I have not paid enough attention to Vladimir Putin’s writings and speeches. Recent ones seemed extreme, but that could be attributed to propaganda, and I discounted them out of a habit of discounting Soviet propaganda. But I watched his speech on February 21 and changed my mind. Putin displayed extreme emotion during that speech. It was clear that he meant what he was saying.
There’s much speculation about Putin’s mindset and a fair bit of quoting pieces of Putin’s recent speeches. I wanted to see those quotes in context. We can’t know Putin’s mindset. His speeches and an essay are all we have. In this post, I look at Putin’s speech at the Munich Defense Conference in 2007, his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” the February 21 speech, his speech of February 24 declaring war on Ukraine, and the victory announcement that briefly appeared on Russian news websites on February 28. (The Russian Presidential website is currently unreachable.) There are several continuing themes, and the emotional tone increases with time.
My main goal in this post is to summarize major themes in those documents, particularly recurring themes. My attempts at analysis will be minimal.
The yearly Munich Security Conference draws experts and government officials. It is not unusual for heads of state to attend. When they do, it is usually to make a particular point. Putin’s point was to challenge American dominance.
In the 2007 speech, Putin criticized “the unipolar model,” meaning the US’s dominance after the breakup of the Soviet Union; “a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law,” meaning American actions; NATO expansion, which he called a provocation; and the OSCE, “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.”
He offered possible topics of cooperation: nonproliferation, energy, alleviating poverty. A theme that shows up in the later documents on security: “This universal, indivisible character of security is expressed as the basic principle that ‘security for one is security for all’”.
Putin’s argument is that Russia and Ukraine both share a common origin in Kyivan Rus, the area around Kyiv a millenium and more ago, with a single faith, Orthodoxy, and a single language, Russian. Russia’s origins are more complex, involving invasions by the central Asian hordes and the competition between Muscovy and the Novgorod Republic. The tribes throughout the area spoke many languages and subscribed to many religions, including paganism.
Coming up to the twentieth century, Putin criticizes the Soviet Constitution for including a provision allowing its republics to secede. “[T]he authors planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the CPSU was gone, the party itself collapsing from within.” “The Bolsheviks treated the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments… One fact is crystal clear: Russia was robbed, indeed.”
It is accurate that the constitution allowed the republics to secede. The Baltic states pioneered actions that other republics would use in the collapse of the Soviet Union. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared independence under this provision, the first domino to fall. Mikhail Gorbachev and his government scrambled to find a way to invalidate the provision, but ultimately failed.
Putin’s history does not mention the holodomor, the famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine, but criticizes Ukraine for its actions during and after leaving the Soviet Union and says that it is decaying economically and societally. He condemns language laws that privilege Ukrainian over Russian. The issue of language has been a Russian complaint since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the former republics have their own languages, and over the lifetime of the Soviet Union, Moscow often imposed Russian language requirements on them. When they became independent, they changed those requirements. Russia continues to object.
He regards as illegal the 2014 change in the Ukrainian government from his puppet Viktor Yanukovich to a popularly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, and claims it was staged by neo-Nazis backed by the United States.
The purpose of Monday night’s speech was to announce Russia’s recognition of the Russian-occupied regions in eastern Ukraine, which Putin’s security council had earlier agreed on. That announcement was preceded by a much longer emotional tirade.
There is less about tenth-century Russia and Ukraine than in his history essay and more about how the Bolsheviks structured the Soviet Union. The essay contains a few hundred words on the formation of the part of the Russian constitution that allowed the soviet republics to withdraw from the Union. Monday’s speech contains at least three times as many words on the subject.
Putin has described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as one of the great catastrophes of history, this is not surprising. Putin focused on the cause of his grieving, and finds that the Bolsheviks made the primary mistake. His criticisms of them are severe. I’ll speculate that this was a matter of some distress for him. To become a colonel in the KGB, he must have been a Communist Party member. If he believed in the Party, he may feel the Party betrayed him. Hence the emphasis on this point.
Thus, the flaw in the Bolsheviks’ constitution is also the origin of an independent Ukraine. As in the essay, he characterizes Ukraine as a failed, warlike state, adding that it might develop nuclear weapons. He claims that NATO troops are posted there and are a danger to Russia. He complains again about language laws. Likewise unacceptable is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is no longer under the Russian Church’s hierarchy.
Because the Bolsheviks failed, he goes back to the loss of the Russian Empire, as part of the Ukrainians’ patrimony and as a progenitor of Russia’s defense structure today. The Russian Empire was more extensive than the USSR. This argument, along with his argument about Russian speakers, could give Putin justification for wars in many places in Europe and elsewhere.
He complains (inaccurately) that NATO promised never to expand and cites an interaction with Bill Clinton. NATO is a threat to Russia, its buildup is intended to threaten Russia, and imminent membership (which is not the case) for Ukraine magnifies the danger. Likewise, missiles in Poland and Romania are a direct threat to Russia. Crimea joined Russia voluntarily. Ukraine is perpetrating genocide in Luhansk and and Donetsk. These grievances are given a great many words. Putin sums up the demands in his proposals to the United States and NATO.
First, to prevent further NATO expansion. Second, to have the Alliance refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders. And finally, rolling back the bloc’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.
And then he recognizes the “independence” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This speech was released on February 24, but was probably recorded on February 21, judging from Putin’s clothes and the time on his wristwatch. It also like a continuation of the February 21 speech. Much of the declaration of war is a screed against the United States, returning to the themes of the Munich speech.
He discusses the expansion of NATO and says that Russian concerns have been ignored.
Why is all this happening? Where does this impudent manner of speaking from the position of one’s own exclusivity, infallibility and permissiveness come from? Where does the disdainful, disdainful attitude towards our interests and absolutely legitimate demands come from?
I haven’t included many quotes from the documents, but this one captures the emotion in the recent speeches. The 2007 Munich speech was a standard diplomatic speech in tone, if highly critical of the United States. The recent speeches have been highly emotional. Here’s the video of the February 21 speech.
Putin’s answer to his questions is the fall of the USSR. The redivision of the world began, and “those who declared themselves the winner in the Cold War” violated the norms of international law. He enumerates Belgrade, Iraq, Libya, Syria at length. He calls the United States an “empire of lies.” The United States is trying to destroy Russia’s traditional values and impose their destructive “pseudo-values.”
He repeats a number of times that the United States has refused to consider Russia’s interests. In particular, it is stationing more and more weapons ever closer in its containment of Russia. After 2600 words, he speaks about Donbas.
Another list of grievances: A coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014 abandoned a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Genocide; Russia recognized the people’s republics in a humanitarian gesture. NATO supports the neo-Nazis in Kyiv. They will attack Crimea. “Russia’s clash with these forces is inevitable.”
Russia will continue to respect the sovereignty of “all the newly formed countries in the post-Soviet space.” Given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thirty years ago, this is a strange formulation but shows how immediate that event is in Putin’s mind.
Russia’s action in Chechnya defended the integrity of the state and saved Russia from terrorists. Russia is in Syria to prevent terrorists from coming into Russia. “We had no other way to protect ourselves.” There is no other choice than “decisive and immediate action.” The legal basis:
In this regard, in accordance with Article 51 of Part 7 of the UN Charter, with the sanction of the Federation Council of Russia and in pursuance of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance ratified by the Federal Assembly on 22 February this year with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, I decided to conduct a special military operation.
The goals are to protect people from bullying and genocide and the demilitarization and denazificiation of Ukraine. Occupation of Ukrainian territories is not included.
Today’s events are not connected with the desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with the protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people.
He urges the personnel of the Ukrainian armed forces to lay down their weapons and go home. All responsibility for possible bloodshed will be on the conscience of “the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.”
Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made.
This is a threat of the use of nuclear weapons.
To the citizens of Russia, justice and truth are on our side; strength and readiness to fight are “the necessary foundation on which you can only reliably build your future, build your home, your family, your homeland.”
This announcement was mistakenly posted on Monday, February 28. It reportedly appeared at several media outlets and then was taken down. The fact that the same announcement would appear at more than one outlet, if true, suggests that it was supplied by the Kremlin. The English translation at the link is not smooth and may have errors. Because of the uncertainties, I’ll make my analysis brief.
The cause for celebration is “gathering the Russian world” – Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. A separate Ukraine, an “anti-Russia,” would always be a problem for Russia, and now that problem is eliminated. As in Putin’s essay and speeches, a single people is no longer divided. The error of 1991 is corrected.
The West must accede to this inevitable development of a united Russia, echoing the words of February 24. This section contains a number of references th the “Anglo-Saxons” who are said to be trying to control Europe to the detriment of Germany and France. Putin has not mentioned “Anglo-Saxons” in this way. The West is trying to punish Russia, but it will not succeed.
A multipolar world is now a reality, and the era of global domination by the West is ended.
NATO is mentioned only by implication in the announcement.
Does this mean that Putin’s ambition stops at Ukraine? No other goals are mentioned. In his speech this morning (March 3), Putin again emphasized the unity of Ukraine and Russia. Control of Ukraine is a major Russian objective, but it’s not clear how much further Putin’s ambitions go.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner