Even as he ordered Russian troops to cross the border into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin positioned himself as a man of peace. Addressing the nation from the Kremlin in a long, angry and decidedly ominous speech, the Russian president insisted he had no choice but to act.
Ukraine had been reduced to a “colony with a puppet regime” controlled by its western masters, he claimed. Together, they had plunged the country into poverty, lawlessness and violence, and now they were perpetrating “genocide” against the residents of eastern Ukraine. Civilians including women, children and the elderly were being tortured and killed, he said. He was left with no option but to make the “long-overdue decision” to recognise the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states.
There is no credible evidence to support these claims. Ukraine is a sovereign state with a democratically elected government. The war in the country’s eastern regions was started in 2014 and has since been sustained by Russian-backed rebels, at times including Russian regular troops. In recent days it is shelling from the separatist territories that has threatened civilians in Ukrainian government-controlled territory. An artillery attack on a school in Stanytsia Luhanska injured three teachers on 17 February.
Yet in the case that Putin laid out on Russian state television he was the one acting to save innocent lives, and the Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine were there to perform “peacekeeping duties”.
More worryingly, Putin made clear that his grievances go far beyond eastern Ukraine. In his nearly hour-long speech he attacked the very idea of Ukraine, insisting that the country had been invented by Soviet Russia and had no history of “genuine statehood”. He railed against the post-Cold War European security architecture too, denouncing the repeated waves of Nato’s expansion that he said had ignored Russia’s concerns and brought the alliance right up to the country’s borders. Nato planned to use Ukraine as a “springboard” to attack Russia, he claimed, with the United States preparing to install missiles and radar systems that would enable them to strike deep into Russian territory. Cruise missiles fired from Ukrainian bases could reach Moscow in under 35 minutes, he told viewers watching at home.
Most of these complaints were not new. Putin has been rehearsing many of the same themes since at least 2007, when he delivered a furious tirade at the Munich Security Conference against Nato’s eastward expansion and the United States’ “hyper use of force”. He framed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in similar terms, accusing the West of “playing the bear and acting irresponsibly” and plotting to turn the peninsula into a Nato naval base. As he warned then, “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
This confrontation has now entered a dangerous new phase. With Russian troops openly crossing the border into eastern Ukraine as “peacekeepers”, Putin has laid the groundwork for a much larger invasion to come. At any time he could claim that Russian personnel have come under attack from Ukrainian government forces and invoke the right to self-defence to start an offensive and move deeper into Ukrainian territory. This is how the 2008 Russo-Georgian War started, which ended with Russian ground forces thirty minutes’ drive from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Putin has presented Ukraine — and the West — with an impossible choice: accept this new invasion and give up more of the country, or resist and spark a massive conflagration. Whatever they decide, it may not be enough to avert a full-scale conflict. Putin ended his speech with a warning that responsibility for the “continuation of bloodshed” would rest with Kyiv. He sounded very much like a leader who was preparing his country for war.