A KGP officer, he spoke German, and tried to defuse tensions. He says that while the Soviets had harmed Russia and its people through “robbery” of lands provided to other states, “the people recognized the new geopolitical realities that arose after the collapse of the USSR; recognized the new independent states… our country provided such support with respect for the dignity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”

PUTIN NOW argues that Ukraine did not deal fairly with Russia in the 1990s and began to move towards the West. “I will add that Kyiv tried to use the dialogue with Russia as a pretext for bargaining with the West, blackmailed it with rapprochement with Moscow, knocking out preferences for itself: saying that otherwise, Russian influence on Ukraine will grow.”

He claims that “Ukrainian society faced the rise of extreme nationalism, which quickly took the form of aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism. Hence the participation of Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis in terrorist gangs in the North Caucasus, and the increasingly louder territorial claims against Russia.” This is important because Putin came to power after Russia suffered failure in the Balkans when NATO bombed Serbia and after Russian setbacks in Chechnya.

From Putin’s point of view, Ukraine then became a tool in the hand of the West. In this complex history he argues that the West works with “oligarchs” in Ukraine. Putin meanwhile was busy in the early 2000s imprisoning or driving into exile the oligarchs who arose in 1990s Russia. “A stable statehood in Ukraine has not developed, and political, electoral procedures serve only as a cover, a screen for the redistribution of power and property between various oligarchic clans,” he says.

He then presents a picture of Ukraine as akin to the French revolution, swept over by “radicals” and Ukraine cities becoming victims of “pogroms of violence.” He says “it is impossible without a shudder to remember the terrible tragedy in Odessa, where participants in a peaceful protest were brutally murdered.”

Pro-Russia Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power in a 2014 “coup,” he said, which is in fact the Maidan protests. Putin then gives a laundry list of failures in Ukraine, arguing that the country has not supported its people. “Tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost.”  

Russia's president also delves into an issue that US President Joe Biden is likely familiar with from the Obama years. “There is simply no independent court in Ukraine. At the request of the West, the Kyiv authorities gave representatives of international organizations the pre-emptive right to select members of the highest judicial bodies - the Council of Justice and the Qualification Commission of Judges.” Biden was deeply involved in Ukraine policy under Obama and assured Ukraine that the US would back it despite initial attempts to “reset” relations with Russia.

Putin mentions the US Embassy’s efforts against corruption. “All this is done under a plausible pretext to increase the effectiveness of the fight against corruption. Okay, but where are the results? Corruption has blossomed as luxuriantly, and blossoms [now] more than ever.”

He then accuses Ukraine’s current government, which he sees as a government that was the result of a “coup” in 2014, as perpetuating corruption and being anti-Russian. He accuses it of persecuting the Russian language and Orthodox Church. He argues that Russia’s decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine was done to support the inhabitants of the peninsula. Then he accuses Ukraine of enacting a new military strategy against Russia. “The strategy proposes the organization in the Russian Crimea and on the territory of Donbas, in fact, of a terrorist underground.”

 

THE REAL story of Russia’s claims are now laid out as Putin goes through a long list of weapons he is concerned will be used by Ukraine. He discusses Tochka-U operational-tactical missiles which have a range of 100 km, NATO presence in Ukraine, that “regular joint exercises have a clear anti-Russian focus,” airfields, and that “the airspace of Ukraine is open for flights by US strategic and reconnaissance aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles that are used to monitor the territory of Russia, and the possibility of missiles and hypersonic missiles being deployed in Ukraine."

Russia also objects to Kyiv joining NATO. He claims that while Moscow was open to working with the treaty organization, it has rapidly expanded. “The authorities of some Eastern European countries, trading in Russophobia, brought their complexes and stereotypes about the Russian threat to the Alliance, [and] insisted on building up collective defense potentials, which should be deployed primarily against Russia. Moreover, this happened in the 1990s and early 2000s, when, thanks to openness and our goodwill, relations between Russia and the West were at a high level.”

Putin even claims he spoke to former President Bill Clinton about Russia joining NATO. “I won’t reveal all the details of that conversation, but the reaction to my question looked, let’s say, very restrained, and how the Americans really reacted to this opportunity can actually be seen in their practical steps towards our country.”

Russia doesn’t want the NATO expansion trend to continue. Putin says there were already five waves of NATO expansion, most recently with Albania and Croatia; in 2017 Montenegro; in 2020 North Macedonia…. As a result, the Alliance [and] its military infrastructure came directly to the borders of Russia. This became one of the key causes of the European security crisis.”

So for Russia, this is apparently an existential crisis. “Many Ukrainian airfields are located close to our borders. NATO tactical aircraft stationed here, including carriers of high-precision weapons, will be able to hit our territory to the depth of the Volgograd-Kazan-Samara-Astrakhan line. The deployment of radar reconnaissance assets on the territory of Ukraine will allow NATO to tightly control the airspace of Russia right up to the Urals.”

Putin understands US national security strategy and defense documents warn of “near-peer” rivalry with Russia and he knows that Washington sought to pivot from counter-terrorism to challenging Moscow. Once the US left Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, it was no surprise that a Ukraine crisis followed.

For Putin this all adds up to assertions that the West has ignored his proposals and demands. “There is only one goal [of the West] – to restrain the development of Russia. And they will do it, as they did before, even without any formal pretext at all…. Russia has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security: That is exactly what we will do.”

Putin says that “international documents expressly state the principle of equal and indivisible security, which, as is well known, includes obligations not to strengthen one's security at the expense of the security of other states.” Now he wants to test this and recognize parts of Ukraine as independent states in order to move forces into these new buffer states.

The end goal will be to see if the US will match this move with its own chess-like deployment. This could provide a casus belli for actual conflict. Putin clearly thinks he must move now to prevent whatever might come in the years to come.