Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference centre in central Moscow on February 21, 2023.
Mikhail Metzel | Afp | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday used a highly anticipated speech to deny responsibility for the war in Ukraine and lash out at his adversaries.
His comments come despite repeated rejections of Putin’s narrative surrounding the war by Western nations and Ukraine.
Feb. 24 will mark one year since Russia mounted a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, beginning a ground war in Europe that Putin still refers to as a “special military operation.” Intense fighting continues across the war-torn nation with the death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands.
In a more-than-hour-long speech, Putin tried to justify Russia’s invasion by claiming it had been attempting to allow citizens in the contested Donbas region to speak their “own language” and had been seeking a peaceful solution.
He cited the expansion of NATO and new European anti-rocket defense systems as provoking Russia, and said the objective of the West was “infinite power.”
Putin also used the speech to announce Russia was suspending its participation in a treaty with the U.S., New START, that limits the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance urged Russia to reconsider the decision, Reuters reported.
Stoltenberg also stressed that Russia was the aggressor, and said Putin had made it clear he was preparing for more war. He said support for Ukraine must continue and expressed concerns China was planning to back Russia in the war, according to Reuters.
Russian government official Mikhail Ulyanov said on Twitter that suspension of New START “does not mean withdrawal” and return to the treaty was possible under “certain circumstances.”
Putin further warned in his speech Russia could resume nuclear tests.
The U.S. administration on Saturday formally concluded that Moscow had committed “crimes against humanity” during its year-long invasion of its neighbor. Political analysts say Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was the biggest mistake of his political career and has weakened Russia for years to come.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 after a falsified referendum. The invasion was widely condemned by the international community and resulted in rounds of Western sanctions against Russian officials. Last year it also annexed four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk and Luhansk which cover the Donbas region, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) which Ukraine and its allies also condemned as illegal and illegitimate.
Putin on Tuesday discussed the Donbas, claiming the Kremlin saw threats increasing in the contested region ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion.
“We had no doubt that by February 2022, everything was prepared for a punitive action in Donbas, where [the] Kyiv regime provided artillery and aviation and other weapons to attack Donbas in 2014. In 2015, they attempted again to directly attack Donbas, they continued shelling, terror,” he said, according to a Sky News translation.
“All of this was completely against the documents that were accepted by the United Nations Security Council. I would like to repeat: they started the war. And we used the force in order to stop it.”
Putin’s “state of the nation” address Tuesday was delivered in Moscow to lawmakers and military officials, and was also broadcast on state TV.
Russia was looking to create a highway to Crimea, Putin said, and enact a program of “social restoration” to territories it claims control over.
Ukrainian officials are defiant, however, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeatedly insisting the country will not surrender to anything but a restoration of the country’s pre-invasion borders and other conditions.
“Putin at it again, with his usual set of grievances,” Ukraine’s former ambassador to Austria, Olexander Scherba, said on Twitter. “The biggest one: West & Ukraine were ready for a war with [Russia]. As if there was no [Russia] ultimatum. As if [French President Emmanuel] Macron, [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz & Co didn’t spend 2021 traveling to Moscow, begging [Russia] not to do it.”
Putin further announced Tuesday the country was launching a state fund to support veterans and the families of fallen soldiers; and launching measures to boost its economy including tax cuts for businesses that buy domestic products and a program to encourage citizens to save and invest within the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Monday, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Biden said the trip was to “reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” He also promised to deliver more artillery ammunition and anti-armor systems, and to announce new sanctions on Russian companies and its elites.
Biden is also due to deliver a speech Tuesday, in Poland, where he is meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda.