Putin’s Case for War, Annotated
When Vladimir V. Putin announced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a televised address on Thursday, he articulatedaims far beyond those of Russia’s prior assaults on its Ukrainian neighbor.
In a sweeping and angry address, Mr. Putin,portrayed the conflict as one waged against the West as a whole. In a falsehood-filled narrative too detailed to be dismissed as mere nationalist fervor, Mr. Putin argued that the West aimed to use Ukraine as a springboard to invade and destroy Russia.
Unlike his speech earlier in the week, Mr. Putin spent relatively little time rehashing false stories of Ukrainian atrocities against the country’s Russian-speaking minority. Those claims had served as justification for his decision to recognize Russian-backed separatist forces, which have held parts of eastern Ukraine since 2014, as independent states that he was intervening to protect.
Rather, he portrayed the war as a pre-emptive strike against Western aggression and a decisive battle to protect Russia’s rightful imperial hold over Europe’s east.
What follows is a concise annotation of several key passages from his address.
The Case for War
Mr. Putin framed his decision to invade Ukraine as a last-ditch effort to halt the West’s hostile expansion ever closer to Russia’s borders.
Since the end of the Cold War, a number of countries in Eastern Europe have chosen to join NATO, making them military allies of Moscow’s former adversaries in the West. In 2008, Washington pushed NATO to announce that it might one day consider membership for Ukraine, though Western leaders have insisted ever since that they see little prospect of this coming about any time soon.
Especially in recent weeks, Mr. Putin has called NATO’s expansion a plot todestroy Russia.
Russia and Belarus conducting joint military exercises on Saturday.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
He has portrayed the flurry of diplomacy that began after Russia started massing troops on Ukraine’s border late last year as his effort to secure a stable European balance short of war. In reality, Russian diplomats have issued demands so extreme that they are widely seen as poison-pill provisions meant to derail talks. Western intelligence agencies say Mr. Putin appears to have decided on the invasion weeks or months ago.
Mr. Putin asserts that, with diplomacy having failed, he has no choice but to save Russia by resolving through violence an existential conflict with the West that has been building since the Cold War’s end.
He draws on a nationalist narrative of lost imperial glory, a mostly false historical account of a duplicitous West forcing its will on Eastern Europe, and a long-mounting paranoia that Russia scholars consider to very possibly be sincere.
Mr. Putin spends a substantial portion of his speech retelling the past 30 years as a history of false Western promises to divide Europe in a stable balance between American and Russian spheres of influence. He implies that this proves that the West is implacably bent on encircling and destroying Russia, and so can only be turned back with force.
Yet contrary to Mr. Putin’s claims, Europe’s security order has been continually negotiated between Moscow and Washington, including in formal agreements over diplomatic and military arrangements.
Mr. Putin’s assertion of a Russian right to dictate those countries’ alliances amounts to a demand that the world jettison principles of international law and sovereignty in favor of old-style imperial spheres of influence.
His claim to this Russian right is new, despite his implication that Washington had in fact agreed to such an arrangement, the betrayal of which is, in his telling, just one of many Western acts of aggression.
Mr. Putin begins his long recitation of Western aggression with an episode that has obsessed Moscow ever since it occurred: NATO’s 1999 intervention in Serbia, where Serbian forces were accused of massacring civilians in the breakaway region of Kosovo. Washington later supported Kosovo’s independence.
Moscow has long seen that 1999 war as a shocking assault on the fellow Slavic peoples of Serbia and an implied threat to dismember Russia as well.
Mr. Putin also cited the American-led invasion of Iraq and Western interventions in Libya and Syria as proof of the West’s aggression.
Mr. Putin is referring to a series of bitter internal wars fought in Russia’s North Caucasus region, particularly in Chechnya. Separatists in those regions had sought independence after the Soviet Union’s fall.
His claim that the West sponsored these conflicts to weaken Russia is fiction. But it is a concerning one, given fears that Mr. Putin may see Russia’s wars there as a possible scenario for Ukraine. The wars in Chechnya, which included a yearslong military occupation, saw much of the region obliterated and ended with Moscow installing a brutal dictator there.
Mr. Putin is referring to the extension of legal rights and cultural acceptance to L.G.B.T. peoples in Western countries. He has long portrayed this as evidence of Western cultural decadence and an assault on right-thinking Christian values of which he is, in his telling, the defender.
In a chilling culmination of Mr. Putin’s primary case for war, he compares expanding Western influence in Europe to Nazi machinations on the eve of World War II.
The Kremlin has increasingly emphasized a Russian identity centered on World War II. This appears aimed at justifying Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule and Russia’s stagnating economy as wartime necessities, while rallying citizens around another glorious national struggle.
Still, Mr. Putin is unusually explicit in portraying the West as the next Nazi Germany, arguing that Moscow must learn from World War II, when the Nazi occupation of Soviet lands brought years of suffering, and strike first in Ukraine.
‘Genocide’ in eastern Ukraine
Unlike in his speech on Monday, which centered on mostly fictitious Ukrainian crimes against its Russian-speaking minority, Ukraine itself is almost an afterthought in Mr. Putin’s latest address.
Mr. Putin recites his earlier justification for recognizing as independent states Russian-backed separatist forces, which have controlled parts of eastern Ukraine since 2014. That was year that Ukrainians revolted to topple their pro-Moscow president.
The Kremlin has claimed ever since that the 2014 uprising was in fact a coup and that the government in Kyiv has sought to outright exterminate the country’s Russian-speaking minority, whom Mr. Putin portrays as crying out for Russian liberation.
In reality, Ukraine’s current government was democratically elected, the separatist forces in Ukraine’s east rule it through violence, and Ukrainians, including those who natively speak Russian, express overwhelming distrust of Russia.
Mr. Putin has long painted Ukraine’s government as neo-Nazis, in another attempt to portray Russia’s aggression toward the country as defensive, akin to its battle against Germany in World War II.
Mr. Putin’s repeated claims of genocidal Ukrainian persecution against Russian-speaking civilians in Donbass, the region in Ukraine’s east, are false.
In reality, Russian-backed separatists seized those territories by force, setting off a now eight-year war that has claimed thousands of lives. Mr. Putin has falsely claimed ever since that the separatists are merely defending local civilians from the threat of extermination.
This is the culmination of Mr. Putin’s up-is-down narrative portraying Ukraine, the country that his forces have repeatedly carved up through occupations and annexations, as a terrifying threat to Russia.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.
How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.
What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.
How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”
How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.
How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.
Ukraine, he argues, was not only plotting to attack Russia, but seeking nuclear weapons to do so. There is no evidence for either claim.
The Aims of the War
Despite Mr. Putin’s long case for war as necessary to turn back encroaching Western influence by reimposing Russian influence in Ukraine, he ultimately declares his intentions to be more modest: protecting civilians in eastern Ukraine who have supposedly cried out for his help.
There is little reason to see this an accurate description of Mr. Putin’s aims, given that he himself, in this same speech, emphasized far more sweeping goals — and that Russian forces are already launching attacks across Ukraine, far beyond the country’s separatist-held east.
Rather, this narrow goal may be intended to serve as an official casus belli, giving Russian diplomats something to cite, however implausible, particularly at the United Nations.
This may be the most important line of Mr. Putin’s speech, as a seeming statement of war aims far beyond his superficial claim of humanitarian intervention.
His reference to “demilitarize” is being widely read as a threat to subjugate the Ukrainian state as a whole, neutering its ability to defend itself and therefore its sovereign autonomy. Russian forces have already struck at Ukrainian military installations across the country.
And Mr. Putin’s use of “denazify,” in context with his false claim that Ukraine’s democratic government is a neo-Nazi dictatorship, is seen as a threat to topple that government outright. Western intelligence agencies have warned for weeks that Moscow may be plotting to install a pliant dictatorship in Kyiv.
Still, it is possible that these references are bluster, meant to intimidate Ukraine into accepting some accommodation short of full Russian subjugation.
Girding for Conflict
Mr. Putin’s offer of amnesty to Ukrainian soldiers who leave the battlefield is most likely intended to encourage desertion.
But it may also serve as a warning that Russian forces will accept heavy bloodshed in their invasion, which is already reaching into civilian areas, on the grounds that responsibility for loss of life ultimately rests on Ukrainian forces for not immediately surrendering.
This statement is widely seen as a threat of nuclear strikes against any Western country that might militarily intervene against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian threats of using nuclear weaponry to retaliate against an attack on Russia itself are nothing new. But Mr. Putin, in extending this nuclear umbrella to cover his invasion forces in Ukraine, has issued a major and potentially destabilizing threat. Russian forces have carried out nuclear exercises in recent days, likely intended as a signal of his sincerity.
Mr. Putin ends by appealing directly to Russian citizens to support his war in Ukraine as a necessary national struggle.
But there is every indication, including in opinion polls, that Russian citizens, as well as members of the country’s all-important elite, do not want a war with Ukraine and are deeply skeptical of Mr. Putin’s aggression. If Mr. Putin hopes to stave off public or political backlash as the war’s already-mounting political and economic toll on Russia rise, appeals to national struggle, such as this one, have so far proven severely insufficient.