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In Dark Remarks On Ukraine, Putin Telegraphed A Trajectory Toward War

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in an address aired before dawn on February 24 in which he said Moscow would press for the “demilitarization” of Ukraine and hinted that the Kremlin may be out for regime change.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in an address aired before dawn on February 24 in which he said Moscow would press for the “demilitarization” of Ukraine and hinted that the Kremlin may be out for regime change.

It was a dark and rambling speech filled with historical grievances, conspiracy theories, and outright fabrications.

And when Russian President Vladimir Putin finished his hourlong address to the nation shortly before midnight on February 21, he had all but ended any doubt that he would launch an assault on Ukraine, potentially triggering the largest war in Europe since 1945.

Seated in the Kremlin dressed in a black suit appropriate for a funeral, Putin essentially told his nation that Ukraine did not have the right to exist, bending history to claim it was created on historically Russian land by Soviet leaders desperate to hold on to power.

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He lashed out at the neighboring country for tearing down monuments to those very Soviet leaders, cynically deriding Ukrainians as “grateful descendants” of Lenin. He then segued into one of his most ominous statements in his speech.

“You want de-communization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real de-communization would mean for Ukraine,” he said, a suggestion that Russia could seize the land he claims the communists handed over to Ukrainian “nationalists.”

In a new address announcing the invasion before dawn on February 24, Putin asserted that Russia has no plans to occupy Ukraine. But he said Moscow would press for its “demilitarization” and hinted strongly that the Kremlin may be out for regime change.

In dismissive remarks over the years, Putin has suggested without evidence that Ukraine -- which, like Russia, became a sovereign state when the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991 -- does not have the right to exist as a country with full independence from Russia.

Over the past year, he has used false claims about Ukraine’s actions in its Donbas region, where Kyiv has fought Russia-backed separatist for almost eight years, to imply that Moscow would be justified in taking further military action against it.

For many people who watched warily for weeks, holding out hope that dire U.S. warnings that a massive invasion could come at any time would not be borne out, Putin’s speech on February 21 blotted out all but a small remnant of that hope.

Sergiy Zhuk, a Ukrainian-born history professor at Ball State University in the U.S. state of Indiana, told RFE/RL on February 23 that Putin’s speech was so aggressive that he expected Russia to invade soon.

“He showed to the entire world his Russian imperialistic nationalism,” Zhuk said.

In the speech, Putin repeated a patently false allegation that Kyiv was committing “genocide” in the Donbas and seemed to turned reality on its head several times.

With Russia massing an estimated 190,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, Putin asserted it was Kyiv that was preparing to launch a military operation, basing the evidence-free claim on Ukraine’s recently published military doctrine that focuses largely on Moscow.

Putin did not mention numerous potential reasons for that focus: The fact that in the past eight years, Russia has seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, backed separatists in the war in the Donbas, launched cyberattacks against Ukrainian critical infrastructure, financed opposition parties, and imposed trade restrictions.

He claimed that “nationalists seized power” in Kyiv -- and in the remarks on February 24 declared that Russia would press for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine -- a groundless suggestion about the nature of the Ukrainian government, which is headed by a president who won an election deemed free and fair by international observers in 2019.

Kremlin critics also charged that Putin’s portrayal of the Ukrainian state as one without an independent judiciary, free speech, or democracy describes the authoritarian state he himself has built in Russia over the past 22 years.

Putin came out swinging against Ukrainian identity and nationhood early in the address, describing Ukraine as “historically” Russian. He claimed that Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin created the state of Ukraine by “severing” Russian land without asking the people living there “what they thought.”

“I’ve watched a lot of Putin speeches, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like this,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, said in a February 21 tweet. “This whole speech is…laying the groundwork for the wholesale occupation of Ukraine.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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